Turning My Everyday Tragedies Into Engaging Stories

Ah, life.

Perhaps my continuous references to my clumsy lifestyle have turned to truth or maybe I was clumsy all along and am just now realizing the extent of that suffering. Nonetheless, the falls continue, the bruises remain, and the stories are aplenty. Luckily I have a forum to tell these stories and turn them into valuable lessons in writing to share with my students. Today’s post will start with one small moment that I told in order to help my students see how I could turn it into the story I WISHED would have happened so that I could use it as a basis for my realistic fiction writing. When I share the story with students, it’s shorter and far less literary, but I have a different audience and different purpose today (and really I just want to write!).

I’ve lived in Chicago long enough to know how to walk on ice. I’m no dummy. Walk slow, pay attention, take small steps. It’s simple.

I was walking the dog minutes before on the very sidewalk onto which I stepped now. I heard the crunch of crumbled ice and salt, felt the frigid aggressive wind on my face telling my eyes to water to protect themselves, and thought about how desperately I wanted to be in my car, on my way to work with the heater on, warming up and getting my brain ready for the day.

So, you see, I was overconfident. Too sure of myself. Cocky. It was my own fault.

I stepped into the street to cross to my car and noticed the headlights of a car headed my direction. In the same moment that I turned my back in the direction I was going, my right heel glanced off an ice patch and went flying into the air. It felt like there was not time between the slip and the impact as if my brain didn’t even register disaster until it had passed.

Pain radiated from the small of my back up to my tightly clenched neck and shoulders which had been braced for the fall. I sat up quickly - too quickly - and arthritically reached for my bags and my phone, which had slipped from my hand in an imitation of my glorious collapse. I grumbled and moaned as I lifted myself up from the street, carefully placing my feet down in safe spots to avoid a second disaster. I checked my throbbing hands to see a gravel encrusted strawberry mark. I slowly moved my legs and arms pitying myself at each touch of hurt. My bones felt creaky and old.

The car approached as I hobbled to the side of the road. The driver turned his head and looked in my forlorn, contorted face. How could he NOT wonder if I was OK? Surely he saw my fall - he had spotlighted me with his headlights. Is he really going to pass my by without saying a thing?

I unlocked the door and shook my head - ooooooo, my neck hurts and there’s a headache coming on. In between my thoughts of “ow! ow! ow!,” I seethed thinking about the thoughtless driver who didn’t even appreciate the show he just watched - and for FREE!

If I really turned this into the story I wished had happened, there would have been no fall, only a graceful leap over the offending ice and and quick pirouette to my car. But that’s not really much of a story. In my lesson I say that if I wrote this as a fiction, I would have had the driver stop and check on me. I do this to show that it’s something that would have made me feel better about my story but also to show that it’s a very simple change from something that really happened (and about which I have tons of details) and something that could have happened.

The next week when I did a full lesson, we made a T-chart and worked on a couple of ideas together. I showed them two things that I came up with (I DO!), but they ended up contributing a lot to these conversations, too. We worked together on one (WE DO!) and then I sent them to their desks to work on their own chart with at least one idea (YOU DO!).

They were totally willing and able to help with my sad stories, but when it came to coming up with their own ideas, they had some trouble and I think it was a matter of deciding to commit something to paper. They just don’t want to be “wrong.” I had a couple of conversations with students about what they do “all the time” with a reply of “I can write that?!” Yes! You can write about what you actually do! That’s the assignment!

We’re going to do this again next week to help cement the idea with a little different spin.

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