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My Shining Moment

January 3, 2010

After reading Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing I stripped this baby of all two adverbs and am now smugly reposting it. 

When it comes to my nieces, I pick up where their parents leave off. Like, I’m the person who tells them about The Shining. Isn’t that what aunts are for?  “Our dad didn’t want to tell us about it. He just said it was a really scary movie and that one day we’d see it.” My 12 year-old niece is looking down at the table, trying to conceal what could be a small tear or a little smile.  At this angle I can’t tell. “Oh he did, did he?”  I turn my fork over and draw a pattern on the tablecloth, considering.

We are in New York, having a gay and mischievous time.  This is one of those moments when I realize the awesome power I wield as an aunt to shape young, pliant minds. It’s up to me!  Either I oblige, giving them a moment to treasure and putting one small, forgettable dent in their innocence, or I make them talk about, say, the Sound of Music. Then I hand them back to their parents.

I’m caving in, so they get extra quiet. But there’s another aspect to the telling: it can’t just spill out. It has to be like they have to pry it out of me. I turn the butter knife over in my hand and pan slowly from one sweet, upturned face to another. “It’s a scary movie,” I say. “I mean, one of the scariest.” They look up, all excited. “I don’t know if your parents would want me to tell you about it.”  They fix their bright eyes on me like I am Santa coming down the chimney.  I’ve never felt so loved.

The thing is, I can’t really remember the movie.  I chew on a bite of fish, hoping a good scene will come to me.  “Okay,” I say. “But not the whole thing.”  They clap like a couple of little seals. “No, not the whole thing, not the whole thing! Just a part!”

I zero in on the one scene I know they will love, the telling of which — if it makes its way back to their parents — I’m pretty sure will not strip me of my privileges as an aunt. “So they’re stuck in a hotel in winter, this family, the father’s writing a novel, and” (spoken in a loud whisper) “ALL HE DOES ALL DAY is sit at a typewriter and work on his novel. Until one day his wife walks by while he’s typing and asks: ‘How’s it going, honey?’ And she picks up a sheet of paper from the pile that’s sitting there to read it, and ALL IT SAYS, over and over, is ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.'”

There’s nothing like telling a really good story in a crowded restaurant. I pause, taking another bite of fish, to let the horror sink in. “She realizes he’s crazy, he knows she knows he’s crazy, plus now he’s mad at her, and there’s no escaping. They’re stuck in the snow.”  The girls gasp and lean back in their chairs, impressed.

“And after that he chases after them?”

I’m kind of sad the scene is over. It was so quick. “Yes, girls, after that he chases after them with a knife through a garden maze.”  My timing is perfect.  Just as I forget what’s about to happen next, the dessert menus arrive and it’s a good thing the desserts here are swell enough to make them forget what they just heard, because that’s all they’re gonna get.

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