There’s an early chapter in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that relates how, in first grade, young Stevie had an infected eardrum lanced. The ear doctor assured him the first time–and the second time, and the third time–that it would not hurt.
This was not true. Having a needle stuck into his infected ear to puncture his eardrum did indeed hurt young Stevie. A lot. If you read the book, you can tell it still hurts Stephen King, though perhaps not in physical pain so much as psychic pain.
Two lessons can be learned from this: Ears are sensitive pieces of equipment, and a kid will remember it forever if you lie to them.
When I was about the same age, I spent a Sunday afternoon at my grandmother’s house, playing a game with my cousins. We took turns running down her long front porch and leaping into the yard. It was an on-the-spot challenge, and we had a good time racing back and forth doing our version of the Olympic long jump competition.
I don’t remember crystal clear details—I was five years old–but I recall it was very windy that day. I remember landing and feeling a pop in my ear. I don’t know if I told my mother. I don’t remember that it hurt a whole lot, but I recall it hurt enough that I quit playing.
The next day, I woke up with an earache. I was taken to the doctor, who diagnosed a ruptured eardrum. I don’t remember the doctor visit or any needle insertion, but I do recall the at-home, follow up treatment: My mother (who was a registered nurse) poured warm alcohol (I think) in my ear each morning. It wasn’t painful, but the alcohol ended up in my throat and made me gag, so I hated it.
The alcohol treatment went on for a week. My mother would lay a white towel on the kitchen counter and I would rest my head on it while she poured the alcohol in my ear. Well, that’s how it was meant to happen. What really happened after the first day was, my grandmother held my head down against the towel while I howled and kicked. I wasn’t the kind of child who fought my mother, and I sure as heck didn’t kick at my grandmother on a regular basis, but this was very unpleasant. The decades-old sensation of alcohol running into the back of my throat still makes me shudder.
There was no excruciating pain, however. No one lied to me. Even though I fought, I was hugged afterward. Knowing my mom’s M.O. whenever we were sick, I was probably rewarded with a toy or treat, or both, when it was all over.
My recollection of running off the porch—the fun part of the story—is pleasant in a vague, remembering-my-childhood way. The image of the white towel set on the kitchen counter is as vivid as if I saw it yesterday, and so is the dread that rose up when I saw it.
Images from childhood are burned into a person’s psyche. So are lies, trust, and deceptions.
Some time ago, I scoured my personal writing in preparation for applying for an artist grant. Much of my work comes from family stories. I noted that, in the majority of my stories, the mothers were warm, consistent and loving. The grandmothers were strong, tough, and caring. Dads were reliable and faithful, but they worked a lot. Doctors didn’t deceive little kids with the “It won’t hurt” lie; policemen were honest and brave; teachers were patient, unless they were nuns, who were stern but not scary.
I was a good girl from a nice reliable family, and I wrote like one.
It was an illuminating moment. My stories were still engaging, I believe, but I was stuck in the realm of my own experience full of trustworthy adults. Which made the stories limiting, and which in turn limited me as a writer.
I decided to change that.
In the last few years, my characters have grown more flaws. My dads got a little lazier. My women had a couple of affairs. Everybody lies more, deceives more, makes more mistakes. Some of my narrators are completely unreliable. As a result, there’s more trouble in my stories. My characters’ lives are more challenging, and they take more walks on the wild side.
A whole new world of iffy behavior, sketchy places and dodgy characters opened up before me and my pen, and I embraced it.
I am still a good girl from a nice reliable family, but I no longer write like one.
Do you have patterns in your writing? Are your main characters always trustworthy? Your men incapable of holding down a job? Do all the aunts drink? Are all the uncles charming and handsome? Does anyone lie for what they believe is a good reason? Does anyone lie just for fun?
Have you ever examined your work and realized the goodness, the badness, or the in-between came from your own life? Are you limiting your writing by being a good girl, or boy?
Tell me about it.