Suddenly, it’s all about the back story:
A) Advise writing students to trim the back story out of the opening of their stories to avoid slowing the action.
B) Write a story that opens with back story and then read it to them.
C) Remind self to preface everything said in class with, “Much of the time.”
A) Have a bit of luck with a story whose narrator is a child.
B) Write another story whose narrator is a child.
C) That second one isn’t going so well. Maybe there’s too much back story in the opening.
It’s been snowing most of the today and was snowing earlier when two teenage boys showed up with matching yellow shovels and offered to shovel my driveway.
The back story:
- My driveway has a ridiculous hump I’ll never be able to drive up in this weather in the car I now have if the driveway isn’t properly shoveled.
- Today instead of shoveling said driveway, I was hustling to finish work I should have done on Friday.
- I didn’t really feel like shoveling my driveway.
These marvelous boys show up and tell me they’ll do the work first and then I can pay them whatever I think is fair. Which of course means I pay them more than I would have negotiated to start. They are smart boys. It takes them a while to finish and I worry they might be getting cold. I have nothing hot for them to drink but tea, which they politely say is just fine. When I invite them in, they stand awkwardly in their snow boots on the entry rug. I tell them to take off their boots and I go upstairs to make tea. I come back down to find them standing in the same spot in their socks, because they are too polite to sit down without being asked.
When I offer, they sit side by side on the couch in my downstairs, look at each other, blow on their tea, look at each other.
“It’s hard to know what to say when you’re in some old lady’s house drinking tea,” I say.
They laugh and then we’re chatting and I hear about school and where they grew up and how they met and became friends. And that they have the same first name. It’s a name longer than Gabriel, and neither of them seems to use a nickname. They’re fifteen or so, and I flash to twenty or thirty years down the road and wonder if they’ll be that friend for each other who’s been a friend for a very long time. I hope so, because it’s good to have that friend.
I’ve had those moments where I realized I was turning into my mother. Today, I’m pretty sure I turned in my grandmother. That’s how it felt anyway, talking with youngsters less than a third my age and thinking to myself “What nice young men. They must have wonderful parents to raise them to be so polite.”
The dark-haired one mentions that he was adopted from Romania. As soon as he says it, I can see it in his features. I tell him that I too was adopted, and we share a look of understanding that can only pass between people who have been adopted. For a second he’s not fifteen and I’m not fifty, we’re both just “adopted.”
In a millisecond we’ve shared an entire back story with each other, and I wonder however to pull the same thing off on the page. In a story there would be the tendency to explain and give circumstances and whether one knew early on or later and how did one feel or not feel and the things people say, and so on. But in reality, all it takes is a look in the eyes, a nodding at each other to say, “I know what you mean.”
The light-haired one tells me that he is home-schooled, because he had childhood epilepsy to the extent that attending school was not possible. For his back story, I have less reference points and ask a few questions, which he readily answers.
Yes, he likes the home-school setup and feels that he is ahead academically, but he misses the social interaction. He doesn’t remember everything about his childhood because of his illness, but he doesn’t think it interfered with learning to talk. He has plans to go to college as soon as next year. He proudly tells me that he has a 3.95 GPA.
Mentally, I give him a hug and his mother and father a hug. Here is their child, now healthy and strong out shoveling driveways. From the bits he tells me, I can intuit some of his back story and some of the pain and pride his parents felt watching their little boy cope.
The boys leave, and I set my editing aside and go back to my story, the one with the child narrator.
How much back story does a story need or not need? Well, just enough. Enough to clue in the reader who may not have the same type of experience, yet no more than a little, surprisingly little, because there’s a lot the reader can intuit by knowing just a few facts. How fortunate to have had both examples to compare side by side. And back story isn’t always evident at first glance, and in some stories that might work better.
It keeps snowing, and by evening my driveway is completely covered over again. It’s as if the two boys never came, although they did, and stayed just long enough to bring youth and sunlight and insight.
Sitting here, now in the dark because the power just went out and I’ve had to copy this text into a Word file and work off battery power and a flashlight, I’m still smiling over my conversation with the two “Gabriels.” If they’re what the next generations are bringing, I think Earth is going to do all right.
23 responses to “Tea with the Gabriels”
Never in my life would I ever think to invite in a couple of walk shovelers for tea. I admire your procrastination abilities! 😉
Really? You can’t offer a heartwarming comment like everyone else?
You leave me no choice whatsoever. I will have to write the version in which the boys are zombies–humane ones of course, with muscle memory for walkway shoveling.
And by the way, I’m headed over to your blog now to make totally sentimental and sappy comments, you, you Hallmark mood spoiler!
Oh, Laurel. I am in a quandary. I have been debating how to respond to this.
My instinct is to give you some snarky faux warm and squishy sentiments, but I don’t want get on your nerves. After all, I genuinely get the point of your post and know you to be a disciplined writer. But, OH! The set up is soooo perfect.
LOL, it is rather impossible to let a good setup slip by, so bring it on! I’m ready–oh, wait. Let me get my squishy-proof vest on–okay, now I’m ready.
In reviewing your post once again, Laurel, I see that I have foolishly erred in my assessment. What transpired between you and those fine young men is a beautiful and teachable moment. Taking what appears to be several hours away from your writing schedule to chat and brew tea for a couple of complete (yet huggable!) strangers is a fine use of time and a rich source of inspiration. I, for one, am eager to read your next story about the home-schooled. Or Romanians. Or, perchance, home-schooled Romanians?
Forgive the shortness of this comment, but I just must head out and chat up my garbage men. Farewell, my friend!
Show off, but nicely done! My stomach muscles seriously hurt from laughing at what you just wrote. I realize I cannot go head to head with you in any comedic exchanges. I give!
Thanks, Jill, you’re egging him on? I’m bleeding from rapid-fire comedic hits and my fellow Dogpatch member likes it. Thanks, Humanity!
Uh, are any of us getting any work done today?
I’m sick, and I’m trying to finish edits on a picture book and agent query letter that’s due by Friday. Also finishing up co-writing a grant proposal for the library in our school and commenting on a picture book story in my 12×12 peer critique group. I’ve got to take some more cold drugs to make it through the day without collapse. Maybe more caffeine…and procrastination…
It’s amazing how much you can actually get done with caffeine and procrastination. I hope you feel better soon. How about a nice nap?
Oh, no,Jilanne! I am sorry to hear that you’re so sick.
I am also sorry to hear about your very busy schedule. How will you ever find the time to sit around for hours drinking Chablis with the guy who reads the gas meter? That’s part of the writing process, too, you know!
I need to upgrade to Long Island Ice Teas.
Any self-respecting meter reader would take one look at me, see the words “Typhoid Mary” written across my sweating brow, and run for the hills. And it’s not just me. Picture me and my husband sitting across the kitchen table from each other (I have abandoned my office for the time being), each with our laptops humming away, and blowing snot across the room at each other every 30 seconds. True romance. Where’s that chablis you were talking about? I’m thinking a hot toddy sounds better for my throat. And I’m supposed to go see the premiere of a new “rock opera” tonight with a friend. Check it out: http://zspace.org I don’t know if my aching head will blow up when the first guitar chord blasts through the sound system. Can I get any sympathy?
I am genuinely sympathetic, my friend. I just also wanted to tease Laurel a wee bit.
Get better — and that probably can be translated to mean “Stay away from rock operas.”
So sorry to join this conversation late. I’ve just been having the most delicious chamomile tea with the census taker, who it turns out used to live in a yurt in Romania.
How is it that you now have me making fun of my own post? Everything I know is now being called into question, including what flavor of tea to even drink.
Jill, stay home from the opera and drink tea, or if you go, I recommend earplugs and hard alcohol. I really do hope you feel better.
Laurel, that was beautiful and instructive. Thank you. It was just right (write?) for a snowy day.
Thank you so much for reading and for the good words! It has been so fun to send and receive quotes from our inspiration e-mail chain, and I’m happy that seems to have prompted you to visit the Dogpatch!
Ah, Laurel, this parent of a 10-year-old boy is sitting here crying. What a beautiful essay! You covered lots of territory with, as they say, aplomb.
There’s something inspiring, wistful, and melancholy about being buried under snow. James Joyce new it when he wrote The Dead, and you’ve captured it here.
Now go drink some more tea and stay warm. Do you have a coat for Chloe or is her winter fur enough?
I consider it high praise to know this post made you tear up. Thank you very much for the good words.
I luckily have gas heat so the house stays warm, but we haven’t had power all day so I’m now holed up at Village Books getting some work done.
Chloe has a ridiculous number of cute coats that she occasionally agrees to wear. She played in the snow a bit this morning and then went back inside and sacked out on my bed, where I’m guessing I’ll find her when I get home.
Thanks again for reading and for the encouragement.
Hello from the other side of the snow drift! I hope if you are at your desk that means you are at work on a story, as you are quite wonderful yourself at capturing beautiful moments.
Gracias, escritora extraordinaria.
I’m sitting at my desk, looking out at drifts of snow from the same storm that covered your driveway, Laurel, glazed by the Zen moment you’ve so beautifully captured here. Thank you.