November 29th, 2017

Everything I Need To Know About Writing, I Learned at Dairy Queen

Kimberly Brock

There was this time when I was in college and working at a local outlet mall around the holidays so everything in my memory is a blur of gift wrap, cinnamon scented candles and rude people. But there was a Dairy Queen at the entrance to the mall and so almost daily, I ran through the drive-through for something – a burger, or a blizzard. I’d sit in the parking lot and eat and watch the traffic and try to find a Zen place before entering the fray.

There were plenty of people to watch and even though I wasn’t yet aware that this quirk in my personality that made me a serial observer would one day serve me well as a writer, I was already practicing my craft. I loved to imagine who the people were and what their lives were like, and most of the time I was absolutely certain of my deductions.

As I said, I was very young. Things and people seemed more cut and dry, black and white, good and bad, to me then. My own life experiences were fairly limited. They say to write what you know and I was filling journals with childhood memories, bad poetry, and romantic notions, but not much else. Not because I didn’t know anything else, but because I couldn’t write everything I knew. To write everything I knew meant to expose the addictions, abuses and broken places in my family and community, and I wasn’t interested in those kinds of betrayals. To write everything came at a cost that was too high.

And then I saw her. The Dairy Queen.

On the sidewalk, she sat like a squat toad under a bundle of brown clothes that obviously didn’t fit her. Her gray hair was thin and pulled hard off her face into a tight knot at the back of her head. Her face was hard and tight and dark from the sun. Her jaw was set in that strange angle of those without teeth and her eyes were slits, suspicious and mysterious and somehow threatening. I saw her in great detail because I’d pulled into the drive-through line and my car was stopped directly in front of her. I couldn’t ignore her. I couldn’t stare at her. She made me nervous and I remember checking to be sure my doors were locked, as if she might suddenly jump up and hop in my car.

My entire reaction embarrassed and shamed me, the girl with a journal full of sweet, clean little girl stories. She held a cardboard sign, you know the kind. I wish I could say that I clearly recall what it read but you can guess: Homeless. Need food. Please help.

I won’t lie to you. I wanted to look away. I felt I had no idea what to do. Except, I knew exactly what to do, but was afraid to do it. When I look back on this memory I realize that feeling visits me frequently in my writing choices and that’s a strange realization. We’re presented with choices in life and in our work and we can look away and make excuses or we can have the courage to act, to take a hard look and know something for what it is, to name it and face it. Maybe it’s not the same, altogether, but there’s some essence of dignity that comes in being honest with ourselves, with others – with our readers.

The everything that I knew – all the things I couldn’t honestly write about yet - told me that if I rolled my window down and gave the Dairy Queen a twenty dollar bill, she wouldn’t use it to put food in her belly or to take a cab to wherever she could sleep for the night. She drink it. Or worse. It would be taken from her. The everything told me to pull out of the drive through line, park my car, and speak to the Dairy Queen. And for some reason, I did. For some reason, that particular day, I was prepared to meet her. Whether she was prepared to meet me was a different story and that’s what I’m really getting to here, but let me explain.

When I reached out to take her hand and introduce myself, she looked frightened. And honestly, angry. My hand was empty and she was looking for that twenty from my wallet. But I gave her my name, instead. She did not give me hers. I didn’t mind. I’d already named her, anyway. Then I told her that if she would wait – go inside and have a seat where it was warm – I would buy her a meal, run to the grocery store to get her a few things, and be right back to call her a cab to take her to the local shelter for the night.

I will never be sure that she wanted – or needed – any of the things that I offered. She never thanked me. She never spoke to me, at all, in fact. She looked completely stunned and even more than that, annoyed. But she didn’t turn down the free cheeseburger. I paid for her meal and left her sitting in a booth while I ran to the nearest grocery store and filled two bags with cans of soup, peanut butter, nuts, crackers, tuna and a few chocolate bars, because I thought they would make her smile. The everything I knew told me that what she wanted me to come back with were alcohol and cigarettes, and chocolate would go unappreciated. But it also told me that it had been a long time since someone tried to take care of the Dairy Queen, who might not even still be waiting in that booth by the time I hurried back. And more than anything I could give her, maybe the most important thing was that I return.

Truly, I hadn’t expected to find her there. By the look on her face, she was as surprised to see me. I gave her the bags of groceries and told her a cab would arrive any minute. And I left her there.

I wish I could say that things ended with some kind of miracle. I wish I could say that it was a transformative moment in my life and that I was a better person for having met the Dairy Queen. But the truth is, I already knew her. In fact, I often wonder if I conjured her out of the everything inside myself.

I was ready to meet her that day and I meet her every day since I started to write. Through so many of the characters in my work, I hear her so clearly, all the things she didn’t say to me that day, years ago. All the everything she embodied and I was afraid to expose. I imagine what she saw when a young, well-dressed woman approached her and naively assumed her needs, then ran off to try to meet them with a few bags of groceries and a cab to nowhere. And I try to give to her what I couldn’t give that day – nor to my own dark and silenced stories – I try to give her the chance to speak. For in her silence, at the cost of a little humility, she gave me the gift of my own voice.

Where did you find your voice? We'd like to hear your story.

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About Kimberly

Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.

Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of  Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.

She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.

46 responses to “Everything I Need To Know About Writing, I Learned at Dairy Queen”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Kimberly, you always make me think - but this one...wow. You've perfectly captured not only the struggle we all have with giving to the homeless, but you reminded me of that innocent girl inside me, just wanting to do good, and not having a clue. I thought she was dead.

    I think I discovered my voice the first time I was put down, or bullied (and there were many incidents). In fact, in the acknowledgements of the book I'm writing now, I'm going to thank them. They gave me inspiration - because I was going to show them.

