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.