Stories Cry Out for Capture (Milk Those Tears)

Over the weekend, I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter. It was a lovely setting, in a bower warmed by the early fall sun of Northern California. Prior to the ceremony, all was going satisfactorily, with sighing grandmothers, scanty-skirted wardrobe malfunctions and many tuxedo tuggings. The groom, a hearty, open-faced lug I’d never met, joined the assembled bridesmaids and groomsmen at the head of the crowd. All turned to watch the bride’s stately approach, and she joined the groom at the altar, presided over by the minister, a Jerry Garcia-lookalike who grinningly bid them to join hands.

That’s when I noticed that the groom was weeping. He had holding his beloved’s hands, and was gazing into her eyes, and the tears were streaming down. The minister voiced some of the standard wedding pleasantries, but all the while, our boy on center stage was crying, shaking a bit in the depth of his emotion. He had to pause many times in the recital of his vows, and had to mop his face with a handkerchief all the while.

I watched the bridesmaids, and as you might expect, a number of them were crying too, but I could see that a few of the groomsmen, hearty fellows all, were showing some reddened eyes as well. Even one of the commercial photographers, a woman, was crying. The display of the raw male emotion became even more interesting when I found out that the groom was a cop.

The Gift of the Odd Angle (Snatch Those Stories When They Surface)
The reason I’m making note of this is that as storytellers, life gives us gifts. All you have to do is open your eyes (if they’re not too full of tears) and note them. Here you have a situation where something plays against type. A cop, a tough guy, openly weeping at his wedding. It turned out that most of the groomsmen were cops too, and they weren’t hiding their own rising feeling. I’m sure you know that there’s a lot of machismo in the fraternity of the boys-in-blue—group cries are probably not the norm.

For a writer, it’s one of those moments that you store away (or if you’re someone who gets right on it, damn you, you use it right away). You make a cop character who chokes up when he arrests a criminal, but is otherwise mister macho. Or maybe your cop character organizes a secret group of emotional policeman, the Crying Cops, for encounter group support. Or maybe the cop is only emotional around beautiful blondes, like our bride. (There are worse problems, I suppose.)

What I’m getting at is that you should keep your notebook at the ready, and write down those moments—and your life is full of them, if you look—where something is a bit unconventional, or off-kilter, or puzzling. Even if those things only provide a secondary character or a sub-plot, they give texture to your stories, and provide sparks for ideas and angles.

And who knows? The next time you get pulled over, you might get a crying cop, and he won’t be able to write out the ticket because his pad is so damp from the tears…

How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes—All Three of Them

Photo by Peter Forster

Writers are made, not born. Writers are born, not made. Writers are born without maids. Whichever nature/nurture boxing glove you decide to swing in that battle, I hold that there are some distinct methods to cultivate a writer’s eye, and that those cultivations can result in sweet writerly fruits. (Please excuse that that last sentence mixed its metaphors with a waffle iron rather than a whisk.)

Our lovely kitty image above is figuratively indicative of my intent: as a writer, you must always look at situations with your writer’s eyes. But those eyes must have a different focus, while still giving you a clear picture. Before I get into the wherefores of bicameral write-sight, let’s underscore one fundamental: there are stories EVERYWHERE. No matter if you’re a poet, a journalist, a short-story scribe or a Tweetin’ fool, stories saturate your day—they are in your neighbor’s mail (don’t look without permission), your boss’s impatient gait, how your daughter wrapped your Mother’s Day present, why coins feel cold, a bat’s favorite breakfast, and how endless calls from AT&T about expanding your network offerings make you want to scream.

Stories Are Everywhere
Stories are not the province of the high and mighty movers and shakers; stories rest there too, but they are much the stuff of the commonplace, the cupboard, the errant gesture, the box left on the bus bench. You just need a writer’s eyes to see them.

So back to those bicameral distinctions: You need what I like to call a crazy eye and a calm eye. One eye is your open-to-all experiences self, your id eye, and the other is objective, your superego eye. A small example (and in a larger sense, how a stories lurk in everything): You see see a brightly-colored bird. Your crazy eye opens—is there a story there on how the male birds are most often the ones with the wild plumage? Maybe an article on who the Audubon of today might be, if such a specimen exists. Branch out: think about your first flight on an airplane. Could one of your characters have an overwhelming aversion to flying on airplanes, so that a scene on one in which he breaks down is pivotal to a story? What did Leonardo da Vinci have in mind when he designed that prototype flying machine?

Rely on Your Crazy Eye, Collect from Your Calm Eye
Let your crazy eye go crazy. Your crazy eye is a speculator, a dreamer, the one that swigs the moonshine even when the lip of the bottle is mossy. When your crazy eye whispers (which is quite a feat for an eye), listen.

But you also need your calm eye. That eye questions and discerns—where might there be a market for that story, what’s the natural lead for the story, do I really want to write that story, is there even a story there? Both eyes are your friend, and both are necessary for seeing that there’s a story in everything, but that that story shouldn’t necessarily be written by you. But you never know unless you open your eyes to it. (Personally, I like the crazy eye—it will sometimes make a crumpled bag in the street appear to be a body, before your wise eye tells you no.)

Your third eye, of course, is your calm Buddha nature, the eye on the face you had before you were born. That eye judges not. (Though it likes strong shots of whiskey—oh, wait, that’s somebody else.) Keep all your eyes open, and story ideas will flood your inner screening room. Some of those blended visions will find their merry way to the page.

Tribute to the Old Man
Finally, I must salute Mr. Bob (Sarge) Bentley, who turned 93 today. My dad, a good citizen, a good guy, who has made many people happy over many years. I love him, and I’m honored to be his son.