The earliest writings that became of The Burning Light of Two Stars showed me as the hero of the story and my mother as the villain. I spent a lot of years in my early life demonizing my mother. She was the person who had wronged me, and I was the person who had been wronged. I reinforced these negative stories by telling them repeatedly over the years, honing us into narrow, set roles, caricatures of the complex, multi-layered women we really were.
I knew that this kind of black-and-white characterization was fine for a journal entry or a therapy session or a raw, first draft, but that in the end, it would never do.
Fortunately, there are many great writing techniques for creating a complex, multi-faceted portrait of your antagonist—or any other characters who aren’t you. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to explore several of these in The Making of a Memoir blog.
Here’s the first:
My coach, Joshua Townshend-Zellner, gave me a homework assignment that I’ve often given my own writing students: “Write about a positive memory of your antagonist.”
This was my first attempt at that exercise, the first of many forays into good memories about my mother, this one written about a simple childhood experience:
“I loved it when my mother made My-T-Fine chocolate pudding. I used to beg for it. It was my favorite dessert. Mom would pull out a small saucepan and I’d rip open the packet of light brown powder and pour it in. Then we’d pull out a half gallon bottle of milk—the kind the milk man delivered into a metal box right outside our back door. If the milk bottle was really full, Mom would pour it, but if it was half full or less, I’d get to pour. Two cups of milk into a Pyrex measuring cup. Mom taught me that when you measure, you have to get your eye down to the level of the cup and look at the line directly, not from above or below.
“So, I’d pour the milk into the cup and carefully look at the thin blue line that said one cup. And then I’d repeat the process and pour both cups into the powder. Then Mom would hand me a wire whisk and I’d stand on a kitchen chair (when I was little) or not (when I was older) and she’d turn the stove on to medium. I wasn’t allowed to do that. We had an electric stove, and the coils would turn red, and you weren’t allowed to touch them even after they turned black again because they stayed hot for a long time and could burn you.
“Then came the really slow part. I had to keep stirring and stirring and stirring with the whisk, over and over and over, making sure I scraped along the whole bottom of the pan so none of it burned or stuck to the bottom. It seemed to me every time we made pudding that it would never get thick. Never! And I’d tell Mom, “Mom, the pudding is never going to get thick!” And she’d say, “Yes, Laurie, yes it will. I promise. Just keep stirring.” A minute later, I’d say, “Mom, the pudding is still so thin. It will never get thick.” And she’d say, “Yes, Laurie, you have to be patient. I promise it will. Just keep stirring.” And so, I’d stir some more.
“It would go on that way for whole minutes, lots of whole minutes, until finally, the pudding would start to gather into thick waves and in just a few seconds it would go from super thin like milk to really thick and creamy like yogurt. It would start to bubble, big, thick, brown bubbles that popped at the surface. “It’s thick, Mom, it’s thick!” I’d yell, and she’d say, “Keep stirring, it needs to bubble for a minute. We don’t want it to burn.”
“In the meantime, Mom would line up four little shallow bowls on the counter and when she said the pudding was done, she’d pour the hot pudding right into those bowls. I never got to do that part because Mom was worried that I might burn myself, so I’d dance around at her feet because we were going to have pudding. And then Mom did the part I hated. She took out a rubber scraper, called a spatula, and scraped all the pudding out of the pot into the bowls, never leaving enough for me. And then she took a piece of Saran Wrap and she put it right on top of one of the bowls of hot pudding. That was for me because I hated skin on my pudding and if you left it to air dry and then put it in the refrigerator to cool, it would get a dark brown skin on top, and I thought that was really gross. She put the plastic wrap on just for me.
“Then Mom took the four bowls and put them on the second shelf of the refrigerator and handed me the spatula and the pot to lick, but there was never very much left, never enough. And then she’d go on and finish the rest of dinner and I’d go watch the Flintstones or the Jetsons until dinner was ready. Even if it was my favorite dinner, I couldn’t wait until dessert because I’d get my special bowl of pudding without skin, and I’d ask for the baby spoon mom kept in the drawer for just this occasion and I’d eat it in tiny little bites, just to make it last. I could made it last a really, long time. I loved pudding day.”
Even as I type this up now, sixty years after “pudding day,” I have such a warm and nostalgic feeling about my mother and some of the good times we shared. The fact that I did this exercise and dozens like it—none of which were intended to appear in the book—enabled me to ultimately craft us as three-dimensional multi-faceted characters. That simple childhood scene about pudding paved the way for me to successfully layer in love and intimacy with all the anger and resentment and grief that came later. Writing about the good enabled me to get past my cardboard version of “us” to portray the incredible complexity and push-pull that existed in our relationship.
The Burning Light of Two Stars is now available for presale. When you buy the book before its release date, you help me by generating interest with reviewers, librarians, and bookstores. To read about the great presale bonuses you can get, hop over here.
To receive this blog series in your inbox, subscribe here.