Cathy and I have had a pleasant weekend. Yesterday, we hosted a few graduate students from Ohio State and inducted them into our Patio Club. (By the way, anyone is welcome. Just let us know if you’d like to join.) Today, we attended a high school graduation party. At the latter event, Cathy watched all the young people—how nonchalant they were with their beauty and the grace of their bodies—and she said, “Oh, to be fifteen again.” I’m not sure we actually long for a return to our teenage years or if we only want the memory of being at the beginning of our adult lives. The next thing Cathy said was, “Of course, I didn’t look like that when I was fifteen.” I can’t say one way or the other because I didn’t know her until she was sixteen, and then she was beautiful, and she still is today.
There’s something so exciting and alive about a young person about to step into a new phase of life. It’s a time full of hope and promise and possibility. Of course, disappointments and setbacks and missteps are bound to occur, but what I remember most clearly are the dreams and aspirations and the feeling of knowing something thrilling lay just ahead.
As writers, we sometimes neglect the golden times of our characters’ lives. We concentrate on the present-day troubles that drive the narratives to the point of forgetting the younger lives our characters once lived. To add depth to a character and texture to a story, we might spend more time shading in our characters’ golden times. Here’s a brief writing exercise that might help either with revision or with the creation of a new story.
Ask yourself this question: What was the time of a character’s life when they felt the most alive, the most confident, the fullest of possibility? What was their golden time?
Think about the present-day trouble of the story. What is it about that trouble that causes the character to long for a return to that golden time? What’s the connection between the present and the past?
Consider embracing the bittersweet at the end of the story. How does the memory of a past golden time collide with the trouble from the dramatic present?
Here’s an example from Richard Bausch’s “The Fireman’s Wife.” Jane, who’s been considering leaving her husband, Martin, is surprised to have him brought home from his fireman’s shift with his hands badly burned while fighting a fire. Once she has him settled, she goes outside, and this is what happens:
Later, while he sleeps on the sofa, she wanders outside and walks down to the end of the driveway. The day is sunny and cool, with little cottony clouds—the kind of clear day that comes after a storm. She looks up and down the street. Nothing is moving. A few houses away someone has put up a flag, and it flutters in a stray breeze. This is the way it was, she remembers, when she first lived here—when she first stood on this sidewalk and marveled at how flat the land was, how far it stretched in all directions.
This is only the start of her memory of her and her husband’s own golden time. She finds herself in the garage looking at his model airplanes, and “She remembers that when they dated, he liked to tell her about flying these planes, and his eyes would widen with excitement. She remembers she liked him best when he was glad that way.”
The story ends, then, with her knowledge that she will eventually leave him, but she doesn’t have to be in a hurry. The sadness of a marriage ending becomes more textured because of Jane’s memories of the two of them just starting out. The dark and the light—the gold and the rust—co-exist, each adding texture to the other and making for a memorable end.
I hope this exercise invites you to pay more attention to the golden times that shadow any troubled narrative. Keep doing the good work.