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In class, I shared with my students the literary agent Donald Maass’s advice to cut all scenes featuring their character alone, mulling things over in the shower or while brewing a cup of tea. Or, say, pondering their troubles while shopping solo at the grocery store. These scenes are usually low in tension. But I found that shopping with the prospect of my family’s income soon being halved—the option my husband would take over being furloughed—brought a clarifying snap of tension to the normally somnambulant experience.
I determined to spend half what I usually do per week. The aisles seemed garish in their bounty. While other shoppers breezed around, tossing items into their carts, I analyzed sale signs, calculating which products offered the best price per ounce, and determining which sales could be combined with coupons. I’d scrutinized our cupboards before shopping, selecting recipes that required only a few ingredients. I had carrots, celery, and broth for chicken soup—I could buy a small bit of chicken. I’d found some eye-riddled potatoes in the pantry that were only slightly green. These could be redeemed with cheese.
In class, I told my students that detailing a character’s financial pressures is a reliable way to build sympathy. I guess that’s true in all cases except if your characters are members of a different political party from your readers.
At home I labeled granola bars and yogurts with the kids’ names so there would be no fights about who got more, and I told them this was all the groceries for the week, so they had to pace themselves.
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I can’t pay half a mortgage, half a car payment, or half an electricity bill, so I searched for other items to cut. Our monthly donation to PBS. My newspaper subscription. Maybe Netflix. The bill for the kids’ piano lessons loomed. Although I have to cajole and bribe them into practicing, when they finally play, there’s nothing that brings more warmth and life to a house than the sound of a piano. Practice, I tell them. Give yourself something no one can shut down or take away. Even their hesitations and missed notes are beautiful to me. I love the sound of the same measure repeated until it’s learned.
In college at Notre Dame, I took a theology class from John Dunne called “Religion and Autobiography.” He taught us about Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs. Maslow believed that there were five categories of human needs and that the ones most essential for life—the bare minimum of food, shelter, and safety—must be fulfilled before a person could consider more ethereal needs, such as the “self-actualization” at the top of his pyramid.
But Dunne, who had a more generous conception of what it takes to sustain a human being, had one reservation with respect to this theory. “Really poor people are not just concerned with necessities,” he said. “They’re concerned with all the levels.” He had us read Child of the Dark, by Carolina Maria de Jesus, who lived in abject poverty with her children in the favelas of São Paulo. “Carolina steps back at night and writes in her diary,” Dunne said. “This is her precious moment every day. She’s sunk in poverty and misery, but there’s a basic liberation in writing that diary.” The Brazilian journalist Audálio Dantas discovered de Jesus’s writing and helped her publish it. The book became a best seller.