The universe is fond of a good story, same as you and me. This, I tell myself, is why, when one thing goes wrong, there tends to be a glorious cascade of things falling apart to ride along on that one thing’s coat tails. As writers, we can have the last laugh. We can use it.
Bear with me. I’m going to explain, but to do it, I need to share a brief recap of my last couple days.
My youngest daughter and I had just flown home from a one-way road trip to visit Tennessee great-grandmother, leaving the other half of my family to return the Tom Robbins go-adventure way. All was well. I adjusted my work schedule so I could take my kid to school, and Grandma (my mom) would do pick up.
Well, the fam broke down outside the security checkpoint at the Hoover dam. There was some kind of stomach flu. There were grumpy, righteous guards. There was also, eventually, a $1,200 repair bill and two nights in a roadside Las Vegas motel. I reminded my eldest daughter, now half-way through her second week of missed school, that it was all very Percy Jackson.
Meanwhile, my mom was scheduled for major surgery and I was on my own. So, at 4am, with my seven-year-old in tow, I took mom to the hospital. Then her cat decided to have kidney failure. “Never fear,” says I. “I will hold down the fort.”
At this point, I’m certain that if someone doesn’t manage to hold things together, said fort will break into a thousand sharp, tiny slivers and shoot off into the void. Despite this possibility, the only thing running through my head for the next five hours is, has enough change fallen into the couch for me to buy a decent curry?
Things are calmer now. Mom’s surgery went well. The youngest has a school-night sleepover. The cat is staying at the vet for testing, system flushing and…as well may be, more unpleasant things to come.
Breathe. Just keep swimming (thank you, Dori-the-fish).
Come Saturday, my mom will be at home needing care, my sister will need a ride from the airport, the other half of my road-weary cast will return home, and the cat will either get out—or not, but there’s a parade in town, so, you know, there’s that.
Thing is—this story is universal. Okay, not THIS story, but you see where I’m going. We all have times when reality dishes out some crazy novel-quality hurdles. It’s just that, for authors, “you couldn’t make this stuff up,” doesn’t apply. We can and, in fact, we should!
The experience behind writing what you know isn’t the cat with kidney failure, the lack of childcare, the stress over roadside blow-outs, missed school, the finances, and the…whatever comes next. That might be a great story too, but the real value is in the AND. It’s the pile-on. It’s knowing *knowing* that the universe is sniggering at you from behind its sly, masterful hand. Those feelings are the ‘what you know’ in “write what you know”. Your physical, emotional and psychological roller-coaster can be applied to your characters in any situation of crisis, whether brief or prolonged.
You’ve suffered. Use it. The beauty is that, in crisis, your experience will be both unique and universal at the same time. There may be value in writing about your specific experience too. Don’t get me wrong. Maybe that story is the plot of your next novel. Regardless, you can use any difficulty, or cluster of difficulties, in creative ways to give depth to your characters and to raise the stakes.
Now, if you have the wherewithal to take actual notes when you’re wearing imaginary hip-waders to get through your own life, then I applaud you. My advice is just to be aware of what you’re going through and what those around you are going through. Probably, forgetting it won’t be an issue. When you can sit down at last, glass of wine in hand, to do some writing, you may even feel capable of a little chuckle behind your sly, masterful hand.
*A note as I sit in the relative calm aftermath of these events. The road trip, where my daughter learned about the Anasazi, panned for gold in a secret spot only her Grand-dad knows, broke down at the Hoover Dam, got jumped by a twister, and visited Titanic artifacts in Vegas (not-to mention getting a gorgeous hat from the Brothel/gas-station), will be a life-long story for her to share. Meanwhile, I’m putting together a proposal to the powers that be (?) to forever rename road trips, Crisis Navigation Skill-building Experiences.
Gabrielle Byrne lives in Olympia, Washington and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders, often with roots in mythology and folklore. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.