Just Write

Start with something that really happened . . .

In Escaping into the Open, The Art of Writing True, Elizabeth Berg (one of my favorite authors) writes:

Whenever people ask me where I get my material, I am genuinely befuddled. “Well . . . from life!” is what I usually say. . . . each of us, no matter who we are or what we do, is offered potential story ideas daily. The people we know, the things that happen to them and us, the random scenes we witness and the conversations we overhear — all of these things are rich with raw material; all of them are capable of serving as a vehicle or springboard for a good story, in one way or another. We need only be aware. We need only be awake, and curious, and willing to share.


Note from Marlene: Last night in the Jumpstart writing workshop that I facilitate, this very thing happened. I took a real life experience, wrote it in the third person, changed a few facts and ta-da . . . a freewrite based on a true experience.

Your turn: Start with something that really happened and write about it. Just write.

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  1. Ke11y

    Daniel Lucas Shaw was lost at sea, along with his mother, both casualties of a ferry disaster, in 1994. He was fourteen years old. He was an adult. He was my son.

    No boy was ever born who loved the sea more than Daniel; in fact I now understand he wasn’t born for any other reason than to wade into the water, and should have been born here on the rocks of the Mendocino shoreline, and not within the crumbling asbestos walls of a maternity hospital in Oban, Scotland. He arrived into the world weighing 8lbs and 14oz.

    At five years of age Daniel wasn’t a child you could love more than any other, but after his fifth birthday that all changed. His mother and I bought him a Shetland pony, being fortunate to live on an island, and having farming land available. We called his pony ‘Barnaby Rudge’. No bigger than a Saint Bernard dog, this little pony followed Daniel everywhere, even into our kitchen in the old barn house; much to his mother’s disgust and to my amusement.

    Life in the open air made Daniel a sturdy child, with ruddy cheeks; truth told his face resembled an October apple! Often I’d look out from my study window to see him sitting on the grass amid a flock of sheep, hearing his mother constantly telling him not to pick up the dark brown ‘marbles’ scattered so liberally over the grassland. Alas this he only properly learned after his first taste! Their days work done in the pasture, the dogs would rush up to him, licking his face, setting him to giggling. Daniel was just eight years old when we left the island, and over the next two years of his life his feet only touched land a few times as his mother and I fulfilled our dream of sailing around the world.

    Did Daniel miss his home? I think so, most especially his pony, but he settled down after a month or two. I often ask myself if Daniel was attracted to a life on the oceans, or was simply guided by some spiritual need inside his father. He was just eight, hardly old enough to make his own decisions, but one over-riding ‘plus’ in Daniel’s mind was no more having to attend school; for Daniel hated school. Once a week I could count on his teacher coming by the farmhouse. It was always the same story; Daniel not sitting still in class, disrupting the lesson, disadvantaging those children who were well behaved. Sure, that was Daniel; if he had an aura around him it was Indigo Blue.

    Barnaby Rudge was the first thing Daniel ever missed that tore at his heart. It was almost two years to the day when we returned. He could then stand with his legs astride Barnaby and not put weight on his back. It was honestly a shock to us to see how much he had grown. Our voyage had taken us round the world, stopping off in places like Gambia, South Africa, and New Zealand for a couple of weeks at a time. We would do some snorkeling and diving, but mostly we just wanted to eat ashore for a few days. Daniel’s life at sea had separated him from the natural growing up of a boy and when we returned home he found some difficulty adapting back to life on the island. He became reclusive, not wanting friends round, not wanting to play any kinds of game. It disturbed us greatly. Had we done this to him? Daniel took himself off to the harbor just about every day.

    I knew what was happening; it was me happening all over again. When he came home in the evenings he had a look I recognized, where the sun and wind had cracked and bronzed his skin and his imagination had been working overtime. It was time to relocate Daniel back into school, which proved to be no more successful than his first years. He became rebellious. It gave his mother and me some heartache. He was losing his patience all too often, not just with his friends, but with us, his family. He sulked and skulked alone in his room. When we sat him down to talk to him it was hopeless. All he ever said was: ‘Why aren’t we away, what is the point of being here, I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to play with other kids.’

    Daniel had become a ‘loner’ in many ways. That first year back home was made intolerable by his actions and sulks. His mother tried everything, but I knew exactly what was wrong. I mean exactly. I was frightened for him. I, too, knew so much about the frustration of trying to live away from that which he loved most; the sea. It was on our doorstep and yet it was so far away. Daniel was a boy made for leaving the land, not standing on it.

