When I teach characterization to aspiring writers, I often talk about the defining moment, that moment that changes a character and sets him on a new path. Just like characters we create and try to make come alive on the page, we too have defining moments in life.
Today, I'm pleased to welcome Liz Flaherty to SlingWords because she's going to talk about a defining moment. In this case, the defining moment was in her own life.
Liz hangs out at Facebook so drop by and say hello. The lovely cover to the left is her new book, One More Summer, from Carina Press.
Now, please welcome, Liz Flaherty.
by Liz Flaherty
Life is new and wonderful for me these days. I retired from the post office in 2011, promptly gained 15 pounds—overnight, I swear!—and promised my grandkids, The Magnificent Seven, that I would make each of them a bed-size quilt. I also planned to write all day, every day. What was I thinking?
I’ve learned to write when I feel like it, sew when I feel like it, and maybe even to eat a little less. I’ve gone back to school, where, yes, I am far and away the oldest kid in class. I’ve learned to share the house and sometimes even the kitchen with Duane, my husband of, oh, lots of years.
And I’m having a Very, Very Good Time.
My fifth book—I’m not an overnight success, but I never give up—One More Summer, is a new release by Carina Press. It's already out digitally and will be released in print May 1. I am thrilled to the point everyone I know rolls their eyes as soon as I open my mouth.
I’ve had several defining moments in my life, ones that changed me forever. I imagine you’ve had them, too, and I’d love to hear about them. This post is about the first one I remember. It’s also about being amazed, overwhelmed, and triumphant.
Fun With Dick and Jane
If you are of “a certain age,” you probably remember the Dick and Jane series of books from the first grade. The first word of the first book (I think it was the gray one) was “Look.” I don’t know if other children knew how to read before they started school, but I didn’t, so there began my amazement. Words on paper, starting with just that one, would open more windows to me in my life than any other one thing.
By the end of the first week of school, I had read the whole book. I sat on a spare stool in the barn and read to the cats while my mother and brothers did the milking. When I went to school and told the teacher what I’d accomplished, she said, no, I had not and that lying was a sin. She grabbed my arm and shook me.
Uh, Not So Much Fun
Just that quickly, I was overwhelmed. I was six years old—believe me when I say I wasn’t above lying—but not about this. Not about something as important as a book. As reading. (My older brothers, on the other hand, I would have thrown to the wolves in a heartbeat. I was such a little darling.)
Then she made me read the book aloud, standing beside her desk with the thin volume’s paper covers trembling in my hands while everyone else got to go to recess. I stumbled here and there, and I’m sure the tales of Dick, Jane, Sally, and their pets have never been narrated in a more pathetic, halting voice. But I read it. The whole damn book. And that’s when I learned about triumph.
After that, she let me read with the second grade sometimes and made sure I had all the books I wanted to read at my disposal. I don’t remember if she apologized or not, nor do I think she ever particularly liked me. I hadn’t even thought of Mrs. Sullivan for years until today, when I was thinking about reading and books and what they mean to me.
Fifty-five years after the first grade—yes, really!—I remain amazed by the joy of reading, of black marks on a white page being entire exciting worlds unto themselves. Although I still love holding a book in my hands, holding a Kindle is no less exciting. The more things change, intone people of my age and older, the more they stay the same. Uh-huh. That’s about right.
Some Things Don't Change
I’m also still overwhelmed. By emotional and mental cruelty, yes, but also by how much there is out there to read. To enjoy or not. To learn from or not. There are, as t-shirt wisdom tells us (these t-shirts are likely my age or older, too—I don’t know), there are “so many books, so little time.”
And triumph! From reading that first “Look,” to being able to read that book when the teacher thought I couldn’t, to writing and selling my own books, the feeling of success has never gone away. Never lessened.
Mrs. Sullivan may not have liked me much, and memory tells me I didn’t have warm fuzzies about her. I am nonetheless grateful to her.
Because she amazed me by giving me that first book on that first day and telling me the first word was “look.” I’ve been looking and reading ever since.
And because she overwhelmed me by introducing new feelings and making new demands on my six-year-old self.
I’ve been overwhelmed much of my life. By saying Yes too often. By burning too many candles at both ends of the day. By saying, "Of course it’s a book," when a manuscript seemed beyond redemption.
There are much worse things than being overwhelmed. Being bored for one. Playing it too safe for another. I like overwhelmed—it’s as good for my soul at 61 as it was at six.
And because she introduced me to triumph when I read that damn book for her. And gave me a taste for it.
What about you? When was your first defining moment?
Reflecting on those moments that made you the person you are helps you know yourself. Know yourself and what made you, and you'll know how to create a fictional character who seems real.