It’s oft been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But, what if it does kill you? You’ve learned nothing and you’re just…dead. I have to think that while you’re in the process of dying, you’re not taking notes on what could be gleaned from the situation. “Wow, this would make an awesome story…” Lights out. More to the point, writers can use what didn’t kill them to craft good stories.
Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days . This quote is often used by writing teachers as a way to ignite a spark in students. Look back, open the dusty trunks of childhood for your story material. Chances are, there’s more there than you think. Dive in, get dirty. You can always take a shower after…
Sick with a nasty cold, I’m laying about reminiscing about childhood. There were a few dodgy situations.
- Traveling anywhere by car. There was no 55 mph speed limit then and no seat belts. I roamed the car freely as a child, like a small dog.
- Owning large hoofed animals. When I was very small, my father used to throw me on the back of Shannon, a horse who stood about six storeys tall. He’d slap her on the ass and use a stopwatch to time how long I stayed on. Good times.
- Owning more than 15 cats. One of the first photos taken of me shows me in a playpen buried under a pile of cats. They were clearly trying to smother me; my mother was clearly letting them.
- Flying with my father. Bless him, his favourite time to go up in his little Cessna was after happy hour. With me.
- School. I was very, very small and let’s just say I had a long awkward phase (I only grew out of it about a year ago). If I’d been born into a litter, I would have been the runt. I was bullied from kindergarten until about Grade 11. In Grade 11, I got a car and discovered bullies don’t like to be chased around school parking lots by a crazy girl behind the wheel. They respected my driving skills after that and left me alone.
- Swimming in the ocean. No one mentioned rip tides and the fact that sharks liked to hang out around sand bars. One day, I got pulled out and drifted over a mile away from our cottage (by a rip tide, not a shark). My mother dozed on the sand, unaware and my sister was doing her utmost to seduce the lifeguard and having some success as he didn’t hear my plaintive cries for help.
- Saint Bernard dogs. There were three who tried to eat me on a daily basis. It’s true that dogs can smell fear.
- My mother’s habit of falling asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. ‘Nuff said.
All of these incidents are true and there are more. Back in the Sixties, parents didn’t hover. Children roamed the neighbourhoods like packs of wild dogs – unsupervised. We also roamed the halls of our own houses, rummaged through drawers, ate baby aspirin like it was candy…There were no “helicopter” mothers back then. My mother adhered to a strict regimen of Valium and martinis.
We were sent off to school and I think most of us came home. In summer, we were kicked out the door after breakfast and we wandered home in time for afternoon snack. I wonder why no one died. I wonder why no one got crippled from diving into a shallow swimming hole in the Potomac above Great Falls. No one I knew disappeared. Was I just lucky or have things really changed that much in this world?
I send my kids off to school every morning with my heart in my mouth. So far, I’ve avoided the regimen of Valium and martinis mostly because my doctor refuses to prescribe me the Valium and martinis aren’t my fave. Some days I eye the wine bottle…don’t we all?
I’ve bought a fresh notebook and it will be devoted solely to “Notes on Childhood.” There’s a lot of material there, to be sure. Thanks, Miss O’Connor. You were right.