Writing through Familiarity Blindness

Oak leaves are falling and a few yellow sweet gum stars as well. But the temperature was in the low 90’s (32°C) over the weekend, and it seemed silly to hang my autumn wreath and put out pumpkins on the front porch. The Weather Channel tells me cooler air will arrive next week. I hope they make good on their promise.

I developed a fresh appreciation for the asphalt-melting heat here in Georgia when my family and I vacationed in Seattle a few years ago. It was August, but we shivered as we piled into the rental car and set the heat on High. We drove to Mt. Rainier and marveled at the patches of snow. Even in winter, it hardly ever snows in middle Georgia.

Turns out, other places are different.

They don’t serve grits in Maine. And I didn’t see a shred of Spanish Moss in Arizona. For all its glorious wildlife, alligators don’t live in Yellowstone. And when the thermometer reaches 45°F here in the South, and I shiver and complain because I’m freezing, I realize I don’t know what cold is.

I’ve written before about Writing What You Don’t Know. But writing what you know is not always easy.

lovebugs, photo by Daniel McLendon

How do you describe a place that is so familiar, you take its idiosyncrasies for granted? Sometimes, I’m blind to the details which make my region unique. Peculiarities such as fried okra, syrupy-sweet tea, and lovebugs.

So here are a few tricks that help me write about my home. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

  1. Travel: Visit other places and note the differences.
  2. Take photographs: If you’re having difficulty seeing anything remarkable about your setting, a photo may help. It places distance between you and the real thing. Sometimes you’ll see things you hadn’t noticed before.
  3. Interview people who live outside your region: Ask them what is odd or unique to your home. What is amusing? Annoying? What do they like best? Least?
  4. Interview people who live inside your region: What do they love about their home? What do they like least? What makes them proud? Ashamed?
  5. People-watch: Go to a park or restaurant and eavesdrop (politely). What colloquialisms do you hear? What do the people look like? How do they dress? How do they interact? Here in the South, it’s polite to smile and say “hey” to strangers, but folks in the north eye me suspiciously when I do that.
  6. Research: Read about your town or region. Someone else’s outlook can help you view the familiar through different eyes. One of my favorite authors is Rick Bragg who writes about the South with humor, beauty, and true love.

Bragg’s time in New York gave him a fresh perspective, and my trip to Seattle did the same for me.

When our vacation ended that August, we left the cool, invigorating air of Washington and felt the full force of the Georgia summer upon our return. We landed in Atlanta in the middle of a heat wave, which is saying something. The temperature was over 90°F — at midnight. The sliding doors opened to the Hartsfield-Jackson parking deck, and I can still remember how we groaned when we stepped outside. It was as if we’d hit an almost-solid wall of heat and humidity.

But I’ll take the heat. Like your well-meaning Aunt Martha, who makes the best banana pudding in the world but also makes a habit of buttin’ into everybody’s business, you take the good with the bad. Love, for a person or a place, covers a multitude of sins.

Thanks for reading, y’all.






Flash Fiction: All the Trapped Stars

A few months ago I challenged myself to write a story under 300 words. Here’s the result at 293.


All the Trapped Stars

The day after the tornado fell from a starless sky, and like a mosquito’s proboscis, sucked away her house and life as she knew it, Clare sifted through the debris. She searched for irreplaceable things – photos, keepsakes, heirlooms. Two-by-fours and bricks mingled with soggy books and sneakers in a bitter stew.

“Play on the swings while I look, sweetie,” she told her son. “And Luke, keep Sophie away from the rubble. Too much broken glass.”

With a churning stomach, Clare started in what had been the den. She found the cover to The Three Little Pigs, a carboard page from Good Night Moon, Sophie’s doll minus the limbs. A key to a house which no longer existed.

“Find anything?” yelled Luke. Which meant, did you find my Legos?

“Find anything?” Sophie echoed, playfully.

Clare hid the mangled doll behind her back and shook her head.

In the roofless garage, under crisscrossed wooden beams, lay a purple box – wet, warped, but uncrushed. Inside was Grandma Bett’s Waterford crystal bowl.

The cut angles caught the sun and flashed triangles of color, just the way it had on Grandma Bett’s dining room table when Clare, like Sophie, was five. She wasn’t allowed to touch it, so she’d walk around the table to examine the sparkles from different perspectives. She’d count all the trapped stars.

“Look!” she called to the children as she walked to the patio. “Not a scratch on it!” Ha! What were the chances?

Sophie asked, “Can I hold it?”

Clare placed the bowl in her small hands, and Sophie held it up to the sun like an offering.

Then, with the sound of a myriad celestas, the bowl crashed onto the concrete, scattering the light, freeing the stars.