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.

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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?

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