Sometimes I feel so small in revision.
If you think about it, all stories begin with relevant backstory. For just as real people deal with the present based on their past, so too must our characters deal with the story problems based on their relevant past experiences. The key word here is “relevant” past experiences. Jennie Nash and Lisa Cron in my Story Genius course asked:
What was the pivotal moment in your character’s past that changed her outlook on life? This will be the “origin scene” that sets the character up for interpreting the present story problems. Even in memoir.
In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, I felt highly inadequate for college—and amazingly so at the Ivy League level. Attending college is not something rational people do on the spur of the moment. Not even when the prospective college student is a mom challenged by an all-knowing educated person who determines that her child shouldn’t attend college because she’s not good enough.
In my mind, people who attend college spend years preparing for it. At the Ivy League level, students spend their entire lives in preparation for it. No, college isn’t something to take lightly. After all, I could fail out, proving that educated person and extended family members that I am, in fact, unable to succeed and therefore my child might be as well.
It all came back to me. The origin scene for my college memoir, that is.
It was early spring in 1973, and I was perusing the high school curriculum booklet given out by the counselors, dreaming of going away to college. At that time, I thought everyone who attended college went away to be able to concentrate solely on their college education. At least that’s what they did in movies and on television.
Boy was I naïve! We never heard of community college or college loans. My family had no money for college.
I sat at the kitchen table, selecting college prep courses from the curriculum booklet for high school. I was the second child of four in my blue-collar family, the first who wanted to attend college. Then my father, a machinist by trade, the realist in our family by necessity, took note of what I was doing.
“Vic,” he said. “What makes you so sure you can handle college?”
My hand went numb, the course selection form blurred on the kitchen table. Why couldn’t he forget about my earlier struggles in school? I tried to.
“Dad,” I choked out. “I’m on the honor roll now.”
“It takes more than that to succeed in college, Vic.”
The scene continues as my father hammers into my consciousness that our family goes to work after high school. As someone who struggled earlier in her education, I should accept that I wasn’t college material and move on in life.
Finally, Dad’s realism became my realism. I wasn’t cut out for college. I was inadequate to those attempting higher education. It ate away at my confidence to succeed in life. I needed to settle, not strive. This was my present, my future, my life.
This origin scene works in conjunction with a post on the ticking clock of a story.
It wasn’t until I was a mother of five with a special needs daughter that I finally realized if you don’t take any risks in life, you have already failed.
I think the choosing of my high school curriculum scene was the first “relevant” past experience, the origin scene, that formed my belief of not being good enough for college. I also feel it shows the effect a significant adult can have on a child. It forced me to be sure not to do the same to my children.
Please offer any comments or questions regarding this scene or your own college preparation, for they truly help me to define the moment and improve the writing. Thanks again for stopping by Adventures in Writing and leaving a note. It’s greatly appreciated.
13 thoughts on “Story Genius Writing Course: The Origin Scene”
This is so close to home that I was there in the room with you and your dad. I wasn't supposed to go to college either–not a lot of money and the expectation that I'd marry and have children. Why would I need an education beyond high school? When I got my BA, my dad came around a bit. When I got my MA he was in the audience with tears. And I married and had kid. I wanted it all, and I got it. Seems as if you did, too.
I loved this, "Attending college is not something rational people do on the spur of the moment."
Hi Victoria – I was considered not very bright at school and thus when one gets into career mode – the same thing occurs: now decades later people say you must have sailed through school and Uni – nope never considered Uni, nor obviously went … now – well only through blogging has my light been allowed to shine. Life is interesting …
Definitely we should be in a world of 'we can help ourselves and get on, and we can ask and learn along the way' and help your kid find the best way forward for them – that was not around for me – but my parents would I'm sure have been helpful, had circumstances been right for them.
Well done you – five children is plenty for many parents and one who needs that extra help … I admire you – and I'm glad the Story Genius course is helping … good luck and continue to write and tell stories …
I think that is a great origin scene and you are writing it well, too, with dialogue and a sense of what actually happened that day. You grabbed my attention. Well done! I totally understand the importance of an origin scene and you make me hunt for one of my own – one that defined the first moment of me wanting to explore the world and live an alternative life, which I think should be (one of) the theme(s) in my memoir.
On another, important note, I think that adults should encourage children to belief in themselves and to follow their (approachable) dreams. It is one of the things I found of the utmost importance as a primary school teacher!
Bravo to you, Lee! Unfortunately, my father had passed away before I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. But I believe he was proud of me in Heaven. If I had received my BA earlier in life, I would have continued for the MA. However, after ten years of "mom going to college," my family couldn't wait for me to be less stressed and have more time for them. But then I started writing fulltime.
Always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your day!
Thank you so much, Hilary, for your kind words. They mean so much to me.
My Dad helped me to understand math while in grade school, and my Mom helped me in other subjects. Then I came around and did well. Even made it to the honor roll. I kept hoping for my special needs daughter, but she has different issues.
At the time I was thinking about college, most women in my neighborhood took secretarial courses to be secretaries like our moms. And that is what I did. There was no money for college anyway.
Thank you, Liesbet, for your kind words, too. This truly helps me to move on with my memoir. Memoirs usually encompass a few themes, with one being the most important. An exploration of life to find your place can be an important theme. All the luck with your work.
Thanks again for your comment here on Adventures in Writing. All best to you!
This is a good point. There is always some backstory present, and as writers we can use it to enhance our writing. Have a lovely week! 🙂
Thank you so much for your kind words, Karen. Backstory IS the backbone of story. Even life! Always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. You have a lovely week, also.
The inciting incident. The thing that spurs us into action. I don't often think of this in relation to myself, but I'm always analyzing it in books. There's a power in that moment like no other.
Ivy league college with five kids? Whew! That's pretty intimidating.
Hi, Crystal! You are doing pretty well, too, with home schooling and a baby on the way. The inciting incident is the start of story present. In my case it was when a counselor to my special needs daughter challenged me to help her through high school and I couldn't without a college education. The origin scene is where my misbelief about not being college material came into play. The origin scene and misbelief started when I myself tried to sign up for college prep courses and was told more or less that I was not smart enough to make it.
Always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing, Crystal. All the best to you, my dear.
This is deep. You definitely captured a relevant back story. You've accomplished so much since 1973. Congratulations!!
It seems a lifetime ago, Michelle. Thank you so much for your kind words. They're appreciated. It is always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your weekend.
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