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Secrets, Paranoia and Babysitting

In my post, “I Could Write a Great Novel If Only I Had a Story to Tell,” I neglected my own favorite kind of plot trigger: secrets. It’s funny, but writers do seem to revisit a certain theme. Michelle Richmond (at least in her last two gripping books) seems to write about the consequences of losing people for the people who feel responsible for their loss. In The Year of Fog, the young step-daughter-to-be is lost by the fiancée when she disappears from Ocean Beach while they are together. In No One You Know, the sister of a young woman who was murdered years before searches for answers about what happened that night, spurred on by a meeting with the man who was the sister’s lover, another character caught in the ramifications of loss.

My own work tends to gravitate toward secrets–what we don’t know that we don’t know. I am gripped by the idea that something there, but hidden, unknown, has a strong impact–even on the ignorant participants in the situation. In Shy Girl, Shy Mallon’s mother has hidden her identity as a Jew and her past as a holocaust survivor. Lots of people doubted the veracity of this story when I began to write it, because of course we hear from the people who are not hiding, those who believe that remembering is our only hope, our strongest activism. But in fact, there are many secret histories like Mrs. Mallon’s. Survivors who learned a different lesson: that safety lies in remaining below the radar, out of view.

My own father told me about coming to Berkeley (U.C.) at the behest of a friend and colleague. Ten years later, they each “confessed” to each other that they were Jewish. Each of my father’s first two wives (neither is my mother) claimed that my father didn’t tell them he was Jewish before they were married. This meant that he did not bring them to meet his parents. I asked him about this once and he said, “I didn’t want to give my father a heart attack.” When I was officially converted to Judaism, the Rabbi took my parents and my father’s Jewish fiancée (whom he never did marry) and me into a little office before the Mikvah and said, “Your mother is not Jewish. Today we are going to remedy that mistake.” I only nodded, but I knew it was no mistake.

Years later, when I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, I finally understood my father in a new way. I wrote a piece called Portnoy’s Daughters, about my sisters and me. The point is, something that is hidden has an impact even if the situation looks the same as one in which that something isn’t there at all.

In any case, secrets are a good spur toward plot. What are the open secrets in your family? What about the ones you wonder about but for which you have no answers? What secrets have you been told or stumbled upon by accident? What secrets do you hold that no one else knows but you?

This week, we had a trial run with a babysitter for our boys. You see, other grandparents, a very busy but loving aunt and uncle, and a cousin who’s left the state for college, we have not really left the boys with anybody. For seventeen months. Now that Angie is my technical person and business advisor as well as my co-parent, it’s gotten completely crazy around here. So we are checking out having the boys go play, for three mornings a week, with a woman in the neighborhood and her eighteen-month-old little girl.

The woman is very nice and calm, an obviously loving mother. We visited with her in her house for a couple hours, met her husband, talked to a friend and neighbor of hers. All that. She’s in graduate school getting her doctoral degree in Psychology.

So then we made a plan to meet at a little Tot Lot near the Albany YMCA, and we all hung out for a while there before she took our boys and her daughter off to baby gym at the Y. As we stood watching her walk away, pushing the boys in their double stroller, her daughter strapped to her back, I thought . . .

What if the whole thing was a set-up? What if the friend she called and the man claiming to be her husband (who was obviously the father of her baby, but I didn’t think like that in this moment) and this nice-seeming woman were all part of some baby-trafficking ring, and the whole rigmarole was an elaborate set-up?

At the end of the morning, we met up again at the Tot Lot. The boys were happy and worn-out from playing. They were yards further down the potty-training line simply from watching her daughter use the potty regularly, and I had worked on my NaNoWriMo book pitch (for the class I am teaching).

But I realized that I am fully capable of concocting the most complicated plots, accounting for all the elements of reality that add up to something normal, ordinary, and making them align into something overblown, terrifying and, well, gripping . . .

One of my very talented clients told me about meeting a woman who had just come back from Africa. The woman began talking about her trip, and my client was not all that intrigued, but then it turned out that their luggage had been lost and they had to go into deepest Africa with only the barest, most inappropriate clothing, and then . . . I don’t remember the story now, but the point was that hearing a story without a plot is like watching someone’s slideshow about their vacation, replete with their commentary: “Oh, oh, that was the tour guide and right over there is the hut we stayed in, just behind that tree . . . ” Now, if the photographer is amazing . . . you might enjoy the show. Otherwise, you’re going to be hungry for story–happy when things start to go wrong for the erstwhile travelers. And if the photographer is amazing and there’s a story–you’re just where you want to be.

So tap into your own paranoia and build yourself a really great plot. Think about your “what if . . . ?” scenarios when the stakes are as high as they can be.

Here’s why:

Fiction is a training camp for those of us who are engaged in the risky business of life. It’s where we learn about relationships, meaning, and how to survive the worst and keep going. When my father was dying, I read Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. I’d heard about it before, but I’d been a little turned off by the grim opening situation: the main character’s boyfriend dives off a pier and breaks his neck, becoming paralyzed from the neck down (as I recall). But now, surrounded as I was by hospital routine and near-death calls, the book didn’t seem depressing to me. Like a hand reaching through the darkness, it showed me the way to stumble along. If Packer had decided that it was too traumatic to have someone get that seriously hurt (especially when his girlfriend was already unhappy and wanting to leave their long relationship, despite being engaged), the book might have been about a group of friends who enjoy a yearly picnic by a lake. But it wouldn’t have been published, and it wouldn’t have had anything to offer to me as I commuted to the place where my father lay trying not to die.

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Thanks! Elizabeth]