Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Past Influences

Influence: “Atonement” Epic Score (Epic Action & Adventure Vol. 9, 2011)

The day was muggy, I remember that much. The sun was partially hidden behind the clouds and the humidity spiked so high the summer stole your breath away if you stepped foot outside. MTV played in the background as I doled out the cards for a new game of Uno. My sister whined, bored, sick of losing and hot because even the A/C wasn’t enough to cool a body down. 

It was mid afternoon, not quite three. Two hours before open gym started for my freshman year of high school. Excitement fluttered in my stomach all day. My cousin and I had been practicing for this day for years. This was my first tryout for high school ball. The first time I’d step on the court in the raging summer and prove my worth to make the team. All the quiet time I’d spent practicing my dribbling and the relentless amount of developing a free throw technique (catch, deep-breath-ball-on-hip-eye-the-orange-rim-from-under-bangs, spin, bounce, bounce, spin, bounce, bounce, set, eye, shoot). All the times when I’d been knocked down by the older kids and helped back up. The bruises and blistered and triumph and heartache- I was going to pour it into this first open gym. My practice jersey was laid out. I’d washed my practice shorts yesterday. Number 40 gleamed even in the dim light of our tiny shared bedroom. 

I’d show the coach I belonged on the varsity squad. I deserved to play. I wanted the feeling of pride even through the sweat and tears and triumph and heartache. The pulled muscles and bruised skin. The sprains and breaks and dislocations- fight with the will to win and never give up even when you’re down thirty points in the second quarter. Because even when you’re down and you feel like giving up- there is someone who believes in you. Knows you’re not a superhero, you’re just a little girl who loves to play games. And for me, when I was a little girl, I grew up knowing that my grandpa would be in the front row, mid court, eating popcorn and cheering so loud not even the proudest parents could drown out. I grew up knowing even though I was a girl that wouldn’t stop me from doing something I wanted to do or stop me from achieving goals I set for myself. My cousin was a senior. For three years my grandpa sat on the bleachers every home game in the middle of the court, eating popcorn and cheering for my cousin. And every time she stepped to the free throw line she looked back at grandpa and he would beam as if the sun rose and sat on my cousin standing on the free throw line. Then he’d say to me without taking his eyes off the court, “That will be you. Just keep practicing.”

That will be you. Just keep practicing.

But when the phone rang and it was the hospital those are not the words I remembered. And when they asked for my mother and said it was an emergency those were not the words that stuck with me. My hands trembled violently as I turned my back to the living room where my sister turned the TV volume up for a song she liked on MTV’s countdown. Time seemed to slow, my weight seemed unbearable to the bowing of my bones against the partition. No longer was my day about the number 40 and how much playing time would coach actually give me, a freshman. 

“My mother isn’t here. She left for the hospital a half hour ago.”

Because my mother had gone into town to pick up my grandpa from the hospital. He had surgery to remove cancer and they thought he was going to be fine. 

I’ll be at your game. I won’t miss it.

He died before my mother got there. 

As a little girl I couldn’t imagine life without grandpa. I spent a lot of time at his house. And when you’re a child, you feel like staple adult in your life are always going to be there. But you don’t realize that life is not that way because you’re not old enough to understand loss and how it affects you not only in the present but in the future too. These losses shape you and mold you and teach you, but that lesson doesn’t lessen the loss in the moment. He promised he’d be there and then he wasn’t. You float around in this world fixated on a promise, focused solely on these words that hold no meaning now that he was gone. 

Still to this day I think about that; but it’s not so much the promise of his words that taught me the biggest lesson, it was his confidence in those words spoken like a fact: That will be you. Just keep practicing.

