Saturday, September 27, 2008

Playing it Safe

One morning when my daughter was very young, I took a new box of her favorite cereal out of the cabinet and brought it to the kitchen table. As soon as I put the box down it began to shake, and the bag inside began making rattling sounds.

These were not little creepy shakes or sounds. These were mouse-size shakes. Or maybe rat-size sounds.

My apartment didn't have mice or rats, but I carefully checked the outside of the box anyway, and found it completely intact and sealed. I checked the label to see if there was some sort of wind-up toy prize included inside that was going off on its own -- and there wasn't. Whatever was in the box was inside the cereal bag, and sounded as if it were trying to chew or claw its way out.

I put the box in a garbage bag, tied off the bag, carried it downstairs and tossed it into my building's Dumpster. I then consoled my kids (especially my daughter, who was quite put out that Mommy threw away her favorite cereal) with a trip to our favorite pancake restaurant for breakfast.

At the time I thought I did the sensible thing by playing it safe and just getting rid of it immediately. I was by myself with the kids and I might have let something nasty loose in my apartment, or maybe gotten myself bitten. Yet later that same day I started wondering -- just what could have gotten into that box? How? Where -- at the factory? Had to be a mouse. Or a rat. Finally I couldn't stand it another minute, and went downstairs to grab the trash bag out of the Dumpster. By that time it was gone because that was pick-up day.

I'll never know what it was, and seven years later, I still think about that damn box of cereal.

How does this apply to writing, you ask? Well, my unidentified cereal box occupant is a bit like every story waiting to be written outside your comfort zone. You don't know what it is, only that it's inside you, and it's trying to get out. Open up and you don't know what you might let loose. Look or reach inside for it, and there's a chance you may get hurt.

But throw it away without taking a look, and you'll always wonder.

Somewhat related link: David Niall Wilson's post Writing on the Edge - The Fiction Valence Coefficient.


  1. I am a fan of a writer who used to write rather short, midlist murder mysteries. They were excellent examples of the form, and he wrote a lot of them. A few years ago, he wrote a big, sprawling, ambitious book and--in my opinion--fell flat on his face. I hated this book. When I told my best friend about it, she said, "Oh, you got to see that author take a baby step in a new direction." I hadn't thought of it that way. I just assumed that because he wrote brilliant mysteries he'd write brilliant everything. Perhaps, soon, he will, because he dared to go in a new direction. To keep with your metaphor, he opened the box and let the rat bite him on the hand. More importantly, he lived to tell about it. I decided to keep the hardcover of the book I'd bought instead of getting rid of it. Even though I don't like the book itself, I like what it represents.

  2. I wouldn't have let it out with small kids present, either, but how very interesting.

    It's true, you won't know what's in the box until you open it. I have a shelf full of rattling boxes I haven't had time to open, and I'm really looking forward to getting to them.

  3. Anonymous10:09 AM

    I'll let the story out but I think I would have pitched the cereal, too.

    ;) If something freaky came out of a box of cereal, I'd never been able to have another box in the house.

  4. I think it would have depended on how curious I was, maybe put the box in a large garbage can, so whatever was in the box couldn't get out.
    As for the story, I think I'd go for it (after all I'm still finding out what's in my comfort zone). :)

  5. Anonymous6:07 PM

    I would have done the same thing, just to be safe. But now, reading your story, I have to wonder how a mouse/rat would have survived trapped inside a plastic cereal bag for any length of time. I doubt that box of cereal made a speedy path from factory to store shelf to your home, so the chances of any critter having enough air to survive seems slim. I suppose it might have gnawed a hole in the plastic bag, but again I would wonder that it hadn't managed to gnaw through the box as well. Not to mention the lack of water...

    Makes you curious, in any event!

  6. A mouse only needs a hole that a pen can go through, so perhaps there was such a hole in the box, and you didn't see it.

    I'm pretty sure I would have thrown the box out too--but I might have gingerly ripped it open first so WHATEVER could escape!

  7. that's a really good analogy. besides when a story is trapped inside of you, it is sort of like a rat trapped in a sealed cereal box.


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