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What Crying Has to Do With Writing Well

My husband and I dropped our youngest daughter off for college this week – and in our family, going to college seems to mean going at least 3,000 miles away to a totally different climate and culture, so it’s an epic undertaking filled with lots of checked suitcases and many questions about foreign matters such as lightning, mosquitoes and rain.

Since I’m the veteran of one other college kid drop-off, I thought I knew what to expect from the deeply emotional day. I was ready for all the big, obvious moments – walking away from the dorm, driving away from the campus. What I wasn’t ready for was the unexpectedly intense small moment that attacked like a stealth bomber.

In my case, it came in a diner. We were having breakfast. My daughter ordered blueberry pancakes and bacon.  The waitress – a kind woman who looked like she could soothe all the world’s problems with another cup of coffee – asked my daughter if she would like real maple syrup ($2.00 extra) or fake maple syrup (free.) My daughter paused, a bit perplexed by the question. At her favorite pancake place in LA, there was no such thing as a real maple syrup option. It was Aunt Jemima or nothing.

The waitress, sensing her distress, jumped into the silence. “You want real,” she said, scribbling on her order pad, “Because your parents are paying. For the next four years, you’ll be paying and you won’t be able to afford it.”

I burst into tears. My sweet child would be alone! In the North Woods! For years! Making her own way! Asking for fake maple syrup because it would be all she can afford! And – this is what really killed me – random strangers like the nice waitress would be looking out for her. People I didn’t even know would be looking out for her.

If I were writing the going-away-to-college scene in a memoir, or if I were developing a character in a novel who had to leave her child at college on the other side of the country, this is the kind of moment I would be on the lookout for. It’s the sliver of light under the door, the crack in the wall, the chink in the armor. It’s not the big gesture, the obvious moment that would make anyone cry. It’s the tiny unexpected moment that makes a story specific, personal and poignant.

Some other person with some other set of concerns and some other reality would cry at some other time  -- or they would not cry but they would leave a giant tip for that lovely waitress; or they would start to cry and then get up and go to the bathroom so no one would see them cry; or they would put the waitress at the center of the scene and skew it in a totally different way.

The point is that where and when and why we cry – or laugh or crumble or blush or feel fury and rage and disappointment– is unique and distinct and telling for each one of us. Knowing those moments, and working to capture them, is what good storytelling is all about.

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