Becoming A Storyteller: Write What You Feel, or, Holy Sh*t Where’s My Kid?

journalThe January 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine features and interview with bestselling author Lee Child. Child is the creator of the ever popular Jack Reacher character, who was recently portrayed by Tom Cruise in what might be one of the most egregious casting liberties taken by Hollywood. (The character Reacher stands 6’5″, weighing over 200 pounds, with ice blue eyes and dirty blonde hair, and is-by all accounts, not an alien. Tom Cruise, however, is 5’7″ and, well, you know.)

In the interview, Lee Child provides his evidence to debunk the long-held writing cliché: ‘write what you know’.

The worse [writing advice] is probably Write what you know. Especially in this market. In the thriller genre, for instance, nobody knows anything that’s worth putting in. There are three people in the world who have actually lived this stuff. And so it’s not about what you know. [Write] what you feel is really excellent advice. Because if you substitute Write what you feel , then you can expand that into-if you’re a parent, for instance, especially if you’re a mother, I bet you’ve had an episode where for five seconds you lost your kid at the mall. You turn around, your kid is suddenly not there, and for five seconds your heart is in your mouth and you turn the other way, and there he is. So you’ve gotta remember the feel of those five seconds-that utter panic and disorientation. And then you blow that up: It’s not five seconds, it’s five days-your kid has been kidnapped, your kid is being held by a monster. You use what you feel and expand it, right up as far as you can, and that way you get a sort of authenticity.

When I read this, I immediately thought of the time when I lost my kid for about five seconds in a Toys ‘R Us. Jason was close to three at the time, still wobbly on his feet and gaining more confidence with every well-placed step. I can’t remember why we were at the store, but we were at a juncture between the sporting goods section and the action figures. I was pushing a cart, but he wanted down to play with some of the over-sized bouncy balls strewn in the aisle.

While slapped his chubby little hand on a rubber ball, I turned to replace something on an adjacent end cap. I can’t remember how long I was looking whatever it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a moment or two. And when I turned, I didn’t see Jason.

The word panic doesn’t do the feeling justice. Child’s rendition of your heart in your mouth seems closer. It’s paralytic.

Wide-eyed, I stepped around the end cap. Nothing. I looked down the sporting goods aisle. Nothing.

I called out his name, my voice raising a few octaves. Tunnel vision. I whipped my head around, noting the other adults and children, but I was alone. I turned down the next aisle.

There he was, chugging after the rubber ball that had scooted away. I scooped him up and wrapped him in a hug. My heart still hammered in my throat, and took several minutes before sinking back to its proper place. I don’t think he was out of my sight for a single moment for the rest of the day. And I don’t think my hands stopped shaking for days.

I know what Lee Child means, and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know much, so if I wrote strictly on what I “know”, my stories wouldn’t be as nearly as interesting. At least to me. I write because I want the stories in my head told. I want to enjoy them, and I wouldn’t be caught dead reading about a former coffee-making, middle school media specialist/basketball coach. There aren’t many conflicts beyond the generic or benign. To me.

Joseph Conrad once said: “Make the reader see.” I think it goes a bit beyond that though. We need to make the reader feel, as Child said. So as I continue my journey toward Storyteller, I need to be vigilant in framing a narrative, a chapter, a scene, a line that is evocative. I think as writers we all strive for the authentic, and if writing those scenes pushes us–just imagine what it can do for our readers.

What do you think of Child’s take?

A Christmas Memory

Getting the two young boys to sleep on Christmas Eve, like so many their ages, was an exercise in futility. In an effort to corral the two boys, their parents had asked their aunt to sleep in the room with them. She slept on the lower bunk, with the younger of the two, while the older boy tossed and turned atop them in his bunk.

The older boy, two and a half years his brother’s senior, dwelled on whispers spread in fits and breaths at school. Whispers that Santa wasn’t real. Whispers that it was all a lie. Staring at the popcorned ceiling, the boy listened to the whispered words in his mind, tugging at the frays of his memory. Could it be true? Could this season all be a charade? It must be. The whispers made too much sense.

But the boy dared not voice his doubts, he had two younger brothers that still believed. He shifted in his bed, head probing for a cold part of the pillow, the traditional nervous anticipation keeping him from sleep on Christmas. Would he tell his brother? Could he repeat the whispers? He flipped to face the wall, a Miami Dolphins pennant decorating the white. He wouldn’t tell the baby, obviously, but maybe his other brother deserved to know.

His brother and aunt rustled in the bunk below.

“Go to sleep,” she said. His aunt normally slept over on Christmas Eve, as did Abuelo and Abuela. The three added to the excitement of Christmas morning, offering but a prelude to the pajamaed pandemonium that would ensue as other family members arrived for breakfast. They all must have been in on the lie, every one of the adults. They all claimed to believe in Santa, but, more likely, they were party to the intrigue.

There was no Santa. How could there be?

“What was that?” the young boy asked.

The older boy sat up, his young brother tumbling out of his bunk.

“I’m sure it was nothing, Christopher. Come back to bed.”

The older boy peered down over the railing. His brother stood frozen, the zipper of his red foot-pajamas down near his belly button. The younger boy turned slowly, arms out.

“What are you–”

“There it is again!” The younger boy leaped for the aluminum blinds that covered the only window in the room.

The older boy climbed down from the top-bunk, eyeing his aunt, who wore a smile and half-heartedly tried to get his brother back in bed.

The younger boy thrust aside the aluminum blinds, not taking the time to pull the drawstring. “Dave, look!”

“What is it?” his aunt asked.

The older boy approached the window, his younger brother obstructing most of the view. The bedroom door opened behind him. He looked back.

“What’s going on?” his mother said, standing in the threshold with his father just behind.

The older boy nudged beside his brother, who pushed back for a better view.

“Look!”

The older boy leaned in, his nose practically against the glass. He saw nothing at first, then…

“Santa!”

The figure walking along the sidewalk was undeniably Santa Claus; the belly, the red coat trimmed in white, the floppy hat, the full sack slung over his shoulder.

“Santa!” his brother screamed again, now hopping up and down.

The older boy stared out at Santa as he ranged across the sidewalk. With hands pressed to the glass, the older boy craned his neck for a better look. Santa had moved too far down the sidewalk.

“Can we go out there?” the younger boy asked.

Their father put a hand on their shoulders. “No, we can’t go out there. He won’t stop in our house if we go out there.”

“And you guys have to hurry and go to sleep!” their mother said. “You need to be asleep when he comes in.”

Reluctantly, the boys settled back into their bunks. The older boy lay with his heart thundering in his chest. It was the whispers that were lies. He smiled and snuggled down against the new cold on his pillow. He couldn’t wait ’til morning.

***
This is probably my most vivid Christmas memory. For years, my aunt, Tata Christy, and my father’s parents, would spend the night on Christmas Eve. They would be there as we set out the cookies and milk, and even carrots for the reindeer. My brother’s and I each wore matching red foot-pajamas. Once we grew older, Abuelo and Abuela moved to spend Christmas morning with my younger cousins.
The Christmas Eve described above was one of the last ones they spent with us, but it was the most memorable. As it turns out, Santa was played by my dearly departed, paunch-bellied Tio Emilo, his amiable and loving personality (along with his belly) giving him the perfect disposition to play the part of Santa.
Looking back on it, I smile. It was a wonderful moment in my life, and a lasting memory I cherish. I can’t thank my parents enough now, and I hope to provide my own children with such memories one day.