Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Dirt Yields Gold

Today I'm pleased to welcome Elizabeth C. Main to Terry's Place. A Central Oregon author who writes mystery, romance, and young adult fiction, Elizabeth has discovered that writers shouldn't bury painful memories. Dredging up traumatic episodes from the past often produces the best writing.

“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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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Elizabeth,

Excellent observation. Whether writing mystery or literary fiction, digging into memories, sometimes painful or traumatic, does make for great writing. We can all relate to those things that plague humanity.

Nancy Ingram said...

Dear Elizabeth,
Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason we remember incidents from our early life.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Jacquie: Yes, connections with the big questions are so important. Recently, I've thought of two personal incidents I actually wrote down years ago when they happened. Unfortunately, I shredded my notes because they were too much to process at the time. Hope they're still kicking around somewhere in my memory. Now, I'm not only ready for them, but actively searching them out. Liz

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Hi, Nancy,
Thanks for bringing up an intriguing thought. It's the essence of being human, isn't it? Learning from our memories, however painful, helps us adjust to the world. Writers take this task one step further as we attempt to spread what we have learned to others. Liz

Sally Bee Brown said...

How true, Liz. I once thought a story without conflict could be written that would intrigue the reader. Nobody could convince me it wouldn't work. But it didn't take me long to realize....it wouldn't work. And we all have plenty of moments to dig up from our past, or a relative's or friend's past. I'm not above stealing some other person's terrible happening and tweaking it to work for me.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Sally, thanks for posting. You've said it exactly right. No conflict equals no story, but sometimes that's hard for Pollyannas like me to learn. I want everyone to be happy. However, speaking for myself, I'm delighted to steal from the misfortunes of others and tweak the stories or characters just enough to make good use of them. Liz

Eric said...

Do you (or anyone) have good methods for delving into these memories? Do you sit and force yourself for a set period of time to reconstruct a scene? Any tricks?

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Thanks, Eric, for the intriguing question. I'd be interested to hear special tricks others use to bring forth these nuggets. Personally, when I feel an excess of emotion surrounding a memory, or when I keep returning to the same memory, only to shy away from it, I suspect I'm on the right track. Consciously attempting to reconstruct an event usually brings forth weird and highly specific details, but of course that pre-supposes that I know which event is worth pondering. Do you have a tip to offer? Liz

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Thanks for hosting me today, Terry. I enjoyed getting the chance to concentrate on this topic. If you have any particular tricks up your sleeve to coax memories from their hiding places, I'm still open for suggestions. Liz

Terry Odell said...

Liz - I can barely coax the memory of what I had for breakfast from my brain! Thanks so much for being my guest, and sharing your ideas.

jenny milchman said...

Ah, the mining of memories. I wouldn't necessarily have thought of that in conjunction with your work, Liz. What an insightful piece--and thank you for sharing.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

I happen to know Jenny, so her comment refers to inside information about my ongoing internal wrestling match. Should I write fiction, as I mostly do, or personal essays, which tempt me mightily? Both genres mine memories for emotion, but my own rule of thumb suggests that, in order to write authentically, I should choose the form which puts my heart in a blender and sets it to whirl. Thanks, Jenny, for your help in clarifying my thoughts. Liz

SherryGLoag said...

What a great post and suggestions. As for that date standing you up in your teens? not unique t all :-S I still shudder at the memory, now i will laugh and use it in my next book! Ha :-). Thanks for that.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Glad to help, Sherry. I think the worst part of that evening was enduring the pity of my parents, standing helplessly by, knowing how embarrassed I was, but powerless to help. The more they tried to make me feel better, the more humiliated I became. Definitely fodder for a story. Liz