Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mining the Shamrock Shake Memory for Emotionally Authentic Gold

Now that I know I'm Irish (or partly so), I feel obligated to observe the Saint Patrick's Day holiday in some small way. So before I shut down my computer for the night, I thought I'd record a St. Paddy's–themed memory that I expect to someday mine, somehow, to help me with characterization. (I don't expect to write a story about this; I just mean that I'll use the memory as fodder for crafting some unknown future character's attitude or behavior or something.)

This scenario played out when I was 8 or 9:

Eating at McDonald's was a big deal, of course. We'd go there (rarely!) either for a quick lunch or a quick treat. For lunch, I'd order a hamburger with everything but onion, small fries (or regular, whatever the "small" was called in the mid 1970s), and a small drink. I never had a shake with my meal. For a treat, I'd score an ice-cream cone or a cherry pie.

Now for a couple years' running during Shamrock Shake season, I begged my dad to let me try the yummy-seeming green-seeming thing. The frequent TV commercials and radio spots had done their jobs. I had to have it. Just one shake, for life experience's sake, and I promised never to ask again! But he always said no. He said I wouldn't like it, and because he had no interest in finishing it for me — or worse, in throwing it away uneaten — I was not allowed to have one. He was adamant. I was simultaneously sure he was wrong, frustrated that I had no say, and unable to belieeeeeeve the unfairness of it all.

Well, finally, I caught my father in a weak moment when just the two of us were hitting up the drive-thru. I'd stated my case, saying that it wasn't fair for him to judge whether I'd like it. For one thing, he'd never even had one himself. For two things, neither of us knew what flavor to expect (though mint was the mutual guess). And for the third thing, it might be my favorite treat ever.

So he ordered the world-famous Shamrock Shake for ME, and off we drove. Victory!

I think I took two sips. One to learn that it tasted awful and another to confirm that swallowing even a little bit of it made me want to vomit.

Dad tried it, too, and blechh!! He circled back to get me a cone, stuffed the shake into a garbage can (embarrassing! previously unthinkable!), and the two of us laughed all the way home.

I was just a youngster, but that day — within maybe a 30-minute span — I experienced a variety of very real emotions. Just think: I was indignant about my right to try the shake, incredulous that Dad thought he knew best on this, and then truly impressed that anyone actually could predict my palate's preferences and/or how the situation might unfold.

A child character can feel all those things too, with equal force and in the space of a short story, passage, or even scene. I think it's 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 that fear of writing "too old" and get back to telling the story, revealing the character. 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 live with and react to — often with stunning sophistication — real, deep, specific emotions.

For me staying connected to some of my strong memories from childhood, especially those bound to such distinct emotions existing within an easily recalled sequence of events, is a huge help when I'm trying to write authentic-sounding kid characters. As I said earlier, I won't write an actual Shamrock Shake story. But I know at some point I'll call up those Shamrock Shake emotions to help me convey a character's feelings . . . or situation . . . or personality . . . or relationship.

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!