Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My First HCM (Heart-Clutching Moment)

When I was visiting my mother about five years ago, she handed me a piece of paper and said, "I think this is the first thing you ever wrote."

It is a half sheet of lined paper on which I had written an account of an important event in my mother's and my life, that is the death of her father. I titled it, "My Grandfather's Furenal." It wasn't really about the 'furenal'; it was about the news of his death. I was six when this occurred, and the moment impressed itself on me deeply, as did the three days I spent with the family hanging around the mortuary where Grandpa was laid out. I'd only met my grandfather a few times (he lived in another state), but he had been a friendly presence. The transcription is at the end of this post.

I must have written the account when I was eight or nine, on one of the two impossibly heavy typewriters we had in the house, secondhand models that were old and outdated even then. (One was an Underwood, the other probably a Remington.) But boy, were they satisfying to use! I can still smell the machine oil and the ribbons, can still feel the resistance of the keys, that smooth progressive weird sensation that ends with a dry pop! and a release, over and over.

Not everything about progress is good.

My point is this: we all respond to significant moments in life, whether we are children or adults. Moreover, we respond to them vicariously, in the books we read (fiction and nonfiction), the movies we see, the jokes we hear at the tavern.

In my articles for Writer's Digest and in You've Got a Book in You, I call these heart-clutching moments, or HCMs. They tend to be the more genuine, intense moments of life. Birth, death, betrayal, a stroke of luck, a bolt of passion, an instant of grace, a pang of conscience, a disaster—these are just a few sorts of heart-clutching moments.

HCMs are the fuel that drives stories forward, and they are the string that binds your readers to you.

The little six-year-old me was so impressed by a message of death that the little eight-year-old me felt compelled to document it. I don't know who I expected would read it, but somehow I felt it was the most worthwhile thing I had to offer the world.

Grownup writers sometimes feel that to put in HCMs is to be exploitative, and so they tone them down. To heck with that! Let 'em out, write 'em fully, give your readers all the meat and bones of it. We're in the business of making readers feel.

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My Grandfather's furenal

When my mother got up one morning, she answerd the telephone, and I knew that my grandfather was sick of a blood clot in the leg.

But anyway it was on the telephone my grandmother and she said that grandfather was dead, and mommy started to cry. And then she told me that grandpa was dead.

Then we both started to cry. So my mom woke up dad. And that very next day we went to grandma's house and she took us to my cousin's house. And the next day and the day after that and the next day we had to wait for the furenal. Then the furenal. And my uncle gave a big cross of flowers. I was very sad.



  1. Yes, a true HCM! I was probably 9 or 10 when my grandfather died. I remember, but never had the tools to want to record it. Interesting.
    And you're right, that's the reason we're in business, to FEEL.


    1. Yes, Jeanne, readers crave authenticity and depth of feeling, especially in contemporary times, when we're both better-connected and more disconnected than we ever were.


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