The other day I was meeting with a book club, and a woman asked me, "How do you write oh-sh** moments? You know what I mean. When a character suddenly realizes everything is about to hit the fan."
"It helps if you've lived through thousands of them."
I know I have. Like the time when a guy in a moon suit poked the ceiling in my office. The wallboard collapsed, and a 16-square-foot nest of hornets rained down on my agent's redlined draft of Top Producer. There was ooze and bald-faced hornet gak all over my carefully wrought manuscript. It was, I suppose, an ominous start to my career as a novelist.
Or how about the time when Mary and I took our children to a kid-inappropriate Broadway musical? The show was an unsettling combination of catchy tunes and lurid sexual innuendo. We realized our mistake and left at intermission. But there's more to the story -- because sometimes it's impossible to get a jingle out of your head.
Our son was in grade school back then. He sang and hummed one of the show tunes during a birthday party for his little sister. Over and over, oh my. There were about fifteen little girls running around the house that day, and one of the moms confronted me when he belted out a few verses during pickup.
"Where did he learn that song?" she asked.
"It was a terrible accident," I said, apologizing all over myself. "We brought our kids to that musical. That awful, awful musical. I'm so embarrassed." On and on I rambled, afraid that our friend would think less of us as parents.
As I was backpedaling, a pained expression came over her face. "You really didn't care for the show?"
I said, and I quote verbatim, " 'It sucked.' "
"I'm so sorry," the woman said. "I produced it."
See what I mean? I've had my share of oh-sh** moments. Which takes me to title of this post.
Every year hundreds of organizations visit Harvard College to recruit graduating seniors. By the spring of 1980 my eight roommates and I had wallpapered our halls with rejection letters from half of them, maybe more. I was down to my last shot -- no offers in hand -- so you can imagine that I was more than a little tense when the proverbial, hail mary interview with Chase Manhattan began.
The one-on-one meeting took place inside Harvard's Office of Career Services. It was an old, rabbit warren of a building with a handful of stark rooms, where recruiters could screen applicants.
Chase's recruiter that day was an attractive woman, not much older than me. Frankly, she didn't dress like a banker nor sound like one either -- which I found disarming.
"We're going to role play," the recruiter said in a Kewpie doll voice.
Oh puh-lease, I thought, annoyed that my interview, my final shot at the big time on Wall Street, was starting off with a kids' game.
"You'll be a banker," she continued. "I'll be a client. And at the end of the meeting, you'll decide whether I get the loan. Or not, if I'm a poor credit risk."
"I know now. Do you want the cash in ten or twenties?" I thought the comment was funny, something to break the ice. It was, however, the wrong thing to say.
The recruiter, a graduate of the London School of Economics, leaned forward on the edge of her chair as though to pounce. And pounce she did. She spent the next 45 minutes taking me apart. I was clueless about cash flows and banking. When her questions ended, I felt like I had gone 12 rounds with George Foreman -- in the ring, not with one of his 1-800 grills.
"Look," I said, my hand on the door. "I want to work for Chase Manhattan forever. I have always wanted to be a banker. I will always be a banker, and there's only one thing you need to know about me."
"Which is?" Suddenly, she was curious.
"If you hire me, I'll turn on the lights in the morning and off at night. I'll work my ass off." Yes, I said "ass." What did I have to lose? "Wherever you are, you can rest assured that I'll be grinding away to identify great loans and above all to protect Chase from a fiasco. Know what I'm saying?"
"But you need to give me a shot. I promise I won't let you down." Phew. My crescendo was complete. I opened the door and smiled at the recruiter, again thinking how pretty she was. Hearing a thunderous ovation inside my head, I walked through the door and closed it until the latch clicked tight.
I was inside a closet.
As if there were any doubt, I felt something brush against my nose. It turned out to be a light pull. Which, of course, I pulled to ensure my imagination was not playing a bad trick on me.
Talk about turning crimson. Yes, this was an oh-sh** moment.
As an author writing these scenes now, I try to remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was not the empty sensation of hunger. Nor was it the queasy awareness that precedes nausea. I clearly remember angst. I remember absolute humiliation. And I remember the overwhelming fear that I might cough up one of my organs. It was that bad--then.
It is beautiful now. My treasure trove of oh-sh** moments are a wonderful resource. They help me understand what my fictional characters are thinking when they get into trouble. Or what they would say during those times of profound humiliation. I get inside my head--which helps me get inside the heads of the people I create.
Back to the closet.
I opened the door and heard a wheezing sound, but I didn't see the recruiter at first. She had slipped off her chair. Literally. She was on the floor, holding her stomach, gasping with laughter.
Well, it was pretty clear what was necessary. I helped her up, shook her hand, and thanked her again. "If you hire me," I said, "please make sure to get me a map of the floor." And with that I walked out the door, this time the real one.
For the record, Chase Manhattan hired me. But that's not the point. I'd love to hear what you think about oh-sh** moments, whether you're reading them, writing them, or experiencing them in real time.
And if you're brave enough, why not share a few of your own oh-sh** moments with Huffington Post or visit my website.