Last week, I spent a morning in the Cardiac Procedures Unit at Kaiser Hospital with my 93-year-old father, who was getting his pacemaker replaced. He had used up the battery on the old one, installed in 2004. It was a relatively minor procedure. He was fine coming and going, well, fine for a half-deaf, half-crippled very old man. Usually a big talker, he was quiet and nervous and probably as sleepy as I was. They wanted us there at 7:30, but they didn’t call him in until around 9, and the procedure didn’t actually happen till about 10:15.
I had brought my laptop with visions of writing for several hours while I waited, but I was too sleepy and too distracted to concentrate. Instead, I took notes, and I think that was the appropriate response. After all, I was away from my desk, away from the loveseat where I write poetry with my dog in the same setting every ordinary day. Here I was in a different setting, surrounded by all kinds of interesting people and activities that piqued my interest. Nobody looked sick. I could only tell the patients by the white wristbands they wore as they sat in the waiting room while “Good Morning, America” played on a big-screen TV overhead. They came in pairs and groups, all having different stories.
Let’s let the imagination run wild and imagine what’s going on with . . .
* The Hispanic family that keeps adding more people. An older woman appears to be the patient, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. It’s like a party. A white-bearded man dominates the conversation. They all speak English until a younger woman with long dark hair enters. They switch to Spanish.
* Two young black women and a man who might be in his late 50s. The man is large and he has vitiligo, where the dark color is gone from big patches of his skin. He sits next to me and I see that the white portions are as white as my skin. The man plays a slot machine game on his phone.
* A smallish bald man in his 40s with a baseball cap and tee shirt tucked into his jeans. He’s the patient. His skinny wife sits like a puppet in hiking shoes, new jeans rolled up at the cuffs, and a face with long creases on each side of her mouth that make it look like she’s always smiling. She’s chewing gum and never stops touching her husband, giving him a full back and neck massage which he doesn’t seem to notice.
* A young crew-cutted man and a blonde woman right out of the 1960s with carefully applied makeup. Neither one is wearing wrist bands.
Can you make up a story out of any of these people? I know I could.
Let’s think nonfiction for a moment. I have so many questions that could be answered in an article or pondered in an essay or poem.
* How does the pacemaker work? How do they do angiograms and other heart procedures? Do people die in these procedures? What are the risks?
* Why do they play TV everywhere these days as if we’re all one common mind wanting to watching GMA or Kelly and Micahel or the View?
* There are hand sanitizers everywhere, but they keep handing these heart patients the same plastic-encased papers to read and then sign their names on a computerized signature box. Aren’t they covered with germs?
* How do people like my dad who can’t hear get along in these situations? The answer is not so well. What can be done to make their experience better? How can nurses and aides be trained to speak up or offer more visual cues?
* Are our possessions really safe while we’re unconscious?
* Are medical workers spending so much time looking at their computers that they don’t see the patients?
* Why do some people keep touching their partners?
* What happened to the rules against using cell phones in hospitals, all those warnings that they interfere with equipment? Everybody had a cell phone or tablet, including me, and nobody said a word against it.
* Who designed the endless lookalike hallways at this hospital?
* What is it like to work in a room with no windows doing the same task day after day?
* What happened to nurses dressed in white dresses and white caps?
* Would it hurt to offer coffee, tea and snacks in the waiting room when we’re stuck here all day?
* Would my father’s mother, who died in 1954 of heart disease at age 58, have lived much longer with the procedures they have now? Will I need a pacemaker someday?
* Pacemakers: models, how they work, dangers, advantages, possible malfunctions. The doctor indicated that if Dad’s pacemaker battery died, so would my father. How many people are walking around being kept alive by these mini-computers implanted in their chests?
Writers, you are welcome to use any of these characters and questions as prompts while I enjoy the last of my vacation.
The moral of this post is that sometimes you have to put down your electronics, look around, observe and let your mind wander. Then take some notes. Maybe you’ll use them later in a story, article, essay or poem. Maybe one day, you’ll need a piece of information and think, oh wait, that day I hung out at the hospital, I remember . . . The world is one big prompt.
Now let’s go write.
When life takes you away from your desk and your routine, look around. Raw material for your writing lurks everywhere.
I’m in San Francisco this week. My father had heart surgery here on Tuesday. I’m happy to report that he did spectacularly well and is recovering quickly. At 91, he’s the strongest man I know. So there’s a character for you: the nonagenarian widower determined to keep living on his own. Yes, we’ve all seen the clichéd movies of the week where a woman shows up and softens the heart of the grumpy old man, but don’t go there. Find the real human being and the real story behind him.
