Thursday, June 26, 2008

Don’t lose it. Use it!

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.

18 comments:

carl brookins said...

Michael, I don't understand why you haven't used your bus-driving previous life as the basis for shorts or novels. I love your novels, MIA, The Man who loved Cats and the others, but really, get on the bus!

Kevin S. said...

Michael -- I absolutely agree with your admonition to make use of the little things that pass by in an otherwise quiet day. I once passed two people on the street and wrote 330 words about them...


The young couple on the tandem bike was made up a fresh-faced girl and a thoughtfully scruffy boy with an army surplus bag over his shoulder. She was wearing a blue sweater and gray pants, with a rubber band around her right ankle. On her head was a wool knit cap, appropriate for the unseasonably chilly May evening. He wore a ratty t-shirt under a tweed sportcoat with leather patches on the elbows. He had a thin beard that appeared largely untrimmed, but his hair only peaked out a little from the Greek fisherman’s cap he wore, suggesting his grooming
Were it not for the ancient tandem bike beneath them, their clothing would have seemed extremely inappropriate. Fleece would have been a more common choice around the community for two people out for a bike ride, but fleece – whether upscale North Face or low-end Kmart – was for yuppies who pushed Madison and Frederick in strollers with patient yellow labs ambling alongside. Fleece was for the yuppies, so they wore what they wore. The pair loved animals, of course, so their pet was a 12-pound tabby cat whose fur, in late winter, had smelled slightly of marijuana. No yellow lab for them.
Their liberal arts educations had left them extremely confident in their intelligence and unconcerned about their lack of marketable skills. They knew they didn’t have their dream jobs, but that was only because they had not yet determined precisely what their dream jobs were (though the field of financial services had been eliminated). Their immediate needs were meager, and they didn’t think about their long-term plans. They didn’t need to, after all, because their fundamental goodness and decency, combined with their remarkable awareness of truth and deep tolerance for all, ensured them a warm and safe place in society.
The man who watched them, making these assessments, knew that he could be wrong. But he also knew that he generally wasn’t.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Carl,

Fiction requires conflict and drama. Nothing more dramatic than a drunk throwing up on the bus ever happened on my watch. Trust me, it wouldn't make a good read.

Kevin,

Great start. Don't forget to describe the behavior while you're at it. (And save the back story--cat, liberal education--for the back of the story.)

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