Friday, August 19, 2011

I'm a Writer. Please Don't Ask Me to Write


The problem with telling people that you're a writer is that sometimes they ask you to write something.

When I was asked to join the library board years ago, I was flattered and accepted the invitation right away. Less than a minute after the meeting started, though, I was trying to figure out how to back out gracefully when the director of the board told me she thought I would be the perfect person, being a writer, to take the minutes during the monthly board meetings. Here's how I wanted to answer that request:

"Actually, you couldn't be more mistaken, ma’am! As a writer of fiction and satire, I create my own reality so that I and I alone control the characters, their actions, their environment, and their outcomes. You want a stenographer to take your precious minutes, not a creative writer! How dare you assume I would lower myself like this!"

What I actually said was: "I'd be happy to!"

So I went to the first meeting and right away ran into a problem when the roll call was taken. That's because no one had the names that I would have given them if they were my characters. Instead of just a list of everyone who was present, I wrote: “Treasurer-Leanne. But if I were to write her as the busy executive type she so resembled, she would definitely be a no nonsense Ruth or Barbara." Then there was Bob the Vice President and next to his name I noted, “He was too distinguished looking for such a casual name. Obviously should be a Stanford or Vincent." The severe-looking woman wearing a plain sweater and pair of jeans next to him was inexplicably an Adrianna and for her I decided: "Parents had misplaced exotic aspirations at the time of her birth. Clearly needs to be named Sue or Jean."

I was so busy developing my character profiles that I didn't notice roll call was over and it was time to start taking notes on the business at hand. That was when the president cleared her throat and startled me from my writing.

I smiled and started to obediently scribble away during the heated budget discussion that followed. I was very professional and diligent for the first few minutes. Then I got the numbers mixed up and I couldn't help myself from adding some personal observations. Soon the minutes read:

BUDGET PENDING APPROVAL

Tall man with neatly trimmed beard and soft brown eyes who is now speaking about various expenses looks as if could be a kindly family doctor. I can see all his female patients having crushes on him because they feel he "really listens" to them. Has a very soothing voice, must remember the sound of it when writing a grandfather character.

Woman across the table interrupts Possible Doctor to debate point with him. She has dyed too-bright red hair, sheer blouse that doesn't quite hide rough tattoos on her upper arm, reeks of cigarette smoke, and in general comes across very brash, very tough, not the type you would expect on this board. She does not belong in this scene at all! I bet her past involves some time as a troubled young girl, rebelling against authority. This could be interesting story angle, a former teen runaway trying to give back to the community as a middle aged woman to make up for past indiscretions, even though secretly she longs to go back to her wild ways. I dash off a few notes about her and vow to sit next to her at next meeting to get closer look at tattoo to make her character sketch even richer.

Too soon, someone else interrupts my Former Troubled Teen with yet another question. Don't these people understand pacing of dialogue in a story? This guy is buttoned down town councellor who aspires for provincial office, and points his pen officiously at everyone. Wonder if he has secret crush on Brash Woman, as his way to rebel against his lowly “big fish in small pond” existence? He seems to be smiling at her quite a bit, even as he disagrees with her. Yes, definite crush possibility. I plan a chapter where he invents fake budget question for her and calls her at home and they agree to meet for coffee to discuss it and then they fall in love and he has to take her to the office Christmas party where she embarrasses him by…

Oops, wait a minute. I think the budget discussion is over. Was it approved or not approved? I leaned over to ask woman next to me, but instead I am stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of her notebook. She is writing out some sort of to-do list and the first entry is "Call Mother on her birthday." Clearly, there are some long simmering mother-daughter issues there, the use of the more formal "mother" instead of the warmer "mom" and the need to remind herself to call her own mother on her birthday. There is obviously no big family celebration planned and as I look at the woman, I estimate that she was in her late fifties. How many more birthdays does she think her poor elderly neglected mother has left? Jot down note: negligent daughter takes elaborate cake to nursing home for mother, only to find out she died an hour before she got there.

This story line really captured my interest and my pen was racing until I heard the president say "Sher, you'll e-mail everyone the minutes?" I nodded and closed my notebook quickly so that no one could see that I hadn't actually taken any minutes in the past half an hour.

After several days of trying to figure out what to do, I finally hashed together a version of minutes that can be read in mere seconds. Basically, I listed a topic (thank God I discovered the pre-meeting agenda stuck in my notebook!) and then inserted "Discussion by Various Board Members Followed" after almost every entry.

Found out later that the budget did pass and I think I may have seen the Buttoned Down Aspiring Politician and Former Troubled Teen leaving the local coffeeshop together last week, so I wasn't so off track there. Maybe I can write non-fiction after all!

My first book will be entitled “Meeting Called : Discussion Followed”.

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