Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mining the Shamrock Shake Incident for Emotionally Authentic Gold

Now that I know I'm Irish (or partly so), I feel obligated to observe Saint Patrick's Day in some small way. So before I shut down my computer for the night, I thought I'd record a holiday-themed memory that I could easily mine to help with characterization. In other words, I might someday use the personal memory as fodder for crafting some unknown future story character's attitude or behavior or something. I think of it as sneaking my life into my writing.

The following scenario — or something like it — played out when I was around 8 or 9, or 10:

Eating at McDonald's was kind of a big deal. We'd go there (rarely!) either for a quick lunch or spontaneous treat. Often, my visits happened while alone with one or the other parent — with my mom on my way back to school after, say, a dental appointment, or with my dad while riding shotgun during his weekend errands. For lunch, I'd order a hamburger with everything but onion, fries, and a small drink. Probably orange soda, sometimes milk. If on a treat stop, I'd score some ice cream or a careful-it's-HOT cherry pie (although I'm not sure they warned as such in the 1970s). Never a shake. Milkshakes gave me the heebie-jeebies back then. I didn't like it when the straw clogged or, when you were almost finished, the dregs became so watery.

But then the Shamrock Shake came onto the scene. It was green and endorsed by leprechauns; I was repulsed yet so very intrigued. Friends who'd had one couldn't describe its flavor to me, but man, did they love it, and apparently they could have as many as they wanted.

Every Shamrock Shake season for a few years in a row, I begged my dad (never my mom) to let me try this thing. Clearly, the incessant radio and TV spots had done their jobs, and I had to have it. Just one shake, for life experience's sake, and I promised never to ask again.

Dad's answer was always no. He said I wouldn't like it. That he had no interest in having to finish it for me — or in throwing it away uneaten. And no way was McDonald's going to sucker him into paying extra for what amounted to a regular shake doctored with green dye offered for a limited time only.

Meanwhile, I was sure he was wrong, frustrated that I had no say, and unable to belieeeeeeve the unfairness of it all.

Well, sometime around year three of my campaign, the two of us were hitting up the drive-thru. We were having such a nice time that, as we slowly rolled ahead in line, I risked stating my case again, but without the begging. I said that it wasn't possible for him to judge whether I'd like it. For one thing, he'd never had one himself, so he technically had no valid opinion. For two things, neither of us even knew what flavor to expect. And what if it turned out to be my favorite treat ever?

He listened to me, shaking his head just a little. And when we stopped at the intercom, he ordered a chocolate cone for himself and then paused to shoot me a wink. To my surprise and with a smile in his voice, he requested the world-famous Shamrock Shake "for my daughter, who's worn me down — and it had better be good."

Sweet victory for me!

As we pulled away from the receiving window, I took two sips of that prized green liquid. One to learn that, whatever the flavor was, it tasted truly awful, and another to confirm that swallowing even a tiny bit more of the stuff made me want to vomit.

Dad noted my reaction, stopped the car, and tasted the shake. Blechh!! (Artificial and undrinkable!) He circled back to buy me a vanilla cone and stuffed the shake into a garbage can. (Wasteful! And previously unthinkable!)

Of course the two of us laughed and laughed. This experience would be our secret for at least the length of the car ride home.

I was just a youngster, but that day — within maybe a 30-minute span — I experienced a slew of very real emotions. Just think: I was indignant about my right to try the shake and find out what I thought, incredulous that Dad thought he knew best about this, and impressed that he'd accurately predicted the situation's outcome. I was also touched that he'd bought me a consolation treat and happy that it had turned into something so fun and funny.

A child character can feel all those things, too, with equal force and in the space of a short story, passage, or even scene. It's sometimes easy as adults who write for kids to get stuck thinking too hard about what young characters and young readers can, or mostly can't, handle. But when we take a moment to step back and consider the children we know and the children we were, we can let go of some of the fear of writing "too old" and get back to telling the story, revealing the character as the action happens. The main objective has to be creating a believable situation. And even though young people are still developing and will get wiser with age and experience, I like to remind myself that they absolutely feel and react to — often with stunning sophistication — real, deep, specific emotions.

For me, staying connected to strong memories from childhood, especially those bound to such distinct emotions, is a huge help when I'm trying to write authentic-sounding kid characters. I grab bits and pieces from the youth I remember every single time I write a new story. And I assume it's only a matter of time before I'll have reason call up those Shamrock Shake emotions to help me convey a character's feelings . . . or a personality trait . . . or one of her relationships. That one memorable incident could even inform the characteristics and actions of several characters in multiple stories.

After all, most of what we write comes from our lives and is rarely crafted out of whole cloth.

What about you — how do you sneak your life into your writing?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Blogging Workshop in Seattle THIS Saturday!

I'd like to extend a not-quite-but-almost-last-minute invitation for any Seattle-area folks to register for a blogging workshop I'm hosting for the Editorial Freelancers Association this Saturday, March 20.

Here's the description from EFA's Spring 2010 course catalog:

Blogging Basics

Saturday, March 20, from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave, Level 4 - PACCAR Room 6

Is your creative spark threatening to go out? Is your freelance business slow? A blog can help you revive them both. Blogging is a free, fun way to get your name out there to a potential audience of millions, and in this 4-hour class you’ll learn everything you need to know to start your own blog in 5 minutes or less. First we’ll look at the “big picture” of blogging, including how it fits into the context of other social networking media like Facebook and Twitter. Then we’ll proceed to the nuts and bolts of how to set one up, how to promote it, and yes — even how to make a little money from it. Laptops are welcome but not required.

Instructor Rebecca Agiewich is the author of BreakupBabe: A Novel (Ballantine Books, 2006), which sprang from her dating blog “Breakup Babe” and was a finalist for the 2007 Lulu Blooker prize — a literary prize for books based on blogs. She is also a writing coach, freelance editor, and journalist, whose travel writing can be found in places like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Alaska Airlines Magazine. You can find out more about Rebecca at

Advance registration is required. The fee for EFA members is $99, and it's $124 for nonmembers. Feel free to pass along this notice — and let me know if you have any questions.

Hope to see you there. I'll be the one with the cookies!