Years ago, I worked in retail and stood on my feet all day. Now that my day job involves sitting, and my “night job” (writing) also involves sitting, I’m getting sludgy around the middle. Walking outside is more fun than the cardio equipment at the gym, but weather gods don’t always cooperate with my schedule. Hence, I’m shopping for a treadmill.
I expected my Saturday mall excursion to be fairly point-and-click: go to the store, try out a few different models, bring one home. But that isn’t what happened. Of the two shops we visited, neither had the version we wanted in stock, and we came home empty-handed. (sigh)
But wait. The trip was not wasted.
While at one of the department stores, we met a man named Freddy. He’s originally from Rwanda, but during the awful revolution there, his family fled the Hutu’s genocide against the Tutsi people. Freddy, a Tutsi, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, at age 22, emigrated to Southern California to complete his schooling. He’s been in the U.S. ever since.
He told us how he taught himself English (through music videos and the BBC broadcasts) and how, when he first came here, an African American male spoke to him using common (at the time) cultural slang; Freddy turned the words over and around in his head, comparing them to his limited English vocabulary and finally, clueless as to what the man meant, nodded and smiled.
His recount made me chuckle. I’ve had similar experiences where English-speaking people used unfamiliar dialects to say things for which I had no frame of reference. Their meaning was lost on me, thus the effort to communicate failed, sort of like when I first went to the Midwest from the Deep South. Friends told me later that year that my Southern drawl was so thick they thought I was faking it.
Isn’t that like writing? Whether I am penning a tale to a young audience, a cultural group, a casual reader, or a group of intellectuals, I need to speak the appropriate language—including slang, terminology, similes, etc.—or the point of my story is lost. In part, that’s what agents and workshop facilitators mean when they say we need to target our stories to our intended markets. But it isn’t only what we say; it’s also how we say it. If I’m going for a gritty style, I don’t want to “pretty up” the narrative. If my protagonist is a street person, I don’t want them to use perfect grammar and diction. Conversely, if my character is a university professor, they should not use words like “ain’t” or “irregardless.”
But my conversation with Freddy gave me more than just an analogy for effective communication.
During our conversation, I listened more than I talked. Freddy’s many experiences offered a rich source of fodder for story ideas. He’s a tall man—maybe 6’2” or so—with dark, dark skin, long fingers and a contagious smile. He’s also quite lean, which he said is typical for his people. He has seen a lot of life, the good and the bad, and has come out on this side of his history with grace and balance. The same can’t be said for everyone who escaped such violence. We spoke for maybe 45 minutes and even though he told me a great deal in a short time, a whole lifetime of his experiences are now left to my imagination. What sorts of thoughts and fears and feelings might young Freddy have felt when his family was on the run? What was it like to go to not just one new country, but two, where he knew little about the language and customs? What sorts of political leanings would such a life provoke in him? What did he lose that he wishes he’d kept? What did he pick up that he wishes he’d left behind?
The possibilities are endless. Who knows? Maybe Freddy will turn up in one of my future tales.
My point is this: All sorts of encounters can feed my stories. Sometimes I have to turn an experience around a bit in the light of retrospection so I can see it better, or chew on it a while to get to the juice (you know what I mean), but I can find a story seed or a relevant connection to my passion for writing in almost anything.
I’ll be thinking on Freddy’s stories in the weeks to come. Some of what he told us raised my hair on end (I know, scary, right?). Other bits I found touching, or inspiriing. But a connection was made between two human beings, and whether or not I ever see Freddy again, I’ll remember our meeting for a long time.
I went to the mall for a treadmill. I came home germinating new seeds for thought. Nothing is ever wasted.