I skipped open gym all summer- the kiss of death for a ball player. I broke my foot just a month after grandpa passed and missed all of softball season. And when October rolled around and practices started, my cousin didn’t try out for the basketball team- a devastating blow to the coach. My foot wasn’t up to snuff and practice left me hobbling, limping, crying in the locker room after two brutal hours of drills and running. But when I wanted to give up I looked at the bleachers, the floor level at half court. The sun always beamed in through the ceiling high windows in the gym and on the weekend when we practiced early, the sun bounced off old hardwood and faded lacquer on the bottom bleacher at half court. And I kept going. I put on number 40 and shouldered responsibility as captain all season long. It was the worst season coach had suffered in years. It was the worst season of my life. But if I’d given up, if I’d quit what would that have proved? My cousin couldn’t bear to be on the court knowing when she looked at half court there was no grandpa; at least I’d been spared that memory. 

And I think writing is like that. You strain and strive to create characters that are human with quirks and flaws and so real. All the little moments that build up the background and backstory of your characters, it’s just bundled up inside your character shaping them into who they turned out to be. Sparing yourself the memories by pouring them out onto the page and tweaking a few details to fit the purpose. Teaching lessons others have learned and we have learned along the way. We, as writers, are constantly telling ourselves "someday that will be me" and we keep striving towards that goal and practicing on paper until our character is unique and flawed and full of memories so that they are shaped by their past.

Practice and a writer's appreciation to detail are what makes characters real. Adding in those memories give those experiences that leave us at a loss. And we as people are the same way. We are just the main characters of our own lives. Something that happens today shapes us for how we react in the future.

How do you shape your characters past and how does that influence how they act and behave in the future? What is your favorite past influence to read in a character? For me I think reading about character’s loss is easily identifiable to me as a reader. I can relate to that influence the most. But without being too personal (or you can get personal if you want) what do you relate to the most when you’re thinking up a background and past for a character?


MsHellion said...

When I stop crying at my desk, I'll answer your question. Maybe.

I agree, loss is a big one. I can identify with loss right away, but the kind of backstory I seem to gravitate towards in my writing or books I read is The Ugly Duckling a la High School Was Hell model. You spent all your formative years being poor, worthless, and unlovable while popular kids breezed through their lives, untouched, while wearing name brand clothes and picking out colleges with no thought to price. Whereas you were trying to justify why you were worth going anywhere. When your peers dismiss you as nothing special is one thing. It's another when your parents kinda do it. It takes you a long time to realize your parents don't dismiss you because they think YOU'RE not capable, but because life isn't fair and fairy tales are fiction.

Our lives need far more stable adults to guide us than I think the majority of us get. I think we give our characters much better mentors than we usually ever get for ourselves. Or they get several...and we'll get one, for five minutes, way back when we were 15.

Sin said...

I know. I'm a complete and utter downer.

Terri Osburn said...

Sorry I'm late. I've had this page open for about two hours, but work has been nuts.

Such a stirring and beautiful story about a terrible loss. I was fortunate that throughout my childhood, there were very few family deaths. Well, after my grandfather passed when I was 5. But I was in my 20s by the time I lost anyone else close to me.

I'm not sure how much I consciously put into my characters, but I can see that a lot gets through subconsciously. I have solid memories of never fitting in and being betrayed or let down. It doesn't take reading much about my heroines to see that they come with this same baggage.

Sin said...

I think what makes cathartic to us writers is that we unconsciously put these things into our writing. Writing for me is a way of therapy. I may not be writing about the exact issue I'm dealing with or have dealt with in the past but my character is working their way through it.

That's not to say that we don't write about issues we know nothing about either. That's the beauty of being a writer- working through issues regardless of the situation at hand.

Terri Osburn said...

I'm all about using it as therapy. If I figured out how to consciously do that, I may send myself a bill.

And you're right, we also write about stuff that's new to us. In MTB, the heroine has an intense fear of boats and water brought on by a traumatic incident in her childhood. Other than the face I grew up spending time on my grandparents' houseboat, I have no experience with the rest.

But I was very happy to read a reviewer say she has the same fear and the way I'd written it is exactly what it's like. Huzzah!

