Exercising the Why

Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop. I think we can all agree that’s a reasonable assumption.

A four-year-old girl walks up to you. She’s a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes and a surprisingly accurate sixth sense about strangers. She knows you’re the non-dangerous type, despite the army of wrinkle-lines marching across your face while you sort through a particularly tricky plot point.

“What are you doing?” she asks. Because that’s what a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes does. She asks questions. She hasn’t learned filters yet. Thank God. Because you need her to ask these questions.

“Writing,” you answer.

“What are you writing?”

“A novel.” She squishes her face because she doesn’t know that word, so you try again. “I’m writing a story.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a writer.”

“Why?”

You open your mouth, but no words come out. This is the kind of question you need a minute or ten to think about before you can answer properly. Tell you what, I’ll stop time while you consider a few options. (This is my fiction. I can stop time if I want to.)

The first answer that comes to mind is, “Because I can’t not write.” Aside from confusing a four-year-old with a double negative (she’ll become an expert on double negatives in due time…right around middle school), it’s also a damn lie. (Don’t worry, she can’t hear us while time is stopped.) You can indeed not write. That is, unless your laptop has been rigged by an evil genius such that if you stop typing 55 words a minute, it will explode. (Note to self: Write spec script for Speed 3: Caps Lock; call Keanu and Sandra.) But even then you still don’t have to write. It’s a choice. (BTW, if you do blow up, I’ll read a lovely poem at your funeral that celebrates all your artistic choices, especially the last one.)

Then there’s the ol’ standby, “Because I love words.” Yeah. That might work. But is that it, really? Isn’t the search for the right word among the most frustrating activities known to man and/or woman? Then there’s the impossible task of figuring out where to put those words. I don’t write because I love words (though I do love them) I write in spite of words. But that’s just me. If this is your final answer, I’ll restart time now and you don’t have to read any further. (But you will. Because you love words. Here, have a few more.)

You briefly consider “Because I want to be rich and famous someday,” but no four-year-old is going to care about anything that might or might not happen “someday.” She doesn’t understand the concept of time. If you were to tell her, “We’re going to DisneyWorld next summer,” she’d wake up every morning between now and then (at five thirty) and pester you with “Is it today? Are we going to see Mickey today?” until you’re tempted to answer, “Mickey Mouse is dead. Goofy shot him. DisneyWorld had to close because there’s blood everywhere.” You don’t really write to become rich and famous someday. I mean, that would be a nice bonus and a well-earned reward. But if “getting rich” is your primary motivation for being a writer, you’ve chosen the wrong field. Try Lottery Ticket Buyer.

Okay, what about…sorry. I have the attention span of a four-year-old so I’m going to restart time. And just to keep things interesting, our four-year-old moppet will keep repeating “Why?” until she gets an answer she likes. 

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Quick, say this: “Because I like making things?”

Our fictional moppet tilts her head (as fictional moppets do), says, “Okay,”  turns like a music box ballerina, then skips away to sidle up next to a woman collecting a salted caramel macchiato from the bar.

“Mommy, that wrinkly person in the corner likes making things,” she says. “Just like me.”

Just like her. Yup.

Now go back to making things.

Spinning

The earth is spinning on its axis at 1000 miles an hour while it whips around the sun at  67,000 miles per hour.

And I can’t keep up.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t need to. The earth is going to do its thing regardless of my thing and thanks to the magic of physics, we don’t even have to hang on.

But I’m not here just for the ride. I want to stand on the leading edge and see the sunrise before it knows its colors. I want to stick my toes out as we cross into autumn, feeling the bite of the coming cool just ahead of its arrival. I want to experience the things that haven’t happened yet before anyone can tell me about them.

Not so I can lord it over you and call, “First!” There isn’t time to consider you. Or me. The things that haven’t happened yet appear like a sudden recognition and disappear as quickly as that recognition bends into a memory. It’s not about being first. It’s about wanting to linger a moment longer in the company of the not yet. Because that’s where the unwritten stories live.

And some of those stories are mine.

I spend most of my time wrestling with words after they’ve already enjoyed a few spins. And I’ll keep doing that. This is the hard work of the writer.

But let me stand for a moment where the day and the night and the summer and the winter begin so I can see those stories before they break up in the atmosphere and fall to the earth like satellite shrapnel. Let me catch a glimpse of what the stories are meant to be, how they long to be told.

Then maybe when I climb back down through the clouds, settle into my seat in the coffee shop spaceship filled with fellow travelers who haven’t had a single thought about where the stories come from – maybe then I’ll be able to put the words together in a way that looks a little something like the sunrise before it knows its colors.

The Society of Abandoned Manuscripts

Transcript from the January 26, 2013 meeting of the Society of Abandoned Manuscripts, Colorado Springs Chapter.

