A Useful Platitude
By Ross Howell
Ross Howell followed a career in academic fund-raising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1978. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction full-time, and will be teaching at Elon University in the fall. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, and English cocker spaniel diva, Pinot.
The following is basic stuff and may be old news to most of you, but I’ve been around the barn a few times and find a reminder once in a while never hurts.
A life event often triggers the impulse to write a story or novel, but rarely does the narrative work creatively when you use the actual event. I don’t know why that is. If I did, maybe I could run a writers’ performance therapy agency, the way sports psychologists offer mental coaching to golf pros having trouble with their game.
Just recently I was rewriting a story I’d worked on for years. When I finally deleted the real-life event I thought was absolutely essential to the narrative, the story began to come together. Characters were interacting in the beautiful way they do in fiction that often we can’t mimic in real life.
The real event was that I had been fondled by a male family member when I was a boy. Yet circumstances enabled me and the members of my family to remain sympathetic to the individual. I wanted to dramatize in a story how that could be.
What I discovered when I workshopped the story in an informal writing group—and boy, did I discover it—is that sexual predation is a hot-button issue for many, many readers. Once that scene appeared, some readers stopped seeing anything that followed in the story. Oh, they read on, but they weren’t about to be convinced the fondler might deserve empathy.
By removing that actual event, I found I was able to keep readers involved in the narrative and sympathetic to the character. The themes from the deleted scene are still in the story, but they resonate in the background of the story, not in the narrative itself.
In my case, using real life as background to stories is the device that seems to work. Years ago I published a story using characters based on my mother and her sister, a spinster aunt. The impulse for the story was something my mother used to do—and I had puzzled over it since I was nine years old.
I grew up on a small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We raised beef cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. My mother milked five cows, every morning and every evening, by hand. She kept two big vegetable gardens. These were festooned with rows of flowers she used to make arrangements for Sunday services at church. When she washed clothes, she built a fire under a big cast iron kettle in the spring house in order to have hot water. The drafty old farm house was heated with wood stoves.
You get the idea. Although I helped with the chores, there was never any shortage of manual labor for my mother to perform. And yet on summer evenings, after she had cooked and served supper and washed dishes in the kitchen sink, she would go to the marsh in front of our house armed with a hoe and mattock.
The marsh was choked with saw grass and calamus. She would hack away in the muck, opening a clear stream channel for water from the spring.
She would do this evening after evening, until it was too dark to see, and I would watch her shadowy form in the twilight from the porch.
To show why my mother might add this futile, back-breaking task to an endless list of manual labor that had to be completed in the course of a day, I wrote the story. The actual event appears in the text, in a line of detail, but it has nothing—and everything—to do with the drama of the narrative.