I want to tell you a true story.
At the P. O.
This morning, I stood in line for a long time in our neighborhood post office. As usual, there was only one person working–a woman who, in spite of the line, seemed determined to keep her wits about her by not hurrying. So I did some people-watching. That’s what writers do, right?
A young African American man wearing camouflage stood just in front of me. He was clearly a soldier—muscular build, clean-cut, his head shaved—and when he turned, I saw his clear, beautiful dark eyes. In front of him, a couple of suspicious looking white guys waited. One wore a baseball cap over his dirty hair (he was sending a money order, it turned out, for $57 and some cents); and the other, with his unkempt beard and beady eyes, looking like a character out of Deliverance, struggled with a box so big he had to rest it now and then on the Priority Boxes kiosk next to us.
The line grew behind me, too. I couldn’t help noticing a scruffy, bearded, older white guy when he came in. He wore a prosthetic leg and a sour expression. In pain? I wondered. Deliverance guy turned and stared pointedly at the prosthetic leg (the older man was wearing shorts).
Finally, the line moved, and the soldier in front of me was next. He had been working on a package at the kiosk, and apparently, he’d stuffed something too large into the envelope. It bulged and gapped open at the ends. The postal clerk told him he’d have to tape it up. “I don’t have any tape,” she said, nodding toward the tape for sale.
“What about that tape right over there?” the soldier asked. He was right; there was tape, in clear view on the counter.
“I can only let you have tape if you’re sending it Priority,” the clerk said. The soldier nodded, and she handed him the roll. He taped up his package, paid, and turned to go.
As he walked out, the scruffy older man behind me said, “Soldier!” His tone sharp, commanding. I turned. Oh Lord, I thought, not a confrontation.
The young soldier turned, too, and looked at the man.
“Vietnam vet,” the older guy said, as though that was all the explanation needed. “You been in it over there?”
“Yes sir,” the soldier answered, his tone like a salute. “Twice now.”
The Vietnam vet reached across the space between them and offered the younger soldier his hand. “I want to thank you for what you do for all of us,” the old vet said. They shook hands, black man and white, two soldiers standing on common ground in our little post office. The moment was entirely theirs. Choked up, I looked away.
The young soldier went on his way, and by that time, I was at the window, tending to my mundane errand but knowing I had just witnessed something remarkable.
Some Donald Maass Wisdom
Earlier this morning, I had read Donald Maass’s column, “Seasons of the Self,” at Writer Unboxed. First, Maass reflects on his personal past, his present, his future. Then he turns the reflection to the art of writing fictional characters. Every protagonist, he says, must possess personal awareness–a clear sense of where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. Here’s Maass:
How does your protagonist understand his or her own evolution? Powerful characters are real people. To become fully real we need to create their personal history.
He goes on to list ways to give protagonists the sense of self that renders them human. This is good stuff; I’d say go read it right now.
So what does the Maass article have to do with what I witnessed this morning? Just this: I was struck by the fact that each of the soldiers in the post office has his own story: a past self, a present, a future. Their stories crossed in that moment, unforgettable, I would think, for either of them, or for me. I just happened to be there; ten minutes earlier or later, a shorter wait, and I would have missed it. I could invent a story now about either of them, based on what I observed. I have all I need. Whether I will or not, I don’t know. For now, it’s enough to have been there.
A challenge for you!
First, read the Maass article. Then think about the protagonist in your current work-in-progress. How does his/her story interact with the stories of others? How does such a moment of encounter impact his/her self-knowledge? Write a “fresh” encounter your character has that reveals something about his or her sense of personal history.
Or, think about your personal story in this light: How has a moment of encounter changed you? Write about it!