Thursday, July 17, 2014

Your "What If" May Be at Walmart

Find your story. Stories are all around us. Most people just don't pay attention. Open your ears, your eyes and your nose. I can't stress the “What If” game enough.

The news, television, magazines, newspapers...I have a file folder full of ads and articles, most have jagged edges, torn from old magazines, town reports, wherever I find them, waiting for the day I decide to paw through them for inspiration. I listen and watch people all the time. Sound creepy? Oh well.

I'll be in line at the grocery, and I study what other people are unloading from their cart. I watch and make up stories about what I think their life is like. I do the same at restaurants. If I'm at one of those watering-hole-yuppie-type hangouts, the stories I make up are much different than if I'm in a diner sitting in a Naugahyde booth, complete with my own personal mini jukebox, 3 plays for a quarter. There, I’m often surrounded by old men in plaid "goin’ to town" shirts, wearing suspenders and a belt. A little insecure, are we? Most times they’re accompanied by puffy little wives with tight gray perms, cable knit sweaters, white shoes they actually polish and glasses so thick, you could start a fire with them. 

Believe it or not, my favorite place to stand in line and play the "What If..." game  is Walmart. Whether it's the mother who has more screaming kids than items in her cart, or the mother with one child, dressed sedately in whatever is the latest fashion, they each have a story. You know the first one is going to go to the parking lot and stuff her kids into used car seats in an older Dodge Caravan with a noisy muffler, while the other will place her child in a spotless car seat in a near-new Volvo, dark blue. You just know it. 

Or, how about the skinny guy in line in front of you, the one who looks like he never eats? Dirty clothes exude the smell of axle grease, cigarettes and sweat. He jokes with the cashier in a flirting kind of way and turns to you with a grin, to see if you want to be included, and that's when you realize he’s missing a front tooth. He's got a kid with him, round as a Butterball, maybe 10 years old, in sweat pants and an over-sized, stained tee shirt that comes almost to his knees. He's as chubby as the guy is thin. It's easy to see why when you look at their purchases. The man hands the kid a 12 pack of Walmart brand Dr. Pepper and a king size bag of Doritos, then he scoops up a carton of cigarettes and a 30 pack of Bud. He tosses one more line at the cashier before chuckling as he struts away.

Does the woman with all the kids live in a trailer somewhere, madly in love with her high school sweetheart, content to be poor because she's happy? Does the woman in the Volvo live in a nice area, but has a husband who cheats on her, about as regularly as he gives her a punch or two, in spots where no one can see it?  And our toothless Don Juan, with his chubby sidekick?  Do they live in what could be described as a house, but more closely resembles a shack?  Are there dirty dishes and empty cans laying all over the place? Both beer and soda? There's no Mother, she took up with a guy from the southern part of the state. She met him at the mud bogs--upon occasion, the home of more tattoos than teeth. So, it's just him and the kid. He listens to the radio, ain't got no TV since he kicked the screen out. Every night he drinks until he passes out in the chair. The kid has his usual supper of Doritos and soda or if his Dad remembers food, a can of Beefaroni. He learns to wear his underwear for at least two days, first on one side then the other--maybe longer, depending on when his father goes to the laundromat. 

All of these people are out there. They're instant characters, begging for you to tell their story. Try the game at your local farm stand, the post office, the doctor's office. What if your doctor were the one married to the woman in the Volvo, hmm? You never know until you give it a whirl.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Keep at It 'Til You Figure It Out

Write it out until you figure it out.  

I put this sentence in an email once and was quite entranced with it after I wrote it. It's true. You have a scene in your head, and you want to get it on paper. Keep after it. Write and rewrite until what you see in your head ends up on the page. You'll know it's right if you keep going back to read it again and again because it feels good. I know that sounds hokey, but it's true. 

In My Mother Grows Wallflowers, there’s a scene at the river where Sam and Mina share a first kiss. It was more than the motion of putting words to paper. It was the feeling the kiss evoked deep in my gut that needed to get on the page. The kiss, their foreheads touching, the wonder, and the deliciousness of his smell...all of it. I wrote and rewrote until it played out on the page the way I saw it in my head. To this day, when I go back and read the scene, I still feel the "Ahhh..." and wonder of that first kiss.