I itched to turn on my heel and rejoin my family on the beach, but the thought of driving home in a hot car, squashed between my brothers, sticky with sweat and sea salt, the sand working its way into every orifice... I peered into the crowded cavernous room, searching for a free spot. Skinny women, large women, mothers with little girls, clusters of teenagers, and... there—a gap, a shower-head raining water on no one.
I darted through the chaos of the communal showers to claim my space.
Too self conscious to take off my swimsuit, I stood under the stream, wiggling around, sticking out my bum, picking out a major wedgie, bending forward as I pulled the stretchy fabric away from my flat chest, trying to wash as much sand out of my various crevices. Finally satisfied that I'd rinsed off sufficiently to make the car-ride home bearable, I raised my face and close my eyes, luxuriating in the lukewarm water coursing over my body.
Feeling relaxed ready to vacate my spot, I open my eyes to find myself at eye level with a very large protruding belly button, attached to a very large protruding stomach. A combination of fascination and horror froze me in place.
When the danger became imminent, her protrusion was a mere inch away from me, my body woke up. I scuttled backwards, bumped into a cluster of wet bodies, turned and ran, bursting out of the dark cavern into the sunlight.
As I write, I know that this anecdote is merely a part of a larger story. But what is the story about? Is it about being short for my age? Perhaps it is about traumatic events in the life of an eight year old testing the waters of independence.
Another anecdote comes to mind.
It was a summer's day, the air heavy with heat and humidity. The crowded bus was not air-conditioned. While still stopped, loading and unloading passengers, I made my way into the depths of the bus, squeezing between hot sweaty bodies. Large hairy men, tall willowy women, tired soldiers, all hanging onto the overhead straps.
I was searching for a pole I could hold onto. But little kids and giggly teeny boppers were wrapped around all the poles in sight. Giving up, I stretched my arm towards a dangling strap. But no, I was still too short. Perhaps if I stood on tip toe—
The bus lurched away from the curb, throwing me off my feet. Fortunately, the crush of bodies around me prevented a fall. I grabbed onto the nearest pole, which by some miracle had just been vacated. Regaining my balance, I straighten up and... found my face pressed into bushy armpit, the light brown kinky hair dewy with sweat.
I can still see that bush of hair in my mind's eye.
All my instincts are screaming that both anecdotes belong in a single story. But where is the story going? I had to figure out the relevant connection between the anecdotes.
Is the story about growing up in an earthy culture? If so, I should be able to dredge up more anecdotes that fit in with the other two. But I can't think of any that feel right. Perhaps it is an amusing piece about how we measure ourselves in relation to others. I could also direct my writing in the direction of the indignities suffered by little kids. But no. None of those story-lines sit well with me—they seem forced.
How can I send my brain in the right direction? Perhaps I can trick it by asking the opposite question. Perhaps I should fill in the blank: this story is not about ___.
This story is not about sensory perceptions or memories, nor is it about the long-term effects of childhood trauma. Does the essay have something to do with how we measure ourselves? No, that feels wrong.
I am stuck. I can't move on with the writing without knowing where I'm headed. I mull it over off and on over days, a week, two weeks, three.
On my way to attend a writing workshop, it suddenly hits me: could this essay be about writing? Could it be about the process of creating a story?
Between writing exercises during the five-day workshop, I continue to reflect on the problem. I can feel that I am close to a resolution.
I wasn't getting anywhere by confronting the issue head on. Nor was I making any progress by asking the opposite question. What other ways are there to figure out where to go with a story? Perhaps some of these new techniques I was learning will yield an answer.
What if I follow Holly Lisle's and Lisa Cron's suggestions? The character would be the traumatized little girl, who desires to... what? To be taller? To grow up? No, the story is definitely not going there.
Perhaps the main character is not the little girl. So who is the protagonist? As soon as I ask the question, I know the answer. I, the narrator, am the protagonist. But in what capacity? How do I fit into the story? If the narrator, the writer, is the protagonist, what is her desire? That's easy, she wants to write an essay. So what is the problem that drives the story? Obviously, it's her need to ferret out a story supported by the two anecdotes. So that would mean... that the piece is about writing, about the process of recovering from a case of writer's block.