I was fired from my first job. I was 16 and head cashier at Burger King. A woman came in with a little boy about 3 years old. She asked him if he wanted a hamburger or a cheeseburger. He was so taken with a lighted display, he didn’t answer her. She asked him two more times. When he stayed quiet, she back-handed him across the face, knocking him to the floor.
“Hey!” I yelled. “What do you think you’re doing? He’s just a little kid. He was just looking at the lights!”
She turned her venom on me, but I fought with her. The manager came out of the back room to see what the noise was all about. The woman told him how I had stuck my nose where it didn’t belong, and that I should mind my own blankety-blank business. How dare I question her mothering.
The manager turned to me, and asked, “Is this true?”
“Yes,” I replied, leaning forward.
He pointed at my face, an inch from my nose, and said. “You’re fired!”
My response? “Good.”
Twenty three years later, I sat at my computer, writing a scene about my main character, Carley Connors, standing toe-to-toe with a neighborhood bully to defend the youngest Murphy (foster family) boy. I dropped myself right back into Burger King. I remembered that boy’s face as he looked up at his mother and his face as he looked at me. How I didn’t care about the consequences—I was going to say what I was going to say.
I also remembered the anger and the injustice and the protectiveness for a little boy I didn’t know and how all of those emotions started in my feet and rose up in me like a glass being filled with hot water. I took those feelings and poured them into that scene. A purely fictional scene. With real emotion.
I wrote a post a while back about vulnerability being a double-edged sword. I had said that the very parts of vulnerability that make rejection of your work difficult are the very parts that can take your writing to the next level. Well, what is that, exactly? This facet of vulnerability? I think it’s opening up. Showing the sides of yourself that you’d rather keep hidden. The things about you that you wouldn’t want the people in the PTO to know. The quirks you may find…erm…embarrassing.
I used real emotion from that Burger King event, but it held relatively no pain for me (although I wonder, even now, where that boy is.) It was a triumphant moment when I spun around and walked out. Therefore, the MURPHYS scene was easy to write. Very easy. I didn’t have to crawl into my personal basement to write it. But, what about having to write a scene filled with anguish? Or feelings stemming from betrayal? Or loss? Or embarrassment? Or regret? That. That is a whole ‘nother thing, isn’t it? I know those things, too, as many of you do.
So, I believe that writers’ block often has more to do with not wanting to go to an emotional place rather than a lack of ideas. Is that too simple? Think about it. What if you found a pipe spewing water all over your basement and called the plumber who told you he couldn’t wrap his mind around fittings and pipes on that day? It was just too hard to “go there,” but he’d get back to you? Unheard of, right? Along with waitress’s block or engineer’s block.
Why? Because these people don’t have to open up emotionally to do their job well. They don’t have to pull back the curtain to look at painful things in their lives to draw upon. Sit in it. Let it wash over them. Again. And then…give it to a character that they may love. A character that, no doubt, has the veins of the writer running through them.
As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t write slapstick comedy (although looking back at this post, it may be easier!) I write about really decent kids who find themselves in unthinkable situations and learn to walk themselves out of it. I also try to incorporate humor into my stories, because I think resilient people use humor to deal with pain—it’s the healthiest outlet out there. Also, I promise you, that my book endings are always hopeful; I’m a big believer in hopeful.
I did a school visit recently with a group that was so…perfectly wonderful. A group brimming with energy and enthusiasm. Calling out. Opinionated. I loved it. It wasn’t misbehavior; it was magic. One girl approached me beforehand and said, “I just want you to know that I love to write and you’re going to know who I am before you’re done here.” And, indeed, I did.
I read from ONE FOR THE MURPHYS—the beginning, which I have never read to kids before, because, compared to the rest of the book, it’s kind of heavy. Carley is on her way to foster care; there are lots of unknowns, pain, and questions. She is also a bit of a wise acre with her social worker. I read the first few pages to them and stood in silence, too nervous to look up. The room was still—one of the rare occasions that it was. 😉 The first sign of movement came from a boy–his voice. “Well, don’t you have any more?” Followed by a barrage of similar comments. They peppered me with questions on what would happen in the book, why is Carley in foster care, etc.
Kids came up to me afterwards to tell me about things going on with them. Their own struggles and sadnesses. One girl said, “That is my most favorite book in the world.” My response was, “What was?” I was wondering what other book she was referencing. Seriously, I had no idea. I’m kind of dumb that way. But, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The power of finding yourself in the pages of a book.
So, I’m hoping that this will be my payoff for climbing into my own basement. Yeah, it’s hard to do, but I feel lighter when I’m done. And to think that I could help kids by doing it? There would be no better payoff in the whole world than that.