by Jerry Waxler
Reading gives me pleasure in a variety of ways, from humor, imagery, story impact, and the lessons I learn about life and about writing. Consider Sean Toner’s award-winning “Head Clown,” a story about a summer when he decided to earn extra money by selling balloons. This piece, fashioned from ordinary events, is clever, engaging, and warm. I looked more closely trying to decipher how he transformed a few memories into a tale that offered so much value. From my inquiry I found six writing prompts that could help any writer find a story-worthy anecdote in their own memory.
To read the whole story, click Webdelsol’s site.
To read my essay about what I learned from Sean Toner’s style click here.
1) Micro-recounting – slow time down and dig in
If you take a panoramic view of a savannah, you see wildebeests, giraffes, prairies, and trees. Then kneel down and look at the soil. It is teeming with tiny ants, spiders, and roots so small you only see them by staring carefully. Observations at both scales can help you understand your world.
This is one of Toner’s most interesting knacks. He focuses on human interaction at a microscopic level. By applying his stylistic writing, Toner expands, explores, and playfully develops the psychological sensation embedded in each moment.
Pick an experience you are willing to micro-observe. Play around with the variety of details in that instant. What look crossed a person’s face? What noise did you hear across the street? What observation could you make about the room, the sounds and smells, the people. Then insert some of these observations in your narrative.
2) Allow the location to generate drama
“Head Clown” is set in a resort town, a location I have always found intriguing. I try to imagine the locals who wake up to go to work, surrounded by people who are sleeping in and then heading to the beach. Toner paints other sites with an intriguing flair, cranking up my interest in the bookstore where he works and the house where the clowns meet to replenish their supply of balloons. Mystery writer P.D. James says in her memoir “Time to Be in Earnest” that a good location creates a wonderful image and mood for a story. Sean Toner’s passionate, detailed description of place provides just such a rich backdrop.
Read one of your anecdotes, and look for an opportunity to insert a sentence or two that adds a haunting or interesting touch to the location.
3) Periods when you were in-between
Sean had recently graduated college. That period of life was finished but he didn’t know what to do next. He was between college and career, between decision and indecision. The story takes place during summer, a notoriously unstructured period for kids. Each day heads in no particular direction, full of freedom and possibility, that is just as likely to lead to boredom as to excitement. The contrast between freedom and lack of direction pervades “Head Clown,” conveying a not-knowing that cries out for resolution.
What periods in your life were “in between?” Like Head Clown, consider your summers, as well as the period before you settled in to routine adulthood, or any other period when you felt an absence of direction. Search within those periods for the makings of a story.
4) Lonely and looking
Toner is lonely, and his ineffectual attempts at romance raise another opportunity for tension. He superbly portrays his unique struggle, an awkwardness that awakens my empathy and reminds me of my own shy, clumsy beginnings.
Write about a time or anecdote when you felt disconnected and lonely, unsure of romantic contact.
5) Masquerading as a search for identity
By dressing in a costume, Toner was literally clowning around with his identity. The big shoes, big nose, and wig create a comical image of his search for himself. Masquerading seems like a specialized feature of this story. But it pervades our world so thoroughly we forget what we’re seeing. In movies and on television shows, actors talk to us through their make up and costumes. Look at Shakespeare’s plays. The characters bend and twist their identity, caught in the tension between internal and external truth.
All of us have dressed for a role, whether we suited up for a first date, a job interview, or to impress the future in-laws. At times we may have changed hair styles, glasses or contact lenses, or surgically adjusted our face. Most of us donned costumes to beg for candy at Halloween or to attend a party. Dressing up is powerful because external experiments let us explore the way people see us and the way we see ourselves.
How have variations in your appearance affected you? (Clothing, hair, glasses, shape.) What changed in the way you felt about yourself? What did you imagine about the way other people saw you? Do blonds have more fun? Do clothes make the man? What worked? What didn’t? Generate a few anecdotes from your memory about times when you made such changes, and how it changed your inner or outer world.
6) Authentic sharing generates reader empathy
Sean Toner’s klutziness, uncertainty, and vulnerability all add to the intimacy of his character. His flaws make me feel connected with him. When I try to understand why flaws should be attractive, I realize the flaws themselves are not the reason for my empathy. What draws me closer to him is his heroic struggle to describe himself and his world.
Even if everything is going wrong in his life, his effort has created an exquisite relationship between teller and listener. Sharing the story sets both of us on high ground, as we look across the events and see how it all played out. Sean Toner has provided a sort of safe place from which to view the messiness of life.
So even though you’re telling about a time when you looked bad, the act of telling about it makes you look good, counterbalancing or neutralizing the pettiness, embarrassment or “wrongness” of the original event.
Choose a weakness you want to report about yourself. Experiment with revealing stories about this aspect of yourself. Imagine what your readers might think of your anecdote, or better still, ask critiquers to tell you. Do they think less or more of you?