Updated: May 12
Even if it happened decades ago, it feels like just yesterday. But maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself...
Recently, I asked a question of all the members in my community: what makes a story meaningful to you? There are as many different answers as there are readers in the world. Realistic characters, compelling plot, immersive settings? Or maybe it’s a mix of all three. While I do my best to provide these entities in each of my stories, I strive for a deeper intangible bond with each person who embarks upon that shared journey with me. For me, the answer to my question is summed up in two words: emotional connection.
All the stuff you see on the surface (characters, plot, setting) is definitely important, but it’s what hides beneath those things that provides texture and meaning for the opportunity offered to each reader.
Let me get back to the tangential musing at the beginning of this post that moved me to share these thoughts in the first place. I was in sixth grade English class. Our assignment was simple. Write a story, one page, about anything. It couldn’t possibly get any more open-ended than that. Even with all the options available to me, my mind immediately veered toward a personal experience I had on the golf course.
I used to golf, a lot. During the summer, as a kid, my dad would drop me off at the local municipal course on the way to work, just before sunrise, and pick me up on the way home as the sun began dipping toward the horizon. I’d play 36 holes each day, with a few hot dogs and lemonades sandwiched between each 18-hole round. I truly remember it like it was yesterday...
On the tee of a mid-length par three, I pulled out a 7-iron, went through my pre-shot routine, and allowed the rhythm of my swing to take over. The ball sailed through the tunnel of towering pine trees on either side. It descended over the horizon toward the green I couldn’t see, my heart beating with anticipation. An uproar from the group ahead of us had me high-fiving my playing partners. I had just recorded my first hole-in-one. Ever. The emotions were overwhelming, and I walked on a cloud of euphoria toward the green, ready to retrieve the ball so I could place it in a display case, forever commemorating my moment of golf infamy. But as I crested the hill, reality hit. My ball rested on the green, about twelve feet from the hole. That distant cheering I heard while on the tee? It didn’t mean what I had thought. My shot had hit the flagstick. So, I didn’t earn my first ace on that day, nor have I ever recorded a hole-in-one. But…I knew exactly what it felt like.
My sixth grade story was a spark, igniting that flame of emotional connection that means so much to me. Whether it’s bated anticipation, intense fear, jubilant celebration, or my favorite—tender, romantic sentiments, feeling something so deeply through words can, ironically, not be expressed through words.
The most interesting thing about that little trip down memory lane is what happened between then and about five years ago. What is it that occurred, you ask? Absolutely nothing. In thirty years, I never once thought about writing fiction. My focus was narrow and certain, following a predictable path guided by logic and practicality. It wasn’t until my son attended Boy Scout Summer Camp as a twelve-year-old that my fulcrum tipped back in the direction of emotional connection.
I’m sure it was a pathetically obtuse story that I wrote. It was about some Scout at summer camp, who discovers a magic fork in the dining hall, sending him on a myriad of spine-tingling adventures. It was a five part serial story, one section delivered each morning to my son at camp via mail. He hadn’t spent more than a night away from home up to that point in his life.
I’m not sure who that story and experience benefited more, him or me. He might not remember it, but I’ll never forget it. Why? Because I was able to help both of us through an uncomfortable time through the transcendent potential of a story. It’s also when that spark from sixth grade fanned itself back to life. Rescued from diminishing embers, I re-discovered that magic, through the words of a story and the emotional connection made with each individual reader. That’s what I long to do, as a reader and an author, with each story I read or write. Connect.
How do I know when I’ve discovered a book or story that resonates with me on a deep emotional level? Simple. Everything around me becomes fuzzy. I get lost inside the pages while simultaneously (and serendipitously) finding a new piece of myself. Every time this happens, it reminds me that even the tiniest spark is all we need to propel us toward new and exciting adventures, whether it’s in a fictional world or its real-life counterpart. Maybe both.
I’ve mentioned it in my author biography. Some read stories to escape reality. I write them to navigate it. Through realistic characters, compelling plots, and immersive settings. But also, and more importantly, through that intangible emotional connection that has the potential to fan the spark of an idea into a brilliant flame of inspiration.
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