Maureen said...

Creating trauma for my characters to overcome...sometimes it's planned, sometimes it's not. I seem to trend toward the girls who had it pretty easy, not great disasters...until THE DISASTER hits. Then it's all about the different ways to deal with it.

Miranda strives to forget it and go on, but she has a martyr complex that raises it's head again and again. Survivor guilt runs deep in her.

Jezebel, in The Chameleon Goggles, was given to a pedophile as a child and raised under his tutelage...until he abandoned her because she got too old. She lives her life believing she is broken and pissed about it.

Ivy? A terrified woman, traumatized by a brute, wanting revenge and trying to prove to the world that she needs no one. Oh, she's so wrong!

Does any of this stem from my past? Nope. (I even had an editor contact me about Jezebel and ask if I wanted to talk about anything. Score!) But it doesn't mean I'm not unacquainted with their pain, their thinking, the crux on which they spin.

It's all me. Not the experience, but the reaction. I like to think that is how it stays authentic. Writing is therapy. I'll never deny that! For me, it is.

Sin said...

I like how you say THE DISASTER and I know as a reader exactly what you mean. The moment that turns your life upside down. The moment I look forward to most in a book.

Sin said...

Thanks for commenting today, crew. You didn't have to. (I wouldn't have been upset or anything.) I know it was a bummer blog and probably too heavy for a write blog but stuff happens. *shrug*

Terri Osburn said...

There's nothing wrong with this blog. This is just one of those days. I should have brought a fire extinguisher to work with me!

MsHellion said...

I think it was a great blog. I just think we're all distracted right now.

That and I still haven't stopped crying about your grandpa, but who cares about my hormones?

Sin said...

I apologize, Hellie!

That sounded like I was feeling sorry for myself and I'm really not. I just wanted to say I understand.

Janga said...

Powerful stuff, Sin!

I think most writers draw on their own traumas and terrors in their writing, but I think we need distance to do so effectively. Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility" idea has application not only for poetry but for storytelling as well. If I write about grief when I am consumed by grief, it is likely to be incoherent or so over-the-top that it seems absurd, but remembering my grief much later I can make a character's grief raw and potent.

Janga said...

I should have said that that's just my two cents worth. I hate it when I say something that comes across with that I'm-Moses-descending-the mountain attitude.

Sin said...

If I write about grief when I am consumed by grief, it is likely to be incoherent or so over-the-top that it seems absurd, but remembering my grief much later I can make a character's grief raw and potent.

I completely agree.

Terri Osburn said...

You're the closest thing we have to a Moses around here, Janga. No worries. That's very true. If I'd have tried to write a story about betrayal back when I was in the waves of it, I doubt I could have done it. At least not in a way anyone else would want to read.

Maureen said...

That makes perfect sense, Janga. I cull from the experiences I know from others and often...from nightmares. Remembering the emotions I woke with is part of my process.

Di R said...

Wow, Sin.

An amazing blog, not just the subject, but the clarity with which I can picture that summer day you've described. It is simply breathtaking.

My regency hero and heroine have both lost loved ones which gives them both a point of connection, but is also leads to something bigger.

Sorry, I'm late. I'm still recovering from National. I was thrilled to find Terri at the literacy signing and I got to meet PJ in person.


Sin said...

Thanks, Di!

Terri Osburn said...

Di, I loved getting to see you again. Your roommates kept stopping me to say how much you were enjoying the book. Totally made my week. :)

JulieJustJulie said...

That wasn't a downer that was ... Stunning.
Like an impressionist painting painted in words.

The visuals of your words left me thoughtful, and yes , quiet. Because honestly? There is nothing I could say after reading that piece. Nothing I could or should add ... Except "Wow." That was beautifully written.

Sabrina Shields said...

I'm not going to answer your question yet. I can't. I'm engrossed in the feelings and special memories your post brought to me. Loss. It's a universal emotion that can tie us all together.

Thank you for this.