When Howard was four, he and his baby sister were playing in the living room, while his mother and his grandmother sat at the kitchen table just around the corner. A few days before, while staying with his grandmother, Howard had said something cute–he did that a lot–and today, over coffee, his grandmother told her daughter about it.
Immediately after Grandma finished the anecdote, Howard piped up from the other room, “That makes a pretty good story, doesn’t it?”
That’s a four-year-old thinking like a writer. Thinking, in fact, like James Thurber, who filled entire books with cute things. Thurber said this about his works in progress:
“I often tell them at parties and places. And I write them there too….I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.'”
Writers never stop writing. We may be immersed in experience and emotion, and at the same time be standing outside ourselves, thinking, That would make a pretty good story.
For the purposes of this post, I’m now going to tell a brief story. When you finish reading it, there will be a test:
A couple of weeks ago, I was riding the Washington, D. C. Metro, going from Reagan International Airport to Bethesda, Maryland, for Malice Domestic, a convention at which fans and authors celebrate the traditional mystery.
My plane had arrived late. Darkness had fallen and seeped into the rail tunnels. Signage was… lacking. I couldn’t see names of the stops, nor could I understand the voice announcing them.
I’d already wasted time by taking the YELLOW LINE instead of the BLUE LINE, because, on impulse, I decided my way would get me to the RED LINE just as easily as the BLUE LINE would. And it would have, if the YELLOW LINE I boarded hadn’t been going the wrong way. If I missed my stop now, there was a distinct possibility I would have to sleep on the Metro, which is considered taboo.
Now, each Metro car has one map beside one of the doors. At a stop near mine, I decided to move to the front seat so I could see and count the stops preceding mine. I rose, pushed my humongous suitcase into the aisle, and somehow managed to position it between me and the front of the car. So I pulled up the handle and tried to turn the case so I could roll it behind me. At the same time, I tried to exchange places with it. I think.
That is when the suitcase attacked me. Rocking back and forth, it threw me off balance, and I fell backward, full length, into the aisle. On the way down, I thought, I’ve never fallen this direction before. Then my bottom hit, and after that, my head.
When I realized my head would hit the floor, I had a nanosecond of worry, but I hardly felt the impact. That surprised me, because my head is protected by far less padding than is my bottom. It was such an easy fall, very much like lying down in the aisle, without knowing you’re going to.
End of story, almost.
Here’s test question #1: How does this not-so-pretty-good tale about a train ride relate to thinking like a writer?
Because when no one ran to help me up, and I realized I was alone, surrounded by dark, unfamiliar territory far from home, where anybody and his mean dog could enter the car at any time… I lay in the aisle, smiling, gazing at the ceiling, and thinking, This will make a pretty good story, won’t it?
Unfortunately, this obsession–the word is an exaggeration, but sometimes it feels like obsession–with story isn’t necessarily welcome… because we can’t switch it off. It follows us into the sickroom and stands with us at the graveside and makes us feel ashamed, because one small corner of our minds is nearly always detached, removed from real life, observing, remembering, writing.
We speak about the subject among ourselves. But when we speak about it to non-writers, we concentrate on the lighter side. The other part we prefer to leave in darkness.
Only the relative anonymity of the blogger allows me to write about it here.
Test question #2: Do you write all the time? Do you know when you’re not writing? Have you had an experience that would make a pretty good story?
Note: Imagine the child in the portrait above with blond hair… That would be Howard.
Note: Metro riders who knew where they were going were so very helpful in assuring me that, yes, the YELLOW LINE would stop at Gallery Place. I think I asked at least a dozen of them over the course of the evening. A transit worker carrying a broom yelled at me, but I’m sure he was doing the best he could, bless his heart. I am sorry to say I raised my voice a couple of decibels in return (righteous indignation), but, bless my heart, I was doing the best I could, too. It’ll probably make a pretty good story.