    Along the way, I showed myself, too.

    How amazing is that?

    • Yes! That's a terrific example of the secret inspirations that move us through our daily lives - and find their way onto the page, even if in disguise. You absolutely have proven yourself to a be talent and a generous person, Laura! xo

  2. Brilliant, Kimberly, as I've come to expect. This one had me in tears, and I hope it will reach deep into the viscera of hundreds--thousands!--of authors to confer the kind of grace and strength you gleaned from your Diary Queen.

    As usual, thanks for taking me deeper!

    Cheers, Faith

  3. I found my voice the day I discovered something broken, and instead of trying to fix it, I wrote a story about it - a story of how being broken is part of all of us, being broken makes us human, and learning to look past others’ broken pieces is what makes us decent humans. (How’s that for a run on sentence?)

  4. Some writers are gifted with the ability to see and capture every detail. Others, like myself, are not. If you don't have that gift, you may learn it by just trying to be more observant over the years. But even if you don't have that gift, or haven't learned that skill, I think all authors see, and are able to capture some detail – something that suddenly stands out for them. And that is often enough to help find voice for a subject they suddenly realize is important to them. I suspect many of us have similar stories to Kimberly's. I believe we all want to help others, but are often afraid to be drawn in beyond our level of comfort. That's natural. That we are still able to overcome those fears, that's natural too. Sometimes the human desire to help is so pent up, it overcomes our fears…and something good happens.

  5. Shirley Wine says:

    What an uplifting and insightful article. I have always loved people watching it is an all absorbing experience and endlessly fascinating pastime. It is so human to want to help, to know when to help but it's also equally important to recognise and know when to step back and let a person do something for themselves.
    Sadly this too is something that is so very hard to do, as Jerry said, it is a natural human drive to want to help, fix or change a situation. As a probation officer told me many years ago, the hardest thing for a parent to do, is to step back and do nothing.

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    I was the little girl in a scary home who read to escape it. To be truly frightened, before you have the words to describe those feelings? Isn't that what makes most writers? Those scared kids have to figure out the way to get those feelings to the page.

    However, when it comes to voice...for me it was blogging. I'm an extrovert, so the day I discovered the joy of writing to a community and making them laugh, my writing voice was born.

  7. crbwriter says:

    Well said. I believe I found my voice when I finally accepted my story.

  8. I watched you doing this in my mind, seeing your kind face and sweet, gentle voice, and your fear being overcome by your compassion, and I know you blessed that woman in ways beyond what any of us can imagine. I continue to be spellbound by your storytelling, your honesty and your ability to spin words into such substance that I can fold them around myself. Thank you for sharing this. For sharing yourself.

  9. Kinmberly, I too, saw this silent woman, with so much to say, in vivid detail. I could smell the aroma of her fear and neglect, and spark of anger, indigination, and need in her eyes. I saw the eagerness in your young face and the anxiety etched in your brow wondering if she would be waitng when you returned. You mesmerized me with your words and the woman moved me. Thank you for sharing.

  10. anngmesa says:

    Kimberley, your description of the Dairy Queen was so good, I could picture her exactly in my mind, down to the toothless jawline. What a touching story! I came of age in the turbulent 60s, when my sociology and psychology professors claimed to have the answers to all that ailed the world, and I often pictured myself as some kind of self-proclaimed goddess who would salve the wounds and cure the ills of humanity. It came down to paying for meals at MacDonalds a few times, and donating to good causes. I think my disappointment in myself at not doing more, not demanding more of myself, not being the heroine I thought I should have been, gave birth to my voice. Unable to permit a long-buried family story to disappear into the vortex of the past, I began writing. And now my book will be published soon -- early 2018. Thank you for forcing me to put into words what I have not been able to do before today.

  11. Fae Rowen says:

    Thanks for reminding me of my Dairy Queen moment. The summer after I graduated from high school I worked as a receptionist at an escrow office. One day a man, obviously homeless, came in and asked for bus fare. He said he needed to get to his daughter's in the next state and he only needed $5 more.

    I pulled out my wallet and gave him $5 and good wishes. That $5 was 10% of my weekly paycheck, but I felt so good about helping him...until the four women in the office rolled back in their chairs and looked at me, shaking their heads. "He's just going to buy a bottle," "He's a bum," "You should never have given him money."

    After the owner berated me, I felt stupid. But I held out hope that he was walking to the bus stop to go see his daughter, and I had helped him.

    I keep a $5, $10 and $20 bill in the cup holder of my car for fast giving at a freeway exit or in a parking lot. It's part of my "grateful practice" that I don't have to stand on a corner with my hand out. And I hope that my money and my compassion will heal something in the receiver.

  12. Julie Glover says:

    Are all authors people-watchers? Like nearly every other teenager in the 1980s, I would often go to the mall with my friends to kick around. But unlike most of them, and unbeknownst to most of them, I spent a lot of my mental time watching people around me, collecting tidbits about who they might be, imagining their stories. It took me more than two decades before I realized I could WRITE THOSE DOWN.

    Thanks for this great post that got me thinking about when and how we find our voice!

  13. cwolffe says:

    This post is just what I needed today. For too long, I've dropped into my chair and stared at my WIP and stressed over my plot, my word count, my book surging toward a finish line. After reading your post, I realized, I'd lost track of the reason to write. Thank you for your post.

  14. Your Story brought me to tears and reminded me of The Good Samaritan parable. You were the one that didn't walk past. It's so true that such an act blesses you multi-fold. You never know how your act of kindness translated to The Dairy Queen. But as a writer you can complete her story in thousands of ways, thus giving both you and her a voice. Thanks for sharing such a blessed story


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