The holidays are here and daily routines are affected. Cooler weather has prompted sweaters and boots. Lights and decorations pop up everywhere, and lines are longer. Whether you rejoice or not, you can’t help but feel that the air is different this time of year. What does this mean for writers? Any time we are diverted from our regular routines, we’re experiencing something new: a moment.
Moments occur all around us, whether we are directly involved, or simply observing others.
You pay for your coffee at a coffee shop, something people do all the time and don’t think twice. The barista sets your cup on the counter, smiles, and says thank you. You say thank you back, which is his queue to turn immediately to the next customer in line. The exchange is over and he’s done with you, just like that. It’s not rude. It’s routine. Baristas hear thank you and you’re welcome all day long. For them to move on to the next order is merely habit and no one questions it. We all want our coffee right? But, what happens when that routine is broken?
Personal essays can be shaped around a moment.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, a memoir, writes about a drunken event he calls, “the lowest moment of my life” in his humorous personal essay, “From the Diaries of Pussy-Cake (The night it all went wrong)” (The New Yorker, June 10, 2013). In this scene, he shows up at his non-girlfriend’s house when he knows her not-yet-ex-boyfriend is there, and pounds on the door. He’s let in and screaming ensues, but not in the way you’d imagine. One would expect the girl to scream at Gary, angry at him for intruding on her Kevin-weekend. Or maybe Gary would throw punches at Kevin out of jealousy, fighting for his girl. Except that would be a moment that we’re familiar with. That scenario has been written hundreds of times already. Shteyngart doesn’t get published in The New Yorker for writing about typical moments. “But what’s truly amazing about this scene,” the author writes, “is that Pamela and I are essentially putting on a performance for Kevin. The two outsiders, one drunk out of his mind, the other depressed and eternally abandoned, are dancing and singing and weeping for Kevin, our God.” This moment, the lowest in his life, is portrayed best by writing it as the climax of the essay. And as if he’s writing backwards, everything else—his relationship with Pamela, where he lived, the job he worked, the impact she had on his friendships—all lead to this one scene.
Moments can be bigger than the characters in them.
The first line in Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half a Life, is this: Half my life ago, I killed a girl. One moment he’s a high school senior on his way to play miniature golf. The next, he’s a killer. His entire book, including the impacts that this accident had on his life, those of the families involved, and his classmates, refers back to this single, life-changing moment. Darin’s moment is huge, and it drives the entire book.
A moment from the past can be portrayed in multiple ways.
In The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, James McBride recollects a moment when he was a child. After his white Jewish mother found out the milk he’d purchased was sour, she tries to return it to the store.
After a while, it was clear the man was not going to return her money, so she grabbed my hand and was heading toward the door, when he made another remark, something that I missed, something he murmured beneath his breath so softly that I couldn’t hear, but it made the crowd murmur “Oooohhhh.” Ma stiffened. Still holding the milk in her right hand, she turned around and flung it at him like a football. He ducked and the milk missed him, smashing into the cigarette cabinet behind him and sending milk and cigarettes splattering everywhere.
McBride follows this moment with his childlike interpretation of what happened. “I could not understand such anger,” he says. He goes on to mention that he used to wish his mother were black. Then he switches to his adult point of view: “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.” The narrator’s interpretations of the moment mean everything in writing nonfiction. After McBride portrays both of his views separately, he then pulls them together with this little tidbit: “My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul.”
One moment can change the way we look at life.
When the movie Parenthood came out in 1989, I had only been married a year and didn’t yet have any children. It was the cast that pulled me in: Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Rick Moranis, Jason Robards, Martha Plimpton, and Keanu Reeves. I watched it when it aired later on HBO. I noticed how this movie represented several stages of parenthood, from pregnancy to adulthood. Equally represented are the situations: a single mom and her kids dealing with an absent father, a child behaving outside the norm, disagreements in parenting styles.
This might be a guide for me, I thought, so I recorded the next showing, labeled my VHS tape Parenthood, slid it into the VHS tape sleeve, and placed it on the shelf under the TV. I watched it when my son was born; four years later when my daughter was born; when he entered Kindergarten; and when she started riding her bicycle to school by herself. Each time, as my kids hit different stages in their lives, I was able to relate to something new in that same old movie.
Brilliant is the scene when Gil Buckman, played by Steve Martin, attends his daughter’s play. He’d just been told before leaving the house that his wife, Karen, played by Mary Steenburgen, is pregnant with child number four, and he didn’t take it very well. They argued and Grandma told him that life is a roller coaster. Now he sits in the school auditorium, watching his daughter’s play, when his toddler son runs onto the stage and starts beating on another kid to protect his sister. The play is disrupted and the boy won’t listen. You can see the anger in Gil’s face and you hear the sound of a roller coaster slowly climbing the rail. He looks around the audience and parents are laughing. On stage, the kids and props and setting have turned to chaos. Then the roller coaster goes over the first hill and descends into its twists and jerks at full speed. Gil looks like he’s about to explode and I find that I’m holding my breath. Finally, he looks over at his wife and she’s laughing. She’s living, not for order, but for the chaos that parenthood brings. I see the way he looks at her, and I feel that he’s seeing her as more beautiful than ever. He smiles at her, and then he laughs, and then he rides. The scene has several moments—one loaded with tension, and another when Gil joins his wife in laughing. Moments of acceptance are powerful.
So as you breeze through these holidays, make sure to take your own moments to relax. Listen and observe the interactions of the people around you. Strangers, friends, family. Nod to those moments that are routine, and recognize those that aren’t. What makes them different? Two kids straggling behind their mom fighting while walking through the mall is routine. Mom yelling for them to stop is routine. But if little Mary drops her coat on the floor and little Joey picks it up and tenderly drapes it back over his sister’s shoulders—that is not routine. Did you smile? Did you elbow your friend to look and share in the moment? It is these peculiar exchanges between humans that make you think, or smile, or better yet, make you hold your breath. These are the moments that your writing deserves.