I picked up a copy of Long Story Short, by Margot Leitman, who is both a storyteller and a teacher of storytellers. One of the exercises in this little tome is to list ten quirks about yourself. My initial reaction was, “I’m pretty dull. No particular quirks… I do like my daily cup of jasmine green tea with agave nectar and light cream, but that’s not a quirk. I also live with a lot of cats–that’s a cliche rather than quirk.”
I slept on the question–What are my quirks? Do I have any quirks?–and woke up without anything to put on the list. I’m the quirk-less wonder… then I was buzzing down the I-5 south of Portland, OR, and I pulled over at a rest stop. A skinny young guy was standing outside the building, staring at the sidewalk, holding a sign: Even a smile would help.
I went back to the car, got some cash, and gave it to him, because I have rule: Never pass a beggar without giving something. If somebody has reached the point where they are begging–begging–for help, then I will take the risk that I’m being manipulated by a con artist rather than chance turning a deaf ear to a plea for help. I do believe this qualifies as a quirk.
A couple days later, I’m driving around the small town where my daughter and son-in-law live, and one of them is riding shotgun and giving me directions for how to get somewhere. I realize they are sending me in the wrong direction. The two of them rely almost exclusively on their GPSs to navigate the roads, so dead reckoning doesn’t figure into their travels. I don’t use a GPS–will NOT use a GPS–and I think this also qualifies as a quirk.
Margot has the exercise in her book because she’s found that quirks often lead to a personal story, or at least a field where a story could be mined.
While visiting my offspring, we took a little walk in the forests around Belknap, and lordy, do I LOVE big trees. Love them. The story there is easy to find: I grew up surrounded by big trees. The survey oak in the field below our house was a sentinel to the passage of time, the woods were a playground for the imagination. I played in trees, turning them into clipper ships, asteroids, rafts, and other magical craft. Of course, I love them still.
So I guess I do have quirks. The rule about beggars is my mother’s spirit come to life, for she was forever inviting strangers to share our table. The GPS… welp, I am not the most trusting soul. I need to know where I am, and where the exits are. Those little GPSs lie, and need updating, and distract me from my journey.
I will use this exercise to build more interesting characters for my books, but I also think Margot is right: Quirks can point to interesting truths. Do you have quirks? Have you worked with or lived with somebody with a notable quirk? Is there a story there? A metaphor?
To one person who comments, I’ll send a copy of No Dukes Allowed.