The Life of Writing: Using experience to fuel fiction

Every life has moments that are worthy of recording. Mine just tend to be–bizarre.

For the Mondays of this fiction-reboot, I will pair a few of those experiences with fiction excerpts to show how experiences may be turned to (often humorous) advantage… Another piece of news for the reboot–I will be adding a section at the end of each for announcements. Please make sure to check them!

OLD Experience #1: Kindergarten Blues, or I don’t live in a greenhouse.

I was, perhaps, an odd sort of child. I was not terribly well socialized for one thing, unless you consider sitting on the back of another toddler in the sand box and beating her with a spoon a kind of business networking. I also bit a child’s finger when she stuck it through the fence of my yard (that will teach you). Not surprisingly, I am the only person I’ve ever met who was kicked out of pre-school and asked not to return. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. I was less raving monster and more Wednesday Addams. And one of the best examples of this comes from my first day of kindergarten.

I walked to school when I was five. It was about 4 blocks, I think, and my next door neighbor Gina was supposed to make sure I got there and back in one piece. Of course, this was a new role for Gina, and this was the first day of school. The getting there went all right. The getting home, not so much. She forgot, and I was left wondering how on earth I’d get back home.

Now, I was not the panicky type. I figured the adults must know what to do (a mistake I have since tried not to repeat.) My teacher was a slightly elderly woman, and I first went in search of her. I think she pointed me in the direction of the office, a brush off I wasn’t expecting. I still remember her frail form silhouetted against the back door of the school as she ambled to the parking lot. Okay, I thought, starting to get a bit nervy, next set of adults. I was keeping my cool. My ponytail was still in place. Things were going to be fine.

“Mr. Nowan, Gina didn’t wait for me.”

It had not occurred to me that this was not at all clarifying to the 6 foot 6 gentleman I was craning my neck to look at.

“Gina?”

“Didn’t wait for me. I don’t know how to get home.”

The office secretary seemed to grasp the situation.

“Ah. We should find your teacher,” she said, but of course, this had already occurred to me.

“We can’t. She went home,” I said, and I remember quite clearly the secretary’s exclamation–

“Well, doesn’t she just make the grass grow,” (I have never heard that epithet again, incidentally). At this point, the principal tried another approach. He asked me where I lived. And I gawked at him. Obviously, if I knew where I lived, I would have gone home. Now, you might be thinking that this sarcastic little tidbit has been added by my adult brain, but remember, I’m the biting child kicked out of pre-school. And frankly, I was starting to worry that these people were too dumb to help me. Secretary to the rescue–again.

“Why don’t you tell us what your house is like?” she suggested, thinking perhaps we’d figure out my address from these details. And so I began with the main thing, in my five-year-old opinion.

“I live in a green house,” I said–but this declaration was met with utter blank stares. I tried again. I was usually good with pronunciation. “A green house.”

“But,” the mountain-like principle began, “you can’t live in a greenhouse!”

Shock. This man was telling me I couldn’t live in my own house!

“Maybe there is just a greenhouse nearby?” the secretary asked. I was nonplussed.

“I live in a green house!” I said, my voice getting shaky.

“With plants?” (I am not making this up.)

“My m-m-mom doesn’t like plants,” I quivered. “A green house–I live–in–green–house.”

And that’s when I started to cry. I knew I was right–who were they to question what I knew about my own living quarters? Of course, it never once occurred to me that they mistook the color for the kind (besides, my grandmother never said ‘greenhouse’; she would say ‘garden center.’) The secretary tried being soothing, the principal, who was actually a very kind man, tried to distract me from my tears. But I was angry and adamant–and at a total loss. I had been talking for more than three years already, but I could not make myself understood. It was utterly frustrating and humiliating.

And that’s when Gina turned up. She’d run all the way from our street and was sweating and gasping and apologizing. I don’t remember if she helped untangle the confusion, or if we just left the bemused adults behind us. I do know one thing: my first priority that evening was to learn and memorize my street address so I would never again be at the mercy of the synonym-challenged.

