Carol Lynch Williams, a well-known and *much-published writer and teacher in Utah, has often taught workshops, and has been the engine behind **Writers and Illustrators for Young Readers (WIFYR). In one such workshop, she talked about a frequent question people ask her: does she ever “appear” in any of her stories.
I’m not surprised at the question. If you’ve ever read one of her books, you’ll recognize that many are steeped in emotions of various sorts, most of which only come through personal experience. She said that there is always “some of ‘me’ in every story.” Further more, her presence is always tied to some emotion.
She issued a warning, however: “When your story overshadows your character’s story, you’ve gone too far.” Wise words.
Carol then encouraged us to write down three events when our lives were changed. Try it—you’ll like it! In the fifteen minutes or so that she gave us to write, I ended up with eleven “events”, all colored with a strong emotion, when my life ‘changed’—some happy, some sad, some guilty feelings. Each one is the kernel of a story, and can be used by another character, and in another setting.
Here are a few of the quick stories (embellished here for clarity) I wrote down:
1. Years ago, my then-husband found and brought home a cute stray dog—but it was a “barker,” and with both of us working full time, and our children in school all day, one set of neighbors began to complain. He took it to a park by a lake, played with it a while, then left. He abandoned that dog! He claimed it would have been ‘put down’ (talk about a euphemism!) before it could be adopted. My guilt and sadness and anger (some at the complaining neighbor, some at him) still makes me feel a sick-anger in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps that’s one reason I don’t want pets.
2. In the fifth grade, I auditioned at the University of Utah for a part in a play about Tom Sawyer. A friend of the director followed me out when I left Kingsbury Hall that day to thank me, and tell me the director wanted me to know they’d liked my reading very much, but that I would not get the part of Beckie Thatcher (Tom’s ‘love’ interest) because he’d already been cast—and was much shorter than I. Grateful for the kudos, but sad about losing the part, I cried all the way home. It colored my life: I felt tall, inadequate, gawkie, and ugly for years . . . and a little sick to my stomach (am I seeing a pattern here?).
[As an odd side-note: years later, during high school, I had a date with a young man from a different high school, who took me to their school musical, Lute Song, starring none other than the U’s “Tom Sawyer.” And he was still short. Years passed, I finished college, started teaching. I signed up for a writing night class. When the teacher called the roll the first time, whose name was called but . . . the “Tom.” During a break, I introduced myself and told him how I’d admired his portrayal in Lute Song. He was surprised I’d remembered it after so many years. Then I said I could go back even farther to his portrayal of “Tom.” He was astonished. (Or possibly felt stalked.) BTW, he was still much shorter than I was.]
3. My oldest grandson, DJ, had lived with us from the time he was born. My daughter and her husband moved to Idaho when DJ was almost ready to begin walking. He was ‘my’ baby too, and it nearly killed me to ‘lose’ him. But move, they did. I was so afraid he would ‘forget’ Grandma and Grandpa that I insisted we drive to Idaho to see him six weeks after the move. We met them in a park. My daughter put him down on the sidewalk and said “Go to Grandma.” My heart was bursting with pride and excitement, and fear. I squatted down and reached out to him, wanting to grab him in a huge hug, but afraid I’d frighten him. I’d been right: he didn’t seem to recognize me, know me. When he toddled over to me, I slowly, one movement at a time, took his hand, then held him, picked him up, and stood. He pulled his head back, looking at me like “Who are you?” My heart was breaking. Then he snuggled in a bit with his little head on my chest. All of a sudden, he remembered, and clung to me with all his might: that was the way I’d always held him. He knew me! My little love knew me, after all!
During the workshop, I wrote just a few words for each of these “stories,” and only go into more detail here so you can understand the impact each event had on me. Really, this was a fantastic writing exercise, and I’m glad I have these eleven “nuggets” to mine for stories, for feelings. Try it—you’ll like it! If you try it, post one of your nuggets on The ABC Writers Guild blog or send it to me by email—we’d love you to share!
*A few of Carol Lynch Williams’ books: The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson, Glimpse, The Chosen One, Miles from Ordinary, Pretty Like Us.
**WIFYR will be held again in Sandy, UT, June 17 through June 21. It is one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended with excellent teachers as well as agents and editors from some of the big houses. Go to http://www.wifyr.com
or The ABC Writers Guild at