Emotional seeds for stories

James River WritersThis past Saturday while speaking on a panel at the James River Writers Conference, I choked up and found myself babbling an apology to the audience. The panel moderator, Meg Medina, had asked such a simple question: when you began writing your novel, what was your starting point? What was the emotional place—the germ—the seed—from which the story came (the story being the YA novel I recently sold to Viking—the story of a boy who struggles to protect a friend from the KKK in 1867—pure fiction, but with historical anchors).

In answer to Meg’s question, I began to speak about my Alabama-born father, and the words caught in my throat. I felt my father’s shame over the fact that our ancestors had owned slaves, his pain over present-day racial prejudices that continue to poison parts of the South. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, Daddy had ducked my questions about the South, avoiding the topic as best he could. But at some point, he gave in and told me in his soft, thoughtful Southern drawl that at a young age he had vowed never to raise his own children there. He’d gotten out as soon as he could (on the G.I. bill) and never returned. He taught me that “it’s fine to judge people in any number of ways—of course we make judgments all the time—but don’t ever judge a person by the color of his skin.” What I suspect he meant was never treat black people the way I saw them treated.

So there I was on a panel with Meg and the inimitable Kathi Appelt, and I choked up over the image of my daddy as a shy, gentle boy in the 1930’s. I imagined him suffocating beneath the weight of expectations that he become a man in the way manhood was defined by good Southern boys. What he witnessed, I’ll never know because he’ll never say…so while writing my novel, I imagined what it might have been. The novel isn’t about my father—it’s a story set sixty years before he was born. But the emotional seed came from my daddy’s yearning to get as far away from his roots as he could.

My editor and I are brainstorming titles, and I’ll post the release date when Viking decides… Meanwhile, tell me… what is the emotional seed of your story? What triggers unexpected tears?

9 thoughts on “Emotional seeds for stories”

  1. You were wonderful on the panel, Anne. To answer your question: I am always laid bare when I write about mothering my oldest daughter. For that reason I have not written a word on the subject yet. I’m inching my way there. Thanks for being a brave example.

  2. When I came back to poetry in my late thirties, I wanted to tell my kids about my family, particulaly the ones they’d never meet (dead or estranged). My early poems were raw, sometimes mean. I could never have read any of them outloud. As I worked at the craft of poetry I was able to overcome (myself) and “go public.”

    Once in awhile, I will find that familiar throat tightening coming, the sting of tears- but it’s okay now, I am grateful you told your story.

    check out http://www.melicreview.com/archive/iss21/spalmer.html

  3. Thanks for the support. Before I published this post, I read it to my parents over the phone, not so much asking for their approval, but giving them the courtesy of knowing ahead of time that I was posting it. That way, if some of our relatives were to see it and comment, my parents would know what the talk was about. They’re both in their 80’s now, far removed from decisions they made in their 20’s, and at first they had some questions about the post. I reminded them of an anecdote, and they agreed that it was the sort of thing best not repeated.

  4. Great post, Anne, and a great question. I guess I’m still looking for the seed of my current WIP, and when I find it, I’ll find the heart. Until then, I keep writing my characters, filling in the plot. Thanks for reminding me that the seed is important, I think that’s where the emotional energy will come from.

  5. My current WIP–my “squirrel” story–was sparked when I was free-writing, and a character morphed into a squirrel right there on the page. Ever since, I’ve been writing to figure out why. I suspect that I need to dig deeper to find the emotional seed there…

  6. Good post, Anne. Although it is far less emotional, the seed for my novel was wishful thinking. I was living on North Caicos and grumbling about how outside developers were trying to change the island without ever getting to know it, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to take those guys and kick them off the island, like in that reality show?” That began Fish-Eye Lens and its trio of women who love East Taino enough to save it.

  7. Wonderful post, Anne! Makes me doubly sad that I had to miss the conference this year. I look forward to buying and reading your book, and I wish you every success with it! The question of seeds is so powerful; I want to take some time and think back to the early days, back when I started writing seriously. Regardless of whether one is writing a novel, a poem, or a blog, each genre has a genesis—a set of unified chromosomes. Meg’s question has definitely got me thinking! And I congratulate you for your bravery in listening to those ancestral voices. As writers, we ignore them at our peril.

  8. Marci – Thanks for your comments. When I was working on my MFA at Vermont, faculty members talked about “mining” our personal experiences–digging deep into emotional places to find the moments that moved us, then writing those emotional places into our fiction..or poetry…or creative nonfiction… As Kathi Appelt said, “Where the heart cracks open is where our deepest longings lie, and that is what Story is all about.” That cracked-open place can be unsettling to touch, but it’s a place where we come face to face with universal truths. When I skim your blog, The Midlife Second Wife (I love that title–love to say it–love the cadence in it–the way it rolls off the tongue!), I see you touching on those universal truths, too. You strike many chords. And of course, on some level, that’s what good writing is all about…

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