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How to use misfortune to make your writing stronger

“A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art….Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so. If a blind man thinks this way, he is saved. Blindness is a gift.” –Jorge Luis Borges

I don’t have many “off” days. What I mean is, I’m pretty good at handling life’s little surprises. I wasn’t always so cool and collected. I used to obsess and worry and play the repetitive mind-game as well as the next person. But over the years, I worked hard at letting all that go. I was motivated to change.

I knew I was making progress the year my son turned 13. It was the morning after Halloween. I opened the front door to pick up the newspaper, when I saw it—somebody, in the middle of the night, had thrown a gigantic pumpkin at my brand new car. The car’s rear end was demolished, the trunk caved in, and my deductible was $1,000 (which I didn’t have at the time because I’d just purchased the new car). I was stunned. I felt as if somebody had sucked up all the air in the world.

I remember thinking, “Well, I could get really upset about this and start screaming and freaking out—which will not change the fact of my ruined car—or I could take a deep breath and go on with my day.” I balanced on the teeter totter of hysteria for a few moments before I took that breath, filed a police report, and followed through with getting my car fixed when I had the money to do so.

Eleven years later, I vividly remember the moment when I made that decision because it marked a turning point in my life—I was becoming the creator of my life, not just the reactor. 

Since that day, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to test my mettle. In fact, just last week, I had one of those days.

It started because I’m a procrastinator. I had a doctor’s appointment at ten o’clock but was working on a writing project and waiting till the last minute to shower and get dressed.  I waited too long. As I rushed upstairs to the shower, somehow I tripped and stubbed my toe on the top step, which just happened to be marble. Pain shot up my leg. I hopped around, yelled, cried, invented some new swear words—and thought for sure that I’d broken my foot. Good thing I was going to the doctor’s office.

After my shower, I went to put a bit of Moroccan oil on my hair, which I use only occasionally, when it’s extra tangled. Of course, I didn’t have my glasses on yet. And the bottle of arnica oil that I use more often for my bum ankle just happens to be the same size and shape as the bottle of hair oil.  Yep, you guessed it. I put arnica oil on my hair. Because I’d procrastinated, there was no time to re-shower. So off to the doctor’s office I go with pain-free hair.

During my checkup, and after my doctor checks my foot to make sure I haven’t actually broken it, she sees a tiny mole that she wants to take out and examine. She points it out to me and says it’ll just be a little piece. I probably won’t even need a band-aid. (If you get squeamish about blood, you may want to stop here). I notice the mole is next to a few tiny spider veins and say, “Those veins won’t be a problem will they?” My doctor assures me they’re no problem. So she does her thing, slaps a Hello Kitty band-aid on me after all, and sends me off to the lab for my quarterly thyroid blood test. (The mole came back totally normal, by the way, so no worries).

After my routine blood draw, I’m standing at the front desk paying my bill, when I suddenly think to myself, “Why is my right leg so cold?” I reach down with my hand to touch my thigh and discover that my jeans are soaking wet. My hand comes back red. Uh oh. To the receptionist, I say, “Um, I’ll be right back.”

I hobble back to my doctor’s office and show the the assistant my wet jeans. She hussles me into a room and has me remove them. When I look down, blood is pouring down my leg in little rivulets. At this point, I think I’m in mild shock because I remember thinking how amazing it looked. It didn’t even feel as if it was my own blood. Before I can get up on the table, I’ve done the unthinkable and dripped blood on their indoor/outdoor carpeting. The poor assistant is beside herself trying to staunch the flow of blood, clean off my leg, call for the doctor, and clean my blood from the carpet. She quite literally doesn’t know which one to do first. She stuffs a handful of white gauze in my hand and pushes it against my wound, telling me to hold it there. And I do.

By this time, I’m pretty well tripping out on how beautiful my leg is. It looks like an artist’s canvas except instead of white, it’s red. I never realized blood could be so pretty. Yeah, I was wonked. For the next 40 minutes, I lay on the table, holding a wad of gauze to my leg (which has to be changed several times).

I listen to the assistant mumble to herself the entire time as she tries to get the blood out of the carpet, borrows the cauterizing equipment from another doctor, and cleans up my leg. Her running commentary goes something like this with numerous repeats: “Normally, I like blood, you know. Patients bring me their blood in little vials and I’m like, ‘cool, blood.’ But you really surprised me. I just wasn’t prepared to see this much blood. OMG, it won’t come out of the rug. This powder is supposed to take it right up, but it’s not doing anything. I’ll just have to call in the cleaning crew. You really shouldn’t be over here. You should be in Urgent Care….”

Finally, the doctor arrives, fixes my leg, staunches the flow of blood and mumbling, and I go back to paying my bill. (Maybe this is where I should have asked for a discount?)

Since I’m now two hours behind schedule and have to get a package ready for Fed Ex, I rush through the house and slip on a rug that has lost it’s rubber backing sometime last year (said rug now being in the trashcan). Fortunately, I don’t break anything and the burnt-flesh-cauterizing-technique seems to be holding. I pack up the box, which is heavy and awkward, and carry it to the front door for Fed Ex. Somehow, I manage to set the box down on the foot that I’d nearly broken earlier that morning.

I finish my day with two clients and inform my husband that he is getting take-out for dinner. The whole day seems surreal and like some incredible comedy. And, being a storyteller, I realize it’s a great story.

So when my husband (who faints at the sight of blood) arrives home with dinner, I practice on him. I use vivid detail with all the senses—especially the burned iron smell when the doctor cauterized my vein—I use pacing and suspense and build up to the blood part, going into great detail about how beautiful it was, until he squeals, “Stop! Don’t tell me anymore!” and I know I’ve done it.  I’ve told a good story!  I’ve turned my tragedy into comedy. I’m laughing, maybe a little too hysterically.

So, why am I telling you about my misfortunate day? Because it’s not about me. It’s about storytelling. When life happens, as it inevitably does, use the juice for your writing. Will I ever use the above scene in a book? Probably not. But I’ll always remember it. I’ll always remember the way the doctor’s assistant kept up her running monologue. I’ll always remember how incredibly RED my leg looked. A few of these tidbits may end up somewhere in a future story.

Another way to use the stuff that happens to us is to think about how our characters would act in the same situation. Would my character, Caitlin, be able to see what happened to me as comedy? Or would she see it as drama and tragedy? How does she see the world? Why does she see the world that way?

I could have easily gotten into the drama of the day. Instead, I chose to see it as a comedy playing out on a stage in front of me. Like a wonderfully, warped Albert Brooks’ movie. If I were a character in a book, what would that say about me?

So, when “life happens” remember that we can use our troubles and misfortunes to dig deeper into our characters and stories as well as ourselves.

Exercise: Think of a misfortunate event in your own life. How could you use that in a scene or to give emotional depth to a character?

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