Recently, I was struggling to distinguish the characters in one of my first-person novels. Every character in the story had their own personality, which I had clearly planned and defined, but I was starting to see that they all behaved too much like the narrator. As an exercise, I recalled an incident that happened to me as a very young boy, then forced myself to rewrite it as it might have happened from the perspective of a teenager—who, at the time, seemed to me like a man—I had encountered.
This is the result. Time will tell if it helps with my novel, but sourcing and rewriting an event from a writer’s own experience can be a valuable strategy. It might even be the best definition of the irritating old adage, “Write What You Know.”
By K. Alan
In summertime, songs would reach Stanley through the fruit vines as he fought to remove an old tree. Every morning, he would arrive to Mr. Greenberger’s ranch-house, wanting to wrangle. He wanted his calluses to come from reins and saddles, not from a shovel. He wanted to be a man for just a few minutes.
Instead, Greenberger would send him in the rusted VW to hack at this stump as its roots clawed the soil. The old oak would have blocked some proposed grapevines; it had to go. Stanley put a sleeve to his brow, and stared along the imaginary line of vines up the hill.
There, at the top, stood a boy. Not a boy like Stanley was—not craving passage into the dangers of manhood—but a young boy, as round and startled as young boys can be. He was framed by the golden sunshine that Okanagan summers inspired, and songs from his music camp seemed to accompany him from behind.
Stanley lifted a hand, and the boy bolted, like a filly, over the crest of the hill.
He might have felt frustrated, but Stanley had no frustration to spare. He was saving it all to power the blows against this much more frustrating tree.
Every day the boy would emerge from the music to visit, then run as soon as Stanley acknowledged him. Once, Stanley tried to ask, “What’s your name?” but this terrified his visitor into falling backward in escape. Callusing his hands on roots the size of his bicep, Stanley grunted and set his face into a grimace. Accustomed to his own childhood, he could not see himself through the boy’s eyes. Stanley did not feel like a stranger to anyone.
So, he began ignoring the boy, arriving each day in the old Beetle and focusing solely on raking fresh branches away from the tree. “Stupid kid,” he would mutter…then, more honestly: “Stupid Greenberger.” If his boss could not see Stanley as a man, then Stanley would quit. Yes, tomorrow: it was time leave this job. Hypnotizing him, the singing crested the hill to celebrate his decision.
Then, a familiar ratcheting drowned it out. Somebody had forced the Beetle into gear.
Looking up along the unborn grapevines, Stanley dropped his shovel. The boy was in the car, and the car was rolling toward the oak. “Brake!” Stanley was shouting, as much as his breath would allow while he ran. “Use the brake!” He kept shouting even after the bumper struck his tree.
Arriving, Stanley asked, “Why’d you do that?” but he was already distracted. He barely heard the boy tell him that the car looked like a toy, but the tree made it look otherwise. Like no callused hand ever could, the impact had loosened three roots.
The tree was toppling.
Stanley looked at the boy, and remembered; he remembered curiosity, fear of men, and his own boyhood love of the old cars on blocks, in a playground just over the hill. He tallied those memories against this new one, today, and made the boy a promise.
“Just go. I’ll tell him I did it.”
So he did tell Greenberger, and Greenberger fired Stanley, but it was OK. The job was finished, and he had protected a musical child. He had even wrangled something more stubborn than cattle.
For just a few minutes, Stanley had been a man.