by Michael Dymmoch
Sunday evening I was driving up Halsted when my left front tire started making an unfamiliar sound and my car started tracking to the left. I pulled into a CTA bus turnaround to investigate and discovered the tire was flat. Damn! As it happened, I hadn’t had a flat since I bought the car—three years ago. And I hadn’t checked recently to see if the spare was good. Plus I had a trunk full of assorted junk that had to be removed to get to the spare.
Fortunately, it had stopped raining, and I had an hour of daylight. So I shifted all the junk to the front and back seats and got out the spare and the jack and the owner’s manual. None of the CTA drivers who had to drive around me called the cops. A very nice drywall salesman stopped to offer assistance. In a short time I was back on the road.
As a driver, I was really bummed. Flat tires are a waste of time and money. Sometimes they can be life threatening.
As a writer, I was happy to be reminded that anything you do or encounter can be used—something I learned when I had a job with a narcissistic supervisor. Nothing I ever did was good enough for the guy. He was a genius at making every thing my fault. The only time he ever listened was when I prefaced my remarks with, “I spoke to an attorney.”
But he taught me to be a better writer. At some point, I started to take notes, to record what he said, and how it made me feel. When I really worked at finding the words to make a reader feel what I felt, I forgot to be hurt. Or angry.
Conflict is a bitch in life, but it’s the life force of fiction. So when you encounter it, use it. Get out a pen or your pocket computer and record the details. Not just the facts of the event, not just what was said, but what it felt like. What did the guy who got in your face say? What would you have said to him if only you could think faster? Was he scary or just infuriating? What did he smell like? What did he look like? How was he dressed? What was he driving? Why does he behave like that? (He’s just a jerk isn’t an adequate answer.) Be precise. Make your reader feel your rage and all the physical sensations that go with it.
Years ago I was driving a bus through a construction zone. One of the flaggers was busy yakking with his buddy, not paying attention to traffic. Suddenly he looked up to find a 47-foot bus passing him two feet away. (This isn’t particularly close for a bus driver. Sometimes we have only inches of clearance.) The flagger was startled enough to use the c-word to express his displeasure. I laughed and kept driving. But if I’d been able to think faster, I might have stopped and asked if I’d scared him. Someday I’ll use that incident in a story. My protagonist will stop and ask. The flagger will probably have to defend his masculinity with an R-rated comeback. The whole thing may develop into a huge fight, maybe even a murder!
The act of recording a conflict, concentrating on the details, searching for the exact words to describe how you feel, may dissipate your anger and give you something you couldn’t have made up.