My spouse is very fond of this story. He says it gives him a lovely image of my younger self, embellished (for him) with gothic lipstick and a spiked collar and ending with my demands that people be less thoroughly stupid. That, of course, is an exaggeration. But it is a useful one. And while I have not (yet) written this scene into a novel, the irritations of my pint-sized self have greatly shaped the high-school experiences of Ezra Kenning, a character in my YA series The Witchwood at Nob’s End. An excerpt appears below. You will not see the principal or the secretary in there–or the “grass-growing” kindergarten teacher. What you will see in the translated angst of a teen who cannot make herself understood.

And that is the power of the writing life. (NOTE: please check the end of this post for announcements about a fiction contest!)

Witchwood at Nob’s End, [excerpt]

The bus lurched toward the High School with a gasp of hydraulics, and Ezra felt her stomach knot up. You behave yourself, she thought. No losing breakfast over this. Just another day.

After another.

After another.

“I hate it already,” she whispered as they came to a final halt in front of Howorth High.

A powerful-looking structure, more like an enormous bunker than a school, Haworth drew in kids from an enormous swatch of back-country towns in a 40 mile radius. It was what they called a “county” school. Ezra found out that much from her grandparents; the rest could be gleaned from the disorienting walk to the lockers. 128, 128, 128 she repeated, scouting the metal cabinet numbers and trying not to look like she needed any help. She didn’t want help—she didn’t want to be noticed at all. Surely, in a school this big in a town this small, a perfect stranger could be invisible for quite a while? That was, at least, her plan for the moment. Unfortunately, Ezra was taller than just about everyone, and when your head sticks that far above the radar, you aren’t likely to be missed.

“She’s a tall one,” someone remarked as she passed the water fountain.

Ezra colored and drew her head into her shoulders. A tall one ofwhat? She wondered. She wasn’t a giant, for pity’s sake; no one got excited about a six foot tall boy. Ezra tried to slip passed the babbling mass, desperately scanning the folded paper which listed her classes.

“Basketball, maybe?”

“Never saw her before.”

“New girl, huh? Check her—she’s taller than Jason!”

Ezra didn’t look up to see who was speaking. She didn’t wait to see if she was being addressed, either. She just walked ahead, staring above them, willing them not to be there. This was stage one. Stage two would be staring them down, but she was giving them the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t have much hope of course, but it was early and there was still some chance that her classmates might actually leave her alone.

Which they did. Until lunch.

Ezra always hated lunch. She especially hated that everyone else (her brother included) thought it was the highlight of the day. In her experience, it was a horrible march through bad food and worse seating options, as fraught with potential disaster as a mine field. At least in Philly, she’d more or less staked a claim on a far corner with the other hermits. She’d also learned a useful strategy: bring your books. If you brought books and then sat at lunch by yourself, you weren’t alone. You were just reading. Unfortunately, Howorth High had no distant corners, no dark enclaves and no small tables off by themselves. The lunch hall was long and skinny, which gave it the uneasy impression of going on forever in a sea of unrecognizable faces. It was flanked on two sides by brick columns and the open entryway leading to the front doors, and for a minute, Ezra almost determined to sit on one of the benches that lined either side. Of course, benches made both eating and reading difficult, and this seemed too much like giving in to the opposition. At last, she plunged into the bustle looking for an open table. It was difficult looking around and avoiding eye contact at the same time, and she felt her face burning; this was always the horror part of lunch. If you didn’t see someone you knew, you stood there until paralysis took over. When she was in Jr. High, a girl once stood at the edge of a lunch room the entire period—and Ezra was pretty sure it had been herself.

This time, however, she was lucky. A break in the giggling, moving, feeding mass revealed a completely empty table. She breathed a sigh of relief, heaved her bag a little higher, and made a break for it. The way had been treacherous, and she almost wore her mashed potatoes twice, but finally she took a seat. Ezra rummaged in her bag for the history book while the blood drained out of her cheeks; she couldn’t stand it when people stared.  She wasn’t an exhibit at the zoo, she thought darkly, and set about reading Social Studies.

“Ahem. Excuse me?” a voice asked over her head.

Ezra glanced up to see a blond girl with a pink head band standing there.

“Yes?”

Excuse me,” the girl repeated, “you are sitting at our table.”

Ezra blinked. The girl wasn’t being rude about it—yet. She was certainly serious, but the situation was not lost. Unfortunately, Ezra’s mouth started talking before her brain had a chance to step in.

“I don’t see your name on it,” she said, and knew immediately that was not the best opener.

The girl gaped at her a minute, as if trying to process the sarcasm.

“Well, we sit here every day,” the girl protested.

“It’s the first day of class, you realize,” Ezra said, but the girl interrupted her.

“Every day for threeyears.”

Ah, Ezra thought, she was ranking her—a senior. Ezra noted that four other girls had walked up behind her with their lunch trays.

“What’s up, Katie?” one of them asked.

Ezra stole a glance behind her. The incident was attracting attention in exactly the way she didn’t want it to.

“Look,” she said. “There are five of you and six chairs. There’s plenty of space for everybody, all right?” There was no way she was leaving now, not with everyone staring.

One of “Katie’s” associates gave up the stand-off and sat down, followed by two more. That seemed to settle things at last, and the group of upperclassmen sat down (scooching their chairs as far from Ezra as possible) and began to eat their lunches. Ezra went back to reading, assuming the whole thing was over, but Katie had a well developed sense of vindication.

“I don’t see why you need a table, anyway,” she said, stirring her peas with unnecessary vigor. “You’re reading, not eating.”

“I’m reading and eating. I can do two things at once, actually,” Ezra said.

The sarcasm kept sneaking in; she couldn’t help it—it happened whenever she was mad or irritated. Or, well, whenever.

“You don’t look like you’re eating.”

“I’m not sure that it’s food.”

“Oh, la-dee-da, then!” Katie said, waving her hand for emphasis. “But if the food’s not good enough for you, why don’t you go away and read your—what is that, anyway?”

“It’s called a text book. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?” Ezra quipped, but this was not going the right way. Stop it, stop it! Ezra begged herself.

“Oh I see. A brown-noser,” Katie said.

There was a corresponding wave of snickers from the table, and Ezra quit arguing with herself. Stage Two: obviously, sarcasm was completely understandable and necessary at this point.

“I see. Doing your homework is for special occasions only, is it?” She asked.

Katie didn’t actually seem to get the jab, and so continued in a new vein.

“And what’s with all the black?” she asked, looking at Ezra’s book covers, bag and tee shirt. “Are you Goth? Or just on your way to a funeral?”

Ezra closed the book so that she could make better eye-contact.

“This whole town is a funeral,” she said, eyeing Katie darkly through drawn brows.

“Oh, so your town is so much better? Where are you from anyway?” one of them asked.

“Philadelphia. And yes, it is so much better. A person with any sense could tell you that,” Ezra said. She was hitting her stride; all the feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment disappeared under her very best defense. She knew what to do with words. She was good at it, and the girls bristled visibly.

“And I’m not a person with sense?” Katie asked, her voice getting higher and a little squeaky.

Ezra shrugged, still staring at her. Enjoy your own medicine, creep—

“You said it, not me,” Ezra sneered. “But since I have better things to do than deal with senseless people—Enjoy the meat substitute by yourselves.”

Ezra shouldered her bag and made her way back to the benches, leaving the girls in between shock and anger. The self-congratulations were fading with every step, however, replaced instead with the nagging voice of reason, repeating (not for the first time) that this was not the way to win friends and influence people. So much for going unnoticed; a large number of surprised heads turned in her direction as she resettled herself—now without any lunch at all. Ezra pretended to read, but of course the text just wasn’t interesting anymore. The only consolation was that, in a few hours, she would be free to finally go to the library.

ANNOUNCEMENTS for JUNE 6, 2012:

Author Devin O’Branagan has announced a new flash fiction contest. Write a piece about an eccentric guardian angel. More details here: http://forum.devinwrites.com/post/June-2012-Flash-Fiction-Contest-5871495

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