Here’s another character: the tall stylish black woman in the elevator shouting into her smart phone, “Don’t let them cut off her leg! It’s not like what happened to Joey.” She has a Bluetooth in her ear and holds her phone at waist level. When the other passengers get off at the second floor, she turns to me. “They want to cut my mama’s leg off. Nobody’s listening to me. I can’t let them do it.” She follows me off the elevator at the wrong floor, still talking, then pauses. “How the hell do I get out of this place? I hate this place.”
The curly-haired woman whose 56-year-old husband collapsed on Thanksgiving Day with an aortic aneurism the size of a grapefruit and underwent 10 hours of surgery while she waited, sure he was going to die. Today she follows him, smiling and brushing away tears as he takes his first steps around the intensive care unit, pushing an IV cart.
The woman from India whose husband also went to the hospital on Thanksgiving in need of a triple bypass. She waited all weekend for an opening in the surgery schedule. In the intensive care waiting room, she deals with phone calls from co-workers who can’t seem to do their jobs without her.
The young black woman at the security desk who has been working since 5 a.m. and is making her Christmas list between visitors.
The guy selling bread sculpted into the shape of flowers in the courtyard in front of the hospital.
The Italian-born surgeon hurrying into the cafeteria to buy sushi between heart surgeries. He wears green scrubs and stops to shake hands with three middle-aged people picking at salad-bar salads. Their father is next.
The man on the street digging cans and bottles out of a garbage can. Above his ragged tennis shoes, his bare ankles are grimed with dirt.
The tiny old man sitting on a plastic crate outside the Japanese cultural center.
The man in a suit waiting for the bus at Geary and Fillmore.
Every one of these people has a story, a real-life story we could tell if we interviewed them or a fictional one we can make up. There’s a poem to be written about each one, too. Use your imagination. Where are they going? Where do they live? What will they eat for dinner? Do they have spouses, children, lovers, cats? Do they have hundred dollar bills in their wallets or a few coins? When they woke up this morning, what was their first thought?
Wherever you are, look around and ask questions. You will never run out of stories, I promise.
Now go write.
Last night I attended a workshop by Eric Witchey, a prolific writer who has just sold his 70th short story. He says he has at least 50 out to market at all times. Impressive. How does he do it? He has a system of assigning himself prompts and craft techniques to work on every morning. After 15 minutes, if he can envision the end of the story, he keeps writing.
Our lesson was full of acronyms. You have the ABCs: Agenda, Back Story, Conflict and Setting. Then there’s ED ACE: emotion, decision, action, conflict, and emotion. You take these and go round and round until a story is formed. We started with a white board listing possible occupations for characters, then back stories, conflicts, and relationships that could develop from those occupations. This totally works. A story formed very quickly.
Witchey, who has won many prizes for his work, often writes for The Writer and Writer’s Digest, and has taught more classes than he can count, knows what he’s talking about. Visit his website for links to his articles and other information. He preaches that, after a while, these things become natural and you start to think in story structure. You write, a story develops, and then you can massage it to make sure all the elements of a good story are present. Maybe the conflict needs to be more intense. Perhaps we haven’t prepared the reader for the way the protagonist acts at the climax. Maybe the setting isn’t clear. But the basic story is there.
While Witchey uses his prompts and acronyms to get started, he doesn’t plot out the whole story before he writes. Some writers map it all out on a graph or cards in much the same way that people write plays. Here are the characters, here are the scenes, here are the major plot points. Then they fill in the blanks.
For me, if I know everything before I write, the story loses its energy, like a Coke that has lost its fizz. I just put down a sentence and follow it with another and see what happens. At some point, especially in a novel or a long story, I stop and take stock. What’s going on here? Where am I heading? What other scenes do I need to write to get there? Maybe, in a backwards, informal way, that process is my way of creating the structure and planning the story.
We have all heard of writers who do it all intuitively. They write as if they’re taking dictation. God or their characters tell them what to type. That doesn’t quite work for me. I can hear God saying, Think of something, and characters can’t talk to me if I haven’t created them. It’s like when I go on a road trip, I don’t like to plan my stops, but I do have to put gas in the car, pack a bag and bring my maps so I don’t get lost.
With fiction and poetry, I just start writing and see where it goes. With articles, I plan. I gather my materials, make sure I have the answers to all of my questions, jot down a loose outline, mark up my notes to match the outline, lay them out all around my desk, and start to write. After many years writing newspaper and magazine articles, the only difficult part is writing the lead, the first paragraph. After that, it flows naturally because my brain is programmed in article structure.
How about you? Are you an intuitive writer or a planner? What is your process when you are about to write something?