Story development

My fourth grade teacher wore at least one ring per finger, flowing silk garments, and she’d dyed her black hair so that it seemed tinged with purple. She essentially looked like a stereotypical fortune teller sans the head scarf, and I can only imagine what my parents thought when she called them in for a conference and announced that I, the doe-eyed, skinny little bookworm they thought they knew so well, was in fact a pathological liar. I think this was in part because  I was getting out of gym class by complaining about a knee injury and thus interrupting her free period. But also, probably, because I was creative and it was actually very hard for me to distinguish between what I’d imagined and what was true.

I’ve gotten better at that. Thank goodness. However.

This past weekend I was part of a storytelling festival, and I wanted to present a piece that I’d been knocking around in my head for months. But I only started actually writing it a couple of weeks before the event, and I was hellbound and determined to get at the truth of this experience, which was in a nutshell: being slo-mo robbed outside a public school in DC when I was just two months into my stint as a do-gooder AmeriCorps recruit. The robbery felt more like paying a toll. We were there, trying to jump-start a volunteer’s car, and we’d overstayed our welcome. So, no big deal, just give us all your money. The manner of the two guys who did the robbing was like that of airport security about to go on lunch.

But  somehow, over the course of writing it, and re-writing this story, the essential truth about my dose of the messy real world was lost. This robbery sounds boring! I quickened the pace. We need some relationships in here. I invented some flirting between me and a composite co-worker. By the time I was done, I’d changed everyone’s names, eliminated two people, created  dialogue, and gave the whole thing an urgent tenor when the real fear was actually embedded in a simple paradigm shift, like finding out your gentle goldfish was a baby pirhana. In reality, I had to question the role of an outside nonprofit in helping a community with varied and serious problems. It wasn’t just a lack of books that stood as an obstacle. I had to question why I was in a long-distance relationship with someone (who graciously called a tow truck from hundreds of miles away, the magic of cell phones) but who could not relate to my day-to-day. I had to admit that I was a skinny/white girl who could be easily targeted for ineptitude, and maybe I should be on my toes, mmkay? There are other meanings I can’t guess at now, or that are so obvious I can’t see them, or maybe for all the drama there was no bigger message, and big-ticket meaning happens while you’re, I don’t know, scraping butter into toast.

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