“You sure have known some crazy people!”
That’s what one of my students said to me this past week as we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story, “The Trespasser.” I had divulged that a former relative of mine was arrested for operating a meth lab out of her house. The student in question piped up: “You sure have known some crazy people!”
I don’t usually think of the people I have known as crazy (not all of them, anyway), but I also know that “crazy” is a buzz-word with students, like “nice” or “weird.” Buzz words need meaning supplied for them.
In place of “crazy,” I chose intriguing. Worth remembering. Collectibles.
When the student said this to me, I told her exactly that: I collect characters in my life like little jewels that I pick up off the path I’m walking.
As a teacher, I like to tell stories. I find they help me illustrate concepts, from how to use a semicolon to how to spot symbolism in a story. My students see me as a teacher and not as a writer, and most days, I see myself that way too: teacher first, writer on the side.
But the writer part of me that I cannot squash is my inclination to tell stories. And as I tell my students, every story needs characters. And as my student pointed out, I have known some characters.
I told them about a manager I had when I was working at a Ruby Tuesday’s. We came to find out she was addicted to crack. She would come to work, her face and arms scabby from scratching and picking at herself. She wore silver lip gloss and silver nail polish to match, and she would make unusual requests.
One night, when I was working as a hostess, she asked me to come to the back office with her. The storage closet was housed with shelves that went ceiling-high, and she wanted me to climb the shelves (there was no ladder) to get down a box of menus that she knew was up there. So, good (young, impressionable) employee that I was, I climbed up the shelves while one of the waiters stood below to receive the box.
There were vases, dust bunnies, and rodent droppings, but no box of menus.
One night, as I sat in the office making the employee schedule, my manager gasped and told me hurry, quick, feel her neck.
I said no. I was not going to feel her neck.
“No,” she said, “you have to! A part of my skull just broke off and is floating around inside my neck.”
I calmly told her I didn’t think this was possible. She insisted. I felt her neck – smooth, clammy, no bumps, no pieces of skull floating under the skin.
My former relative and my crackhead manager make for interesting, if extreme, stories. My students find them funny or horrifying or a bit of both.
But what I really try to teach my students about characters is to notice the details. To see them as people. Because in all likelihood, that’s how they started out in an author’s head.
Not too long ago, I explained to my writing students how important characterizing details are when describing the people in their lives. I told them about my grandmother, who had a fabulous early adulthood, living in Brooklyn during World War II, meeting men, writing letters, getting married. Every time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I imagine my Grandma in the streets of Brooklyn. But one of the things I remember the best about my Grandma is her burping. She burped quite a bit for a classy old lady, and each time she did, she let out a surprised “Oh!,” as if her body had shocked her by burping, even though she did it frequently.
I could hear that sound now and know it was my Grandma. That’s a characterizing detail. It’s the small thing that belongs only to her, and it’s a way to describe her that likely differentiates her from other people’s grandmothers too.
When I told that story to my students, several of them looked at me like I grew a third eyeball. I heard them whisper to one another, things like, “So picky with the details,” and, “Nobody actually notices that kind of thing.”
I do. I think writers do. I think people who collect the characters in their lives do. We pick up crackheads and meth addicts and belching Grandmas, and we hold them to the light before stashing them in our pockets to keep forever. I pick up my aunt who used to be Minnie Mouse at Disney World, and my maniacal second grade teacher, and the preachers from my youth; I take with me the tea-length dresses my mother wore to work when I was little, the glasses my Granny served me orange juice in, the way it feels when my niece holds my hand as we walk through the mall.
Little jewels, every one. Worth noticing. Worth collecting. Worth taking with me.