Monday, June 13, 2011

Setting Changes Everything

When we were little, my younger sister Jill and I often came as a pair. Our mother made us matching sundresses, bought us matching white Stride-Rite sandals, and we were always gifted, from parents and relatives and the like, with matching presents. If she got a pink unicorn clipboard, I got a purple one. We were one grade apart in school while our older sister Shelley was eons—five and six years—beyond us. When Shelley started junior high, boys began bicycling into our cul-de-sac with blue-frosted cupcakes and other small treasures for her, or else just came visiting, and we younger two bobbed around in the front yard with a soccer ball or behind the front door, ostensibly hidden away. We giggled together.

Once, we were four and five years old, our grandmother, an Avon-product-junkie, gave us each a canister of monster-themed talc powder for Christmas. Let the record show: it was Jill’s idea to dump out the powder on our play-kitchen table and pretend-bake with it like flour. It was Christmas Eve. We were bathed and combed and dressed in our red plaid dresses, all ready for evening church services. Now, we—and our pretty dresses—were covered in monster talc. Mom was annoyed; Dad took pictures.

We also tried, from as far back as I can remember, to be different from each other. Isn’t that the natural bent of sisters? To distinguish ourselves from each other? Jill was quiet in school, me not quite so much. Later, in high school, Jill excelled in science and math while I became a humanities nerd. She played tennis, and I started chasing boys as my major sport. I grew obsessed with the color purple, Jill with getting her hair just right, and eventually, I went to a small mountain college and Jill went to the largest university in our state.

Now, I became the quieter one, isolated, and Jill accumulated crowds of friends. We both graduated with honors, Jill in science, of course, me in middle grades education. She went on to graduate school and became an anesthetist; I was a teacher first, then a fiction-writer. It’s something of a joke now: Jill puts people to sleep. I try not to.

We both became mothers. And here, in having babies and seeing those babies through toddlerhood, we were back on common ground. We talked breast-feeding and ear infections, tummy-time and nap schedules. She had happy babies, two boys and a girl, and attributed their happiness to eating chocolate while she was pregnant. My sister, the science-hearted girl. My first, my baby girl, has always been fretful and cautious—she seemed to worry too much even as a baby—and my second, a boy, free-spirited, fell into laughing and screaming and running with his cousins at every family gathering.

Our oldest ones began school, and Jill and I deliberated over education choices. I started home schooling and Jill found a brand-new magnet school. Now, we talked reading levels and penmanship. Little-kid friendships. Eating habits. Swimming classes. Toy Story characters. Birthday parties. More ear infections.

Last week, though, at a hokey-but-fun Western Frontier-theme amusement park, a glimmer of something different and yet familiar shone through all our grownupness. We had our children and our parents with us, and dispensed with all of the automatic motherly concerns—sunscreen, snacks, bathroom stops—as we always did. But I saw something I’d only caught glimpses of in all the seriousness of adulthood, in all the dizzying multi-tasking of motherhood: there was my little sister Jill, on all the rides, having fun.

We weren’t in my parents’ living room at Christmas or Thanksgiving, trying to keep the kids from jumping on the couch. We weren’t cutting strawberries for their lunches or snatching them up to wipe their sticky hands. We weren’t thinking reading levels or age-level social norms. There was nary an ear infection among us.

Instead, we were back in the basement playroom of so many years ago. The playroom was a cowboy-and-Indian-filled amusement park and the monster talc was the Tilt-a-Whirl, my sister Jill so brazen, dumping out the powder, riding the spinning, jerking thing again and again. Just happy and free.

All it took was a change in setting. From our normal, housekeeping, kid-keeping lives to this assortment of rides and funnel cakes at a crook of a mountain town known for nature walks and outlet shops. Here, in this place, my little sister was simply fun.

Okay, I’m taking a long time to get here, but here it is, the writerly connection: setting changes everything. Everything. Or, I should say, a change in setting throws new light on your character. Take your young, serious, part-time medical professional mother of three and put her in a goofified ghost town with put-on train robberies and make-believe salon brawls. See what happens. What surfaces.

(This, btw, is coming from a person who is NOT her best at amusement parks. True confession? I—usually—loathe such places. Maybe that’s why Jill’s energy for all the hysteria impressed me so much.)

You do this—the change in setting—for your character, because even made-up people deserve to be seen from more than one angle. Nobody is ever just one thing.

But you do it for your reader, too. Or, for the character's sister. For a new angle on the relationships in a story. Amazing how something happening right now can harken back so neatly to the past.

I needed to see Jill act like a kid once again. A sort of real-life rhyming action moment. I needed to see her be an avid Tilt-a-Whirl-rider and a still-on-top-of-everything mother at the same time. I needed to re-remember a thing—really, a person—I’d known long ago. A person who, as it turns out, is still around.


Tracy Crow said...

Loved this post, Susan. Thanks for reminding us about setting and how even the slightest shift in perspective can be so revealing, and memorable.

Susan Woodring said...

Thanks, Tracy!

towriteistowrite said...

I'd never thought of this. Thank you.