One night, when I was a student in Minneapolis, I went to hear Maya Angelou speak.

“Used to be,” she’d said in her slow-timbered voice, “when someone told a joke about blacks or Mexicans or Catholics at some dinner party, I would show my disapproval with my silence. Didn’t want to rock the boat. Didn’t want to make a scene. Didn’t want to call attention. But now (her voice had thundered with the ‘now’) now I turn on my heel and take up my pocketbook and my wrap and out the door I go! Even if I’m the guest of honor!” The audience laughed.

Years later — what seemed like lifetimes later — this part of Ms. Angelou’s speech shot me awake in the middle of the night and a 34 page chapter was born.


Yesterday I was reading an essay by Charles Baxter called “What Happens in Hell.”  The story opens with Mr. Baxter arriving in Northern California for an event.  The driver who picks him up at the airport looks at him in the rearview mirror and asks, seemingly out of nowhere:  Sir, I am wondering — have you considered lately what happens in Hell?

I hear this and wonder if Mr. Baxter knew immediately that a story would come out of such a gem.  (How could it not?)  Or did the driver’s sentence  — like Ms. Angelou’s speech — disappear in the moment and resurface later?  Much later, with Mr. Baxter waking up sweating in the middle of a night with Have you considered what happens in hell? triggering this essay.

How does this work?  What are your triggers?


17 thoughts on “Sparks

  1. CJ Rice (@leapof)

    When my son was three he asked, “Where is the edge to this world?” and I’ve been mulling that ever since. The reflective questions from children, the buck-stops-here stance of seasoned souls and paid-their-dues thinkers will always send me down the writing road. When you wake up in the middle of the night to write you know you are on the scent of something really good, Teri.

  2. jpon

    Triggers? I got a million of ’em. I’m experiencing quite a few of them during the presidential campaign. Most seem to be set off by institutionalized stupidity.

    1. Teri Post author

      Me too, Joe. Me too. I hope I survive this election.

      I know exactly why Dr. Angelou’s exact words are stuck in my head —- I long for the courage to take up my pocketbook and my wrap and head right out the door, no matter who is left sitting at that table.

  3. girl in the hat

    This and your last post (I almost added something to the line of comments under mine after yours but could not write it right) is making me feel very strongly that we can’t just sit tight and not say what’s true for us, even, especially, if the person who is telling some horrid “joke” is someone we love. Ms. Angelou should leave but I, as a privileged white person, can’t. I have to sit still and open my mouth and speak my truth as lovingly as possible. I have walked away from many people in my past and do not regret it at all but a new time is coming– our country is so bipolar, so broken– when we’re going to have to face it head-on. (See– I still can’t write it right.) I have friends whom I love and with whom I strongly disagree and we’ve had to find ways to be together. Thank you for bringing the topic up, Teri– that’s how to do it.

    1. Teri Post author

      I hear you, Anna. What I’m really addressing here is my own fear of speaking up — what will happen if I speak my truth and somebody doesn’t like it (it=me). I’m 47 years old and still have that deep, buried seed from middle school.

      If I look at them, many of my recent posts are about fear of speaking up, anger at being shushed, feeling that awful need to please someone. No wonder it’s taking me this long to write a book — half of the work is the tamping down of fear.

    1. Teri Post author

      There is a scientific explanation, how the brain works and all, which I read about recently in Jonah Lehrer’s book IMAGINE.

      Then Mr. Lehrer admitted to making up all of those Bob Dylan quotes in the book ….. lordy. Is nothing what I think it is!?!

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