“The flowers that bloom in the spring,Tra la,Breathe promise of merry sunshine--”
Do those lyrics from The Mikado make me long to hear the rest of the song? Not really, though I have nothing against flowers or spring, especially with sunshine to follow.
But beauty and warmth don’t cut it in chapter one, though they have their place. Something bad has to happen fast to snap the reader to attention, so skip the sunshine and muck around in the dirt.
Discover a dismembered body under the blooming flowers and you have the beginning of a mystery. Unearth a moldy stack of letters from the soil and a long-concealed romance emerges. A half-rotted sign pried from beneath your garden could provide words that lead to a poem.
An even more productive location to find dirt, metaphorically speaking, is in the sifting of your own memories. I’m talking about the distressing memories we all harbor, sometimes shielded even from ourselves. Those memories, though painful or humiliating, deliver the best stories . . . the gold we seek as writers.
When Cinderella went to the ball, it wouldn’t have been much of a story had she danced the night away and captivated the handsome prince. It’s the clock striking midnight, the panic, the lost slipper, which compel us to read on.
Our own lives contain drama, too, though most of us don’t marry a prince and rule a kingdom. If we did, we’d proudly sell those stories for gigantic advances and everyone would sigh at our good fortune. But we each have unique personal experiences. If we have the stomach for it, we can dig into our disturbing memories to pull out stories that resonate with others.
For example, as a teen I went on dates. Not like Cinderella’s royal ball, but I could write about wonderful evenings at dances, movies, and pizza parlors. That is, I could relate those stories if I didn’t want anyone to read my work. Enjoyable outings typically don’t contain enough steam to power stories.
Once, to find a gold nugget in an ordinary experience, I dug deeper, unearthing at last a humiliating evening buried in the dim recesses of my memory bank fifty-plus years ago. As I probed the recollection, details flooded my awareness as though the incident had happened only the day before. That depth of avoidance and awareness told me I was on to something other people might want to read.
The event? The night I waited and waited for a blind date with a boy from another high school. Our date had been set during a delightful and extended phone conversation, but he never came and he never called again. Being stood up might not be a universal experience, but being humiliated is. Digging in that particular patch of dirt yielded gold for my writing. And, since I was eventually lucky enough to marry a prince—again, metaphorically speaking—scraping up the details of that painful teen experience gave me authentic emotion to employ in a story. Years later, with my ancient angst put to good use, I can relax and enjoy “the flowers that bloom in the spring.” Tra la, indeed.
Sometimes the memory locked away involves an incident that happened to someone else. For example, our pre-school son once caught his hand in an abandoned coyote trap hidden amid a rock pile in the rural Oregon scrubland. We were taking a peaceful family hike when he started screaming. Almost forty years later, my heart still does flips when I remember that seemingly endless scramble up the hill to reach him.
The sight of his poor imprisoned hand nearly made me sick to my stomach. Fortunately, my husband soon freed him. No broken bones, no damage beyond a bruise and shredded parental nerves, but I still squirm when I remember his terrified screams. Dragging out that wrenching memory and reworking it years later led to publication of “The Trap” in Cricket magazine.
What painful experiences do you have locked away? Even in the happiest of lives, uncomfortable memories lie buried in the everyday dirt. As a writer, you can burrow into them to find gold.
For more about Elizabeth and her books, including NO REST FOR THE WICKED and MURDER OF THE MONTH visit her website, www.elizabethcmain.com
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