At the End of the Day

I have seen the face of heaven, and it is a fortieth high school reunion.

Forty years is a lot of river gone by. Divorce, disease, death, disappointment—there was plenty of it. But there were also the good things: the kids, the jobs, the marriages, the promotions, the fortunes, and even—the serious fortune. Some were grandