Once, at a small writing gathering, I had the chance to read from my then-in-progress novel, By Way of Water. The work seemed to resonate with the folks gathered, and I appreciated their enthusiastic response. Afterwards, a woman approached me (when I think of her now, I imagine the clink of her silver and gold bracelets sliding into each other) and offered me a hug. While still holding me, she said, “I could just feel the poverty.” I can’t remember what I said; maybe nothing came out of my mouth. I do know, with a certain exactness, how my body went rigid, how I wanted to aggressively push her away.
What I didn’t know then (and I couldn’t know then – I still had so much life to live to gain the understanding) was that I was to experience lots of moments like this – because as a writer who grew up in poor in the United States, I have had the uncomfortable experience of reminding people that poverty exists in our country. (Once, when describing my mother’s childhood – 30 elementary schools, foster care, etc., someone asked – “Did she grow up in Ireland?) There’s a whole mess of “stuff” in these comments – and I’ll write about that later, but the lessons these responses have taught as a writer center on the importance of making the words convey the necessary meaning and impact on the page.
In graduate school, I workshopped a portion of the first chapter of By Way of Water; it’s a scene based on an event from my childhood. During a particularly hard Northern California winter, my father went into one of the two local grocery stores with a Folger’s can full of pennies and asked to buy some food. The storekeeper’s refused. His response? “I throw pennies out in the streets for kids.”
This moment wove its way into the narrative of our lives – when my family gathered at our kitchen table, my father told his life events in the tradition of oral storytellers. When a hunting buddy came to stay in the fall to track deer with my dad, those nights somehow opened my dad up, and he told some of his harder moments, including the exchange with the shopkeeper.
In graduate school, my instructor and classmates didn’t find the scene with the pennies “believable.” Anger churned inside me, only to be intensified when someone said, “No one is that unsympathetic.” Ha!, I wanted to say, let me tell you about the leagues of people in this country who easily dismiss those in different circumstances. Too many can be that unsympathetic.
I think, now, underneath my response, was something deeper – perhaps I felt like people were denying my family’s experience. In many ways, I had fallen into the “but that’s how it happened” trap that many beginning writers fall into. The workshop leader could have re-framed the comments to help me understand that what was on the page wasn’t working yet in the novel. She could’ve helped me see that I hadn’t earn the “write” yet – I needed to develop and deepen the scene so that it read with more veracity.
It took me a while, but I was ultimately able to add to the scene by weaving in a touch of dialogue from the shopkeeper, embodying his racism and framing the father character’s experience of racism which provided more meaning and context. I had to draw on other themes (and other real-life moments of my father’s) to make the scene more believable, more contextualized.
I base much of my fiction on the “real” world. Learning to use craft to effectively draw readers into the lives of the characters means I must be able to move between my emotions and what exists in the world of the writing. I must artfully express the significant details, dialogue, and characterization in order to make people “feel the poverty.” Obnoxious as the woman’s comment was, it let me know I was writing with power and precision. I’ll try to focus on that . . . earning my write one contextualized detail at a time.