Many to most people are storytellers. It’s what we do, for any number of reasons – to report, to inform, to entertain, to warn, to make it so that everyone who comes after doesn’t have to start at zero. We don’t stand on the shoulders of giants as often as we stand on the shoulders of stories.
But for those of us prone to fiction, for those of us whose reports are things that simply never happened and never will, it’s funny what real life offers up as inspiration.
A few days ago, I was on an airplane. The captain announced that we’d all been good citizens and had got situated and accounted for in record time. He said we’d be able to pull away from the gate a few minutes early. So we did.
As we backed out from the jetway, there was a bit of drumming at the right side of the plane. The clatter was enough to have me say to my seatmate, “Ah, the reassuring banging just before takeoff.”
The plane rolled forward and headed to the runway. The banging didn’t stop. In fact, it picked up tempo and insistence. The flight attendants exchanged quizzical looks over their seatbelt seminar and we all realized, at just about at the same instant, that the frantic thumping was coming from the floor.
The flight attendant sprinted for the cockpit, calling to us as she ran, “Everybody stomp on the floor so he knows we hear him!” Presumably, this would keep him from having a heart attack, the poor soul who had landed himself locked in the undercarriage. He was clearly concerned for his safety or else he really, really, really didn’t want to go to Atlanta for some reason.
The plane stopped and someone let him out. Then we were back to normal and off to the friendly skies.
For fiction writers, there are a lot of embers there, in a lot of genres, glowing away in the heart of that little campfire tale. You could blow on any one of them and spark a story to life.
For me, I was caught on the thought of how adrenaline-spiked that man must have been. How hot did his blood burn when the plane started forward and picked up speed? Was he the sort who would laugh it off over a beer later that day, or is he still having nightmares even now? Did it strengthen his faith in the world, that things usually work out fine, or did it rattle him into a nervous wreck? Does he carpe diem more now, or does he check a dozen times that he’s locked the door and turned off the oven?
And how much mileage does he get out of the story of the day he almost went to Atlanta in the bottom of a 737? Is it enough to change a man?
It’s one of the best things, maybe even the very best thing, about being a fiction writer: the possibilities are endless. That’s also one of the harder things. If anything can happen, well, anything can happen. You have to herd those cats and bend the focus onto a rail that makes a beginning, a middle, and The End.
You have to wear blinders to keep on task, but also know when to snatch them off when you’re stuck or the plot is getting stale. You have to pick the right words to make the writing worthy of the imagined thing.
Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It’s true and that’s the hard work of the job. But the fun of the job is getting to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane without having to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane.