The strangest thing happened on my way to work a few weeks ago. I’ll either remember it forever, or I’ll forget about it completely. It’s too soon to tell.
But here it is:
I was heading northbound on 315, preparing to switch lanes, when a fussy blue Suburban cut me off. I threw up my hands like a saucy Sicilian grandmother, and the passenger flipped me the bird.
I was affronted. Nonplussed. And in that moment of indignation, it came to me: The skeleton of a story.
Every bone was accounted for: Rough character sketches, the main story arc, the makings of conflict, the sweeping sigh of resolution. Plus, the grip of an emotional undertow—a thick red spine knitted loosely through the core.
I blinked and shook my head. It was the strangest feeling—a buzz, a pulse. Like my mind had been wiped clean to make room for some quick and humming coil of information.
“I want to write this!” I thought.
And then, “How can I write this?”
I had a similar experience once before—two Aprils ago, I think. I was stepping off the elevator and onto the fourth floor when I tripped over somebody’s pen. Suddenly: The blue outline of a story! I could think of nothing else for the rest of the day.
I even sketched it out for GB that night after dinner. He listened intently, then leaned back in his chair. “It sounds good,” he said encouragingly. “It sounds a little bit like Atonement. Right?”
I paused. “Atonement?”—the Ian McEwan novel I’d read and reread and read again?—“ Nooooooooooooooo. It’s totally different. See?” I sketched it out again, only this time, I talked with stubborn desperation. Because secretly I knew he was right. The plot wasn’t the same, but the themes were identical. I was a copycat. A thief.
I decided to write it anyway. Twelve pages in, I closed the file and threw it away.
There must be a secret all the published writers know about breathing life into a story. I wonder what that ingredient is, and where I can find it, because this grasping I do—this scratching at the surface for something more—is getting me nowhere. So I really just wonder if I can buy it somehow. Take a class. Schedule some sort of creative implantation. I’d do it, I wouldn’t think twice.
It makes me wish I could scroll back 49 years, creep into Ernest Hemingway’s study and say, “Listen, about ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’…aside from your obvious genius, how did you do that? Did you drink a magic potion? Suss it out in some sweat lodge? Because I read it, and I wish with all my heart I had words like that in me.”
That’s what separates the hacks from the real thing. One group tries to write. The other just does it.
Here’s the thing: I swore I’d start to write without worrying what anyone else might think. I swore I would do that, and I haven’t, and that’s just so frustrating.
So maybe William Faulkner was right: Maybe courage is the main ingredient—the will to crack open the egg just to see what seeps out.
I haven’t tried to do that yet. Because what if I do, and the egg is empty.
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