Writing Right with Dmitri: Last Meals and Other Teachable Moments
Last night, I was watching an old TV show. The episode began with an execution. The condemned man, an unrepentant serial killer, was having his last meal: a pizza. Still in the delivery box. He and his clergyman shared the repast from paper plates. The killer complained that he had asked for 'extra pepperoni'. The guard smirked, 'Next time.'
To get this out of the way first: capital punishment is a barbaric relic. It accomplishes no good, and much ill. The fact that the United States still practises this form of ritual sacrifice is a shame to its judicial system. But Criminology 101 is not the subject under discussion here. Writers deal with what is, before they can get to what should be.
Where was I? Last meals. It struck me that, as a way of opening the story, the pizza bit was a brilliant touch on the part of the writer. As it turns out, both the condemned man and his confessor have a role to play in the story to be told, and the character of each is significant. The writer chose this way to illuminate both characters in a short, striking image.
Stop and think about last meals for a second. If you had to choose a last meal, what would it be? Would you crave gourmet delights, or comfort food as your farewell to the world? Is our interest in the subject perhaps coloured by the gospels? Because Jesus' last meal on earth consisted of sacrificial lamb, do we feel a desire to invest the act of eating with greater meaning?
A last meal can constitute a 'teachable moment', both in fiction and in reality. I said I wasn't going to animadvert on the death penalty, but I lied. One condemned felon was executed in spite of the fact that he was of severely diminished mental capacity. Those who tried to save him argued that he had no idea what he'd done. At his last meal, he put aside his dessert – 'for later'. That was a teachable moment for the bystanders.
What other teachable moments can you find? If you're telling a story – fact, fiction, poetry – look for those moments. Actively seek them. Do not impose morals on events, but try to let them speak. Occurrences like the pizza story are 'found objects'. Like shells along the shore, or an Indian arrowhead on the trail, they can speak volumes to the trained eye.
Besides the last meal, what recurring situations may provide teachable moments?
- A child's prayer?
- A marriage proposal, or rejection?
- An obituary?
Obviously, these are naturally occurring events with social meaning. But what about less obviously significant happenings? American columnist Russell Baker, a Southerner living in New York City, once built a
memorable essay around two stray cucumbers on a sidewalk. Talk about your found objects…
Your assignment for today: find a teachable moment in your everyday experience. Think about how you would incorporate it into your latest story, essay, or poem. Share it with us, if you like. We live to learn.
And don't obsess too much about your character's last meal…that is, unless you happen to be writing a police procedural and need a good opening.