    Eleven years after the date of his birth he came home from school, emptied the contents of his penny piggybank onto the bed, and counted out two-hundred-thirty-seven pounds and four-pence. When asked by his mother why he was counting money he announced he wanted to buy his own yacht and was done with living on the ‘stupid’ island. We smiled, but we knew what we had done to him. We had done something that no parents should ever do; we had lost our child to the world. At eleven years of age he was planning on leaving us. Yes, ridiculous, yes, so many young children develop strong personalities, but we had shown him too much. He had not lived the life of a child for two years but had been given jobs that asked for real discipline and strength of character as well as muscle. In the next month leading up to his birthday I agonized over my decision. Daniel would not be content sailing in the confines of the harbor, nor could we offer a round-the-world sailor a dinghy such as many of the teenagers used on the island.

    The yacht I looked at, one I’d seen many times was moored in the marina with a ‘for sale’ sign hung over the rail. What every sailor should look for in a sailboat is seaworthiness; meaning, a boat that will take care of you when you can no longer take care of it. I had done everything I could to make Daniel understand that sailing is about preparation, about knowledge and respect; being prepared at all times, and never for a moment to assume the sea is a friendly place. (Here is not the place to tell you what kind of preparedness I mean, because this is about Daniel and not about sailing.) He was ready; you must take my word for it as his father; as a man who loved him. I can indicate this to you by the first thing he told me when returning from his first lone sail around the island. “Dad, the rudder’s out of balance.” After an hour at sea together that same evening I knew I’d lost my son to the very same love that made me the kind of man I am. The rudder was indeed out of balance.

    In the next year we hardly saw Daniel, nor did his teachers. He was so incredibly wonderful in many ways, but when it came to education; algebra, history, Latin, Daniel suffered more than most. In the year between eleven and twelve Daniel was a stranger to us. I was growing frustrated myself, anxious about him. He was determined and stubborn and those two traits together had turned him into a lone sailor and not a schoolboy.

    Daniel loved me, he loved what I did, loved what I taught him, and when it came time for him to teach me some things I learned them with pride. By the time he was thirteen he stood over six feet tall. His hands were no longer a boy’s hands. Daniel did have one weakness in his life; one undeniable weakness, and that weakness turned out to be his over-riding strength. It was his mother. You might have thought his mother had no natural strength of her own the way he protected her. Regardless of our fights and our voices raised and the sometimes shuddering disagreements about how to raise Daniel, he could put his arms around his mother and everything became calm. She would kiss his cheek and tell him he was impossible to love, when of course it was the least impossible thing to do. His arms around her, I knew, was like being encompassed in strength and security and love. Daniel was difficult in everything except how he loved his mother; it was serenity itself to watch them. Daniel and I battled constantly, we rubbed shoulders at sea, stood together as men, but my regret is that he seemed hardly ever the child, nor did childlike things; playing with other boys, running and climbing trees, so you see, I never quite got it right with my son.

    I was on duty on the fateful day. Daniel and his mother were visiting friends in Finland and on September 26th 1994 they took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, to do some shopping and then, the following day, take the ferry to Stockholm to meet up with her family in Sweden and stay with them for a week. They never arrived.

    This story is not a request for sympathy or understanding. Trust me, Daniel would have been holding his mother in those strong arms when she most needed him. He was fourteen years of age, one of the best men I ever met. He lived his life daring to do whatever his calling tempted him to do. I am fortunate, very fortunate, that such a young man now guards his mother forever. She could not be, nor ever will be in better hands while they make the journey together.

    Daniel, yes, is where he wanted to be, protecting his mother, and in a place he knows better than most. I’m not the only man hurting in this world. I get that. I just needed to talk to someone, no-one, anyone.

    Thank you for allowing me.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Kelly, your writing is incredible. . . you have a gift, an ability to tell a story in a compelling way . . . with the right pacing, opening lines that draw me right in. I want to know more. I’m riveted, reading the events as they unfold. I like these people, they are honest good-to-know people that I would enjoy sharing a meal and a drink with. The story tugs at me, sympathy for the parents as they struggle to make the right decisions for their child and his future. I wonder if the parents believed what Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” Daniel sounds like such a child. This story is about Daniel and the facts of his short life as viewed through decisions both his parents had to make. And there is another story, shifting and settling below the surface, the story of the father, who lost his wife and beloved child . . . a man whose strength was perhaps challenged. I wonder about this adventurous man, without wanting to intrude on his privacy, I applaud his ability and willingness to share this personal story with such authenticity (proving what a genuine person he is). I value and respect that honesty. This is a writer who will remain on my “must-read” list. I admire your ability to write in such a captivating way. And I do want to read more.

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