How to Recognize Material

RamonaGravitarTomorrow, June 4, the “Flame of Hope” begins its journey across Delaware in the 28th  Law Enforcement Torch Run. Over three days, 500 or so Delaware police officers will run the torch from the bandstand at Rehoboth Beach to the opening ceremony of the Summer Games of the Special Olympics at UD.

I’ve never participated in Torch Run activities, but in 1983, when the Special Olympics World Games were held at LSU’s campus in Baton Rouge, I was a volunteer. I had no personal connection to the games. I didn’t know any participating athletes. I just saw an ad for volunteers, and I signed up. I was at my first full-time job and used five of my ten days annual vacation to be on campus that week. I was young and broke, so giving up the week when I wasn’t going anywhere anyway didn’t seem like a sacrifice. (And, ultimately, it wasn’t. When my boss heard how I’d spent the week, he gave me back the vacation days.) But there was a lot of press about my alma mater hosting the international games. It was a big deal and, certainly, a worthy endeavor. I wanted to be part of it.

I was assigned two duties. First, I was a campus guide. My state was Oklahoma. I escorted female athletes and their coaches from the athletes’ dorms to events. I carried a clipboard. I found my athlete and made sure she got to the right place at the right time. It was not exactly rocket science, but as a graduate, I knew a few helpful campus shortcuts. I had never been to Oklahoma. It was blazing hot in Baton Rouge in summer, but I learned that folks from the Midwest don’t flip out much over the Deep South’s heat.

My volunteer day ended at 5:00, but most days I hung around the athletes’ dorm way past that waiting to hear how “my” athletes had fared in their events.

My second duty required attendance at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. I was given a blue cardboard square which I was to hold over my head at a specific time, along with hundreds of other volunteers with blue, or white, squares of cardboard. If, after two practice sessions, we did it correctly, the blue and white cardboard squares held up at the specific time would create a giant Special Olympics torch for the TV audience.

I don’t remember any of the athletes’ names or who I sat next to during the Ceremonies. I do recall that Eunice Shriver gave a moving speech about the history of the games and her family’s role in it. I also recall that, after we held the cardboard squares over our heads, Tiger Stadium burst into cheers.

It was a fantastic week, and even if I had not been given back my vacation days, every minute of every day was worth my small participation.

A few years after that summer, my husband and I took our honeymoon to Boston and Cape Cod. By sheer coincidence, we were there the week Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger got married. The whole Cape was abuzz, but the closest we got to the excitement was at Hyannis Airport, when a photographer rushed the puddle jumper that flew us back from a day trip to Nantucket. “Aw, they’re nobody,” the photographer said when he realized we had no connection to the Shrivers or the Schwarzeneggers.

I still laugh about that.

Not long ago, I met someone who did have a connection to the Shriver family, via Cape Cod. It was a social occasion, requiring chit-chat. When she asked what I did for a living, I told her I was a writer/editor. When she told me where she lived, I shared to her what I shared above.

Her response? “You should write about that!”

I could not imagine what she meant. Write what? A mystery called Murder at the Special Olympics? A memoir piece called Our Marriage Lasted and Yours Didn’t?

The woman wasn’t a writer, so she didn’t couch it the way a writer would. A writer would say, “It’s all material.”

Writers are always on the hunt for material. When you write memoir or creative nonfiction, as I do, that material sometimes collides with your personal life. But is everything, really, material? Should it be?

I teach a workshop called Writing for the Motherhood Market. Part of the discussion addresses who might be affected by what you write. Some of the considerations when writing about your children or your parenting partner are:

~ What is your personal motivation? (share the wonder, get if off your chest, revenge?)

~ Who (real people) appear in your piece?

~ Will you portray them recognizably?

~ Is your piece critical of anyone?

~ Will anyone be hurt, embarrassed, ashamed, or arrested because of your piece?

~ Should you run it by this person ^^^ before submitting?

My experiences above won’t touch any other person than me (since I’m not counting Maria or Arnold). And it’s true that I am always on the hunt for material. There are stories to be submitted, articles to cobble together, blog posts to update, Facebook statuses to maintain. Sometimes, my well threatens to run dry. But I still go through the above questions because, no matter what kind of word count I need to meet or fill, it’s not worth sharing what may hurt, embarrass, or shame anyone.

But that’s not why I have never written a story set at the Special Olympics or used the humiliating “you’re nobody!” in my essays or fiction. Those moments belong to me. It’s tough, in any job, to be ON all the time. I may need ideas on a regular basis, but sometimes I like to turn off the writing brain and just be a regular person.

Do you, my fellow writers, have days when you just want to be a person? Is there material in your life experience cache that’s never going to make it into print because it’s your life, not your writing? Or is every day and everything open season?

Of course, I am writing about this now, but only because it is timely. For the next three days, police officers across the state will be running with the torch. Delaware is small. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll see a group of state troopers on the highway or, if nothing else, catch the video on TV. And it will bring back my fond memories of my week escorting Sooners to their races, but it won’t be material. Maybe someday someone will indeed write Murder at the Special Olympics, but that person won’t be me.


6 thoughts on “How to Recognize Material

  1. Have you ever written about a mouse that live’s in a library? Your post on the Special Olympics is a special piece worth sharing! It brought back many fond


  2. It’s a fine line. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to fictionalize something out of recognition and write about it (nobody knows but me, and yes, I have done that). But other times, no, I don’t really want to share that bit. At least not yet.


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