December Theme: Gifts (Sarah Dooley)

When I write, the first thing I do is let myself float. I fix on one thing – an idea, a song, a scent, or, say, a monthly blog theme – and I float through memories and sensory impressions until a few specific words disentangle themselves from the haze and give me a place to start.

When I began to reflect on this month’s theme – gifts, in their many forms – I kept coming back to a snowy doorstep in 1986. I felt the crunch of snow under my sneakers. Saw the puff of my breath blurring the twinkling lights from other trailers. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to have the door open.

That was the year that presents appeared like magic on the doorstep. I know now that they must have come from some church or charity, and even then, at five, I knew it was people and cars, not elves and reindeer, who had brought them. At the time I only knew that they hadn’t come from Mom and Dad, and I felt a weight in the room, one I didn’t recognize.

That Christmas, we sat at the kitchen table with my grandma, my mom’s mom, who would only be with us another Christmas or two. She showed us how to paint walnuts to look like strawberries. I wasn’t sure why anyone would do such a thing, but the paintbrush felt good in my hands and doing something with food besides eating it seemed like a luxury. I sat at the table with my grandmother, whose love I could feel in every brushstroke she showed me, and created something totally pointless just for the sake of it.

Gifts. This is the time of year where everything is wrapped and tied with a bow and lit with softness and color against a backdrop of snow. Surreal. Nothing is quite what it seems and you never know what’s inside the boxes with the bows.

What was inside the gift I was given by being born where, and when, and to who I was? By growing up in a family in which walnuts were a luxury, and presents were left on the doorstep?

And what does this all have to do with writing?

When I write, I tell a story. But before the story, I find the setting. Often, my stories begin with things that feel a lot like snowy doorsteps and clumsy paintbrushes, the sound of church vans fading into the night, the tight expressions of parents who put aside their own feelings so there are packages for the little ones to open. When I drift – in that moment before the words come – I feel as if I know the scene from every vantage point – the well-meaning folks placing presents by the door, hoping they will bring a smile to a child’s face – the parents bringing in the presents to place next to their own, not caring which one brings a smile to the child’s face as long as one of them does – the child, not recognizing the weight in the room for what it is, opening the door to see if it escapes like a puff of breath against the snow --

I have been given the gift of setting, and my characters know how to love. This is one of the many presents I continue to unwrap.


  1. I agree--setting is SO important. When done well, the setting actually becomes another character.


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