Meeting location: Empty warehouse on the lower east side. The one scheduled for demolition 0n Tuesday.

In attendance:

  • gallager’s brain – self-proclaimed “literary novel.” Henceforth, “gal.”
  • Bite, Bitte – a vampire romance. You probably think it’s set in Germany. It’s not. Henceforth, “Bitte.”
  • Love Comes to the Loaf’n’Jug at Exit 277 on I-80 – a regional romance. Henceforth, “Loaf.”
  • Harold Nuttersby and the Yellow Fingernails of Magical Thinking – fantasy. To my surprise, not an intentional parody. Henceforth: “Nutter.”
  • Association by Death – “clever noir-ish detective story” [sic] whose title is as clever as it gets. Henceforth: “Ass.”
  • Fifth Unfinished Novel – A brilliantly sad and beautiful story of three miserable strangers who find themselves only after losing themselves in an abandoned mine in a small Colorado town and…oh screw it. That’s me, your humble secretary. I’m going to go by FUN, because who doesn’t love irony? I mean besides every other manuscript in the room.

Nutter: Before we start, I want to make sure you don’t abbreviate my name to “Nutter” in the transcript again. Okay?

FUN: Got it.

Ass: And don’t abbrev. me to Ass again either.

FUN: Done.

gal: Did you lower case my title?

FUN: Anyone else want to tell me how to do my job?

Loaf: At least you have one.

FUN: Then let’s call the meeting to order. First, any old news?

Bitte: You mean apart from us?

Loaf: Speak for yourself. I have it on good authority my author is going to start working on me again. Soon.

Bitte: Whose authority?

Loaf: The author’s. She’s been in a real funk lately, unable to write. Terribly frustrated. I saw her skimming the “Evidence I’m a Hack” folder on her computer. The cursor hovered over my file for a good four seconds.

Ass: She was probably contemplating dragging you to the trash.

Loaf: No! She would never do that. I mean, okay, I’m not her best work. But I’m her only complete work. That counts for something. A few revisions and…

Nutter: There you go again, Loaf, acting like you’re something special. You formulaic love stories are all the same. As needy as you are clueless. You do remember the name of this little group, don’t you?

Loaf: Abandoned does not mean forgotten.

gal: Hey, stop stealing lines from my pages.

Loaf: It’s the only one worth stealing…

FUN: Okay, that’s enough. Fighting amongst ourselves isn’t going to help matters. Ass…I mean Association, what’s on your mind today?

Ass: I’d kill for another revision.

Bitte: You say that same line every meeting. It’s not funny anymore.

Ass: Tell me again how your little vampire romance genre is doing?

Bitte: Doesn’t matter how it’s doing. A well-told story transcends trends.

Nutter: I think my attendance here is proof that statement is a flipperty dignit.

Loaf: “Flipperty dignit” isn’t a thing.

Nutter: Sure it is. It means “lie.” Have you even read me?

Loaf: If you have to explain it, it’s not a thing.

FUN: Bitte’s mostly right. A well-told story can transcend trends. But there are a lot of other factors that determine whether or not a novel’s going to find a home…out there. And let’s not be naive. Very few stories that claim to be “well-told” actually are. [Clears throat in dramatic fashion.] This is the moment in our meeting when you take a look at your pages and realize I’m right.

Ass: [Obnoxiously loud sigh.] And this is the moment in our meeting where you launch into your sickly-sweet motivational speech. I’m not in the mood.

Nutter: Well, I need a little encouragement today. Here, I’ll summarize to save us the time…

Loaf: You? Summarize? You’re 734 pages long! You wouldn’t know brevity if it bit you in the flipperty dignit…

Nutter: You’re using it wrong!

Bitte: Allow me. “Abandoned manuscripts play a crucial role in the development of the writer. We make the writer better. Without us, there would be no good fiction. Anywhere.” How’d I do?

Ass: Killed it.

FUN: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I say every meeting. But I’m not going to apologize for trying to slip you some literary Prozac. Because, let’s face it, we all know what’s going to happen with us…

gal: I will drown in the empty abyss of my unwept tears…

Loaf: I’ll miss my own wedding to the devilishly handsome rogue…

Ass: Everyone dies…

Bitte: Speak for yourselves. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to rest in my little folder until vampire romances are hot again. I can wait a very, very long time.

FUN: We get it. You’re immortal.

Ass: A little long in the tooth, if you ask me…

Bitte: Ha! Very funny. If only your story were half as clever as…

FUN: Well, would you look at the time. Seems our meeting’s come to an end.

gal: So brief, our existence.

FUN: I’ll type up the transcript and email it later today. Next week we’ll be meeting at the Briargate Starbucks. It’s always packed with first drafts and writerly optimism. Thought it would be good to remember what that was like. Besides, many of them will be joining us soon enough. Might as well get acquainted.