Eat Your Pie and Listen

It’s Christmas and most people have some time off work, except we writers, who are always on the job—even more so at the holidays. But this is not as hard as it sounds if you follow my easy method. At your holiday gatherings with family and friends, load your plate with a few thousand calories, settle back in a comfy chair—and listen to Uncle Fred’s stories. It’s that simple.

Every family has an Uncle Fred, the gregarious guy with the Spanx-tight memory who loves to go on and on about the old days. Well, let him. And give yourself permission to shamelessly mine his stories for new material, let him dredge up the long-buried family embarrassments that will make your writing come to life.

The holidays make people nostalgic, and with enough rum-spiked eggnog you’ll finally get the truth behind the rumor that Aunt Ruth is really Uncle Charlie’s second wife and why we never ever mention wife number one.

The key to extracting these stories is to ask open-ended questions and, most importantly—listen. At my husband’s family Christmas in Pennsylvania, I asked for clarification of a story I’d heard about Uncle Ralph getting trapped in the upstairs bathroom.

Uncle Fred piped up before Ralph could get a word in, “Yeah, it’s true. Ralphie imbibed a few too many hot toddies, slipped on the bathmat and got his head stuck between the wall and the toilet. We were all downstairs watching White Christmas—I love that Bing Crosby—so we didn’t hear him yelling for help. (Note: In their defense, their average age hovered in the mid-80s and the TV volume was turned to Bleeding from the Ears.) Then Great Aunt Charlotte, who’s famous for her tiny bladder, decided to make a pit stop before midnight mass. She found him just as she was about to drop her drawers. He was so jammed in we had to grease his ears with Crisco to get him out. At mass his ears glowed red and shiny like Rudolph’s nose. When Father Ciperalli asked what happened, Ralphie said, ‘Um, I forgot my snow hat when I shoveled the walk.’” (Note: Lying to a priest is worthy of three Hail Mary’s and at least five juicy paragraphs.)

Mining conversations for future writing projects has the added bonus of taking the dread out of family gatherings. One Christmas Eve, when my semi-evil stepmother walked into my kitchen, I didn’t think twice when I made note of her classic line, “Dear, where do you keep your ice cubes?” (Note: Anything relatives say can be used against them as long as you change their names and hair color, and maybe don’t mention your aunt’s moustache. How closely you stick to details depends on how much you want to be invited back next year.)

So this holiday season, whip out your pad and pen, relax with a second piece of pie—who’s counting—and listen to your Uncle Fred’s stories.

Oh, and keep some Crisco in the bathroom.