by Jerry Waxler
Around the age of fifty-five, I began to look for a new creative challenge, and decided that the most interesting thing I could possibly do would be to write the story of my life. This turned out to be an ambitious goal, because I didn’t know how to write stories and wasn’t even sure if an analytically-minded adult like me could ever learn. But if I didn’t try, I would never find out.
I started taking classes and practicing, and at each step, I learned some small idea or new way of looking at things. Then I used that idea to help me evolve to the next step. One of the most important of these ideas was that to write stories, be on the lookout for strong scenes.
A strong scene is like a grain of sand in the soft tissue of the psyche. Some memories go so deep into your psyche, they are powerful enough to fuel a whole book. In memoir classes, these life-changing moments often seem to explode from memory onto the page, as if they were too strong to be kept hidden forever. For example, at one of the first memoir classes I attended, I wrote about the time in 1967 when a peaceful war protest escalated into a riot. Decades later, when I thought of writing about my life, that scene was one of the memories that forced me to keep going, trying to turn those years into a good story.
Short stories tend to be more lighthearted than book length stories. Typically the shorter form romps among the normal stuff that happens every day and drives us crazy. Even though short stories are lighter, they still need enough focused intensity to keep a reader’s interest. To find that intensity, look for scenes in your life that feel like grains of sand. . . Moments you keep thinking about. . . Moments you need to wrap in the smooth container of a story.
For example, the scene that motivated the title of this article occurred twelve years ago. My wife and I recently moved across town and our new next door neighbors seem a bit standoffish. One spring day, I look out the window and see my wife talking to the neighbor. I think “Oh, how nice. They’re starting to break the ice.”
A few minutes later she runs in, practically crying. “Oh my God. I feel so humiliated. He was really upset about the length of our grass. You’ve got to get out there and mow right now.”
“You’re kidding right?” But I detect no tone of irony in her voice. I immediately begin building my case.
“I like the lawn long. It feels more natural. I don’t want to live on a golf course.”
She stares at me.
“The bunnies love it,” I continue. Mentioning bunnies always makes us both smile, but this time nothing. I keep pressing. “The groundhog looks so cute when he scampers through it.”
“None of that matters. They are really upset.”
“Okay,” I say reluctantly, hating to be bullied by neighbors. But now it isn’t just the neighbors. My wife is now in on it.
That’s the scene, but how could I turn it into a story? To take it further, I need more scenes. The fact that it continues to nag at me provides a thousand scenes. For the next twelve years, every time I decide if it’s time to mow, and every time I adjust the cutting depth, I have an inner debate – should I leave it a longer for the sake of the bunnies, or shorter for the sake of the neighbors?
Another scene involves me hearing evidence to backup my belief that longer grass is better. The day I heard the organic gardener on public radio saying that a longer lawn is healthier for the grass, I feel vindicated. I eagerly tell my wife the good news, only to find out she doesn’t really care.
So now I have a few scenes. How to tie them together? A good story needs to have a point. Where is this story going? In a fiction story, the author would invent some outrageous wrap up, creating a scene that heightens the humor, irony, or shock. It could involve vigilantes. Or my neighbor and I could discover we are distantly related and end up best friends. However, in a nonfiction piece, our creativity must work within the actual facts.
If I had been swayed toward the neat, lawn ethic of my neighbors, I could end the story as a converted lawn guy, and call the story “From Lawn Slob to Lawn Snob.” However, I stuck to my position. When I walk outside to the dividing line between our properties, his side, as short and bright green and mine variegated and wild looking. So what is the point of the story I would write? Since my neighbor and I both like to rescue feral cats. I could show how our harmony in one area has supplanted our tension in another. I could include a photo of us standing together holding a rescued cat, with the dividing lawn of the two lawns behind us, and call the article “Agree to Disagree.
But this isn’t an article about lawns. It’s an article about learning to tell stories, and to conclude such an article, I need to bring it back to the lessons I learned in my journey as a story writer. Find the strong scenes. Add supporting scenes. To develop a punchy conclusion, let your mind roam through the implications of the scenes. What did you learn? What were the ironies? When you find an ending that seems fun, work back through the scenes and try to glue them together in a way that seems to effortlessly lead to this clever conclusion. Voila! A storywriter is born.