A Tree of Extraordinary Proportions
Today, let’s continue the semi-successive theme of using actual events to enhance creative writing.
Back on Monday, the sixth, we covered taking note of life’s little disappointments to enhance our characters’ experiences. Then, this past Wednesday, we looked at using natural phenomenon (e.g., snowstorms, crazy-high winds, intense heat) to better develop our characters’ journeys.
Now let’s consider what we writers can do with the sights we see along our everyday travels, and how we can incorporate those visuals into the stories we’re working on.
Earlier this month, I was in the car with my truly wonderful mom, thinking about all the tasks I still had to accomplish when I got back home. There was a long – or at least time-consuming – list waiting for me, and I was determined to make at least a sizable dent in it, if not cross out every single item.
Of course, that’s when she asked if we could take a detour.
“I want to show you the tree” is how she put it. Except that she didn’t merely say “the tree.” She said “The Tree,” italics and capital letters and all.
Nonetheless, I wasn’t impressed one bit.
I truly have one of the most wonderful mothers on the planet. I absolutely adore her. However, she’s still human, and we humans tend to have our annoying little quirks.
In Mom’s case, that means being fascinated with not-necessarily fascinating sights. Like Wall Drug.
What is Wall Drug, you might ask?
Let’s turn to Wikipedia for that answer so I can relive some painful memories as little as possible:
Wall Drug Store, often called simply ‘Wall Drug,’ is a tourist attraction location in the town of Wall, South Dakota. It is a shopping mall consisting of a drug store, gift shop, restaurants and various other stores. Unlike a traditional shopping mall, all the stores at Wall Drug operate under a single entity instead of being individually run stores. The New York Times has described Wall Drug as "a sprawling tourist attraction of international renown [that] takes in more than $10 million a year and draws some 2 million annual visitors to a remote town."
What that snippet doesn’t describe is how Wall Drug is out in the middle of nowhere, that it’s the only bit of civilization – and I use that term loosely – for literally hundreds of miles (there are actually billboards out in that middle of nowhere reading “Wall Drug in 200 miles”), and that it’s set up to look like a cheesy replica of an ol’ Western town.
It also doesn’t mention that, one fateful day 10 years ago, I threw a sulky temper tantrum during a family cross-country trip when Mom insisted on stopping there despite how all I wanted to do was get to our next real destination. Refusing to get out of the car while she and my siblings looked around, I consumed two whole bottles of water while I waited for them to return. And then, when they did, I contritely insisted that, no, I didn’t have to use the bathroom.
Long story short, let’s just say that the consequences could have been worse. However, I was hardly a happy camper an hour down the road.
With such memories in mind, I sighed about “The Tree,” mentally rolled my eyes and told her that, “Fine. Sure. We can go. But just for a minute, right?”
Not the most mature response from a woman who is well past her 20s now, I know.
Two minutes later, Mom made a right down some backstreet, rolled forward about 700 more feet and stopped the car. “What do you think?”
I looked straight in front of me at the completely average-looking tree there and said in a perfectly polite voice, “Yeah, it’s really pretty.”
“Jeannette,” she prompted. “Out your window. Look.”
So I turned to my immediate right. And froze. It took a solid 10 seconds for me to regain use of my vocal chords, and even then, all I could say was, “Wow. Just wow.”
Because there in front of me was the most enormous white birch I had ever seen. It was massive!
The trunk alone had to be at least two yards in diameter, and it sported a considerable branch that was the size of a tree by itself. This extension stretched out in a haphazardly horizontal line for a seemingly impossible length before finally hitting the ground and jutting back up – as if it wanted to reach all the way out to the road we had just left behind.
Though I don’t know when or where or why, this tree is going to be featured in some story of mine someday. It needs to be. It’s the perfect prop to enhance a creative writing scenario: a descriptive device that, when defined right, will have the power to draw readers further into any creative world of my making.
The same almost certainly applies to countless visuals you’ve come across.
Maybe it’s a sunset on your way back from work that made you want to just pull over and stare.
Or a creepy little lawn ornament that made your spine tingle.
Or a little old lady who gave you the most genuine smile in the grocery store.
When those sights come along, don’t brush them away. There’s a story somewhere waiting for that very image. All you have to do is figure out how.