Sometimes I feel so small in revision.
If you think about it, all stories begin with relevant backstory. For just as real people deal with the present based on their past, so too must our characters deal with the story problems based on their relevant past experiences. The key word here is “relevant” past experiences. Jennie Nash and Lisa Cron in my Story Genius course asked:
What was the pivotal moment in your character’s past that changed her outlook on life? This will be the “origin scene” that sets the character up for interpreting the present story problems. Even in memoir.
In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, I felt highly inadequate for college—and amazingly so at the Ivy League level. Attending college is not something rational people do on the spur of the moment. Not even when the prospective college student is a mom challenged by an all-knowing educated person who determines that her child shouldn’t attend college because she’s not good enough.
In my mind, people who attend college spend years preparing for it. At the Ivy League level, students spend their entire lives in preparation for it. No, college isn’t something to take lightly. After all, I could fail out, proving that educated person and extended family members that I am, in fact, unable to succeed and therefore my child might be as well.
It all came back to me. The origin scene for my college memoir, that is.
It was early spring in 1973, and I was perusing the high school curriculum booklet given out by the counselors, dreaming of going away to college. At that time, I thought everyone who attended college went away to be able to concentrate solely on their college education. At least that’s what they did in movies and on television.
Boy was I naïve! We never heard of community college or college loans. My family had no money for college.
I sat at the kitchen table, selecting college prep courses from the curriculum booklet for high school. I was the second child of four in my blue-collar family, the first who wanted to attend college. Then my father, a machinist by trade, the realist in our family by necessity, took note of what I was doing.
“Vic,” he said. “What makes you so sure you can handle college?”
My hand went numb, the course selection form blurred on the kitchen table. Why couldn’t he forget about my earlier struggles in school? I tried to.
“Dad,” I choked out. “I’m on the honor roll now.”
“It takes more than that to succeed in college, Vic.”
The scene continues as my father hammers into my consciousness that our family goes to work after high school. As someone who struggled earlier in her education, I should accept that I wasn’t college material and move on in life.
Finally, Dad’s realism became my realism. I wasn’t cut out for college. I was inadequate to those attempting higher education. It ate away at my confidence to succeed in life. I needed to settle, not strive. This was my present, my future, my life.
This origin scene works in conjunction with a post on the ticking clock of a story.
It wasn’t until I was a mother of five with a special needs daughter that I finally realized if you don’t take any risks in life, you have already failed.
I think the choosing of my high school curriculum scene was the first “relevant” past experience, the origin scene, that formed my belief of not being good enough for college. I also feel it shows the effect a significant adult can have on a child. It forced me to be sure not to do the same to my children.
Please offer any comments or questions regarding this scene or your own college preparation, for they truly help me to define the moment and improve the writing. Thanks again for stopping by Adventures in Writing and leaving a note. It’s greatly appreciated.