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.