Grab ’em by the hair and don’t let go!

It’s 9:30 on Wednesday morning and I should be in my office finishing up my morning work and getting ready to write. Or, I should be folding the basket of laundry sitting next to me on the sofa. Or I should do the dishes in kitchen that I didn’t do last night after dinner. Or I should head out to my shop and work on the loft bed I’m building for my daughter.

But I’m not doing any of those things because the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy is available on HULU and I have no choice but to sit here and watch as people I’ve never met, people who aren’t even real, fight impossible medical situations. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Regardless, by the next episode, they’re all ready to resume a super hero pose and continue the battle. And I’m right there with them.

That’s what every writer tries to do, to create a story that grabs the reader by the hair and doesn’t let go until the very last word. And even then, as the reader sees the words THE END, if we’ve done our job right, the reader still wants more. Not only that, but the story will linger in the reader’s mind for a very long time. Maybe forever.

We’ve all read that book, the one that changes who you are at a fundamental level. Maybe it’s the words, or maybe it’s the right story at the right time. For me, the list is long and for that, I’m grateful.

This summer, while we’re on our family road trip, we’re planning a stop in Nebraska to see an old friend. I’ll also visit Willa Cather’s childhood home and look for traces of O’ Pioneers and My Antonia. And though no one else in my family will understand it, I will likely take a moment to simply bask. Genius was born there and that deserves respect.

We’ll drive through the Bible Belt on our way to New Orleans, and I’ll see for the first time where my family comes from. Of course, the landscape of Kansas and Oklahoma won’t be the same dust covered desolation that they left behind. They drove, my grandma and grandpa, along with their nine children ranging in age from two to seventeen, from Oklahoma to Idaho in an old school bus and an even older field truck. I don’t have pictures of my family from that time, but I do have the stories my grandma told me when I was a child. And I have The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck created a world that I could see. He fleshed out the backdrop of my family. And he made me re-think every selfish complaint I’d ever made about not having enough.

We’re not likely to make it to Alabama (But we might. We’re spontaneous like that.), home of Harper Lee, Atticus, Jem, and Scout Finch, and of course Boo Radley. That, however, doesn’t change how much that story helped to define my understanding of cultural bias and the battles, large and small, that we must undertake in order to shape a more just future for the generations to come.

The list continues, but I’ll stop there for now. My point is, I read all of these books over twenty years ago, yet the images created remain sharp in my mind.

What does it take to build that kind of story? Is there a magical recipe? Does a writer have to be part wordsmith, part alchemist? Frankly, I have no idea what the answer is, but over the next few weeks, I’ll explore the aspects that I believe contribute to the overall formula. I’m not claiming to be an expert, and you may disagree with my assessment. And that’s okay. Let’s discuss it. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and we’ll start with one of the more obvious factors: characterization.

Until then, what stories touched you the way the three I listed impacted me. Tell me about your Antonia.

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23 thoughts on “Grab ’em by the hair and don’t let go!

  1. Yes, John Steinbeck’s work was very poignant. I still have the book Travels with Charlie.
    I have many books that are memorable, but the book that stands out is Children of the Dead End, by Patrick MacGill. His story is based on personal memories of his life in Ireland and Scotland in the early 1900’s. His story tells of an Itinerant farm hand in Ireland, before moving to Scotland. Living on the road, laboring and navving, sending what pittance he earned to his constantly pregnant mother to support her growing family. This was a heart-rending read for me, as my own ancestors were Irish immigrants who moved to Scotland in the 1850’s hoping for a better life. They lived in near slavery and slum conditions for generations. My heart bleeds for the women who were constantly pregnant and struggled to keep their children alive. My own grandmother arrived in 1911 as a young bride, who was ostracized because she married my grandfather who was of a different faith. He was killed in 1915 at the age of 24 leaving my grandmother with a 10 month old baby, who was my mother. I marvel at their courage, strength and fortitude, wonder if I would have managed to survive in those conditions.

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    1. I love that you know so much of your family history. I’ve never read Patrick MacGill, but I’ll definitely look for Children of the Dead End. Years ago, I read Angela’s Ashes and the follow up ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. They both have stayed with me through the years. He’s a very gifted story teller. If you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, I highly recommend it. I can’t promise it will speak to you in the same way as MacGill does, but I think it will touch you just the same.

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      1. Yes, I have read both, Being of Irish descent it would be sacrilege not to 🙂 Patrick MacGill also followed Children of the Lost Dead with The Rat Pit. Another must!

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  2. Jove, I loved this post, but, I must point out that Winchester, Virginia is the birthplace of Willa Cather AND her genius. I will concede that Nebraska gave her the room to develop her craft, and I love My Antonia, but Winchester must have its due. Her birthplace is not five miles from where I live. Thanks for a great post!

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    1. I stand corrected! lol, Thanks for sending me the photo. You rock. Nonetheless, I will visit her house in Nebraska this summer. And I’ll think about how glad I am that they moved to Nebraska because Virginia is a long way from Washington (the state, not the district).

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  3. Travels with Charlie had tremendous impact when I was a sophomore in high school. ‘Where the Red Fern Grows” would send me (oldest of 16 kids) into a locked bathroom to read and reread the sad parts where I could bawl in peace! And of course anything Louisa May Alcott fueled my young brain in the most idealistic ways, especially Eight Cousins and A Rose in Bloom!

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    1. I LOVE Where the Red Fern Grows! I read it when I was around ten. At that point, Wilson Rawls, the author, lived in Idaho. I felt a special association with him even though he lived nowhere near the small town I grew up in.

      Thanks for checking in!

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  4. Love this! Sharing with my critique group on Friday. What a fabulous sounding road trip you have ahead of you! Downton is my Grey’s. And I am prone to grabbing wispy little phrases out of nowhere to spin into something bigger…usually while driving. Yes, I’m one of “those” people on the interstate–I write on my knee 🙂 Watch out for us and safe travels 🙂

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  5. I’m going to be a heretic here and say the books that truly altered me were more likely to be nonfiction than fiction. Anne LaBastille was the first writer who grabbed me by the throat and shook me till I vowed to live my life honestly and with meaning. My cabin in the woods has had to be metaphorical, not physical, but I still dream of realizing it someday. I thought of John McPhee when I drove through the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, of Edward Abbey while thrilled by the vistas of the desert Southwest. My core belongs to the natural world, so I gravitate to writing about it. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, was probably the first novel to change me. I so wanted to live inside a tree! The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, I read and reread. I have my theory of what it takes to write at that level. I look forward to reading yours.

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    1. Elaine, I don’t think preferring non-fiction to fiction qualifies you as a heretic, but I’ve got a message in to the Vatican asking for clarification. 🙂

      My son, Wyatt, also prefers non-fiction. I admire his ability to absorb information, but I don’t understand the appeal. I prefer a plot and a storyline over facts and bullet points.

      Either way, however, I’m just happy that he (and you) are smart enough to know that just because one type of book doesn’t appeal, that doesn’t mean you don’t like reading. Too often people make that leap, when really what they mean is the reading assignments handed out in high school didn’t appeal.

      I’ve never read My Side of the Mountain, but I totally want to now. Living in a tree sounds lovely, if not a little cramped.

      Thanks for checking in, I look forward to continuing our discussing in a week and a half.

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      1. You can get plenty of plot and storyline in nonfiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Operation Paperclip, Behind the Beautiful Forevers–one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. Sometimes you really can’t make this stuff up, and it can be beautifully written as well as informative.

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