Just as most people do, I have certain times in my life, snippets of memory that hold some significance. These little flashbacks of memory are what many times can help us create our stories. In some cases, it may be one little memory that tells a whole story. When teachers and writers tell you to “write what you know”, this is what they are talking about. It is one thing to hear a story, it is quite another thing to experience one. As creative writers, our job is to allow our readers to experience the story. Who better to tell them what dying feels like, then someone who is dying? Who better to explain fear, then someone who is afraid?
The house that I grew up in had an irrigation ditch that ran down the side of the property. One afternoon, it was during the summer I believe, my little sister fell into the ditch and drowned. I was very young at the time; I don’t recall my age because for this memory, it isn’t important. What is important are the events that happened as soon as someone realized she was missing. Some of the little flashes are just pictures. I remember people calling her name, everyone started running around the yard and into the house. I remember my dad running down the length of the ditch until he found her. She was in the water, face up. She was grayish blue.
Dad pulled her from the water. He tried breathing life back into her. It was no use. At that moment, she was gone. In those few seconds, the fear, the panic, clawed at everyone. I’m not sure I even understood what death was at the time. I just knew something was very wrong. We lived in a small town and the hospital was just four blocks away. I don’t recall him getting to the car, just the sight of him throwing her limp body on the seat before kicking up a cloud of dust as the car roared off to the hospital.
Sometime after that there was a phone call. My little sister was alive. She had been revived at the hospital. That is where that memory ends. There is nothing after that. There is nothing before it. I am sure there were more tears and endless days of lectures on the dangers of the irrigation ditch. None of that was relevant enough to be recorded in my mind. What was recorded was fear, and the fear of the unknown. I share this with you to illustrate a point. It is one thing to tell you I have a fear of drowning so I won’t go swimming at the lake. It is quite another to bring you on the journey with me that explains why I have that fear in the first place.
As writers, we give our stories life by borrowing off what we know. Even though I was very young at the time, I have just enough memory to tell a tale of why someone would be afraid of the water. The rest we can fill in as it fits into the story, but the raw emotion, the image that gut punches you, that can only come from experience. You want to be successful? Dig deep. Go into that place where pain lies in wait for you to bring it to the surface, then use it. When you can pass on emotion through your words, that’s when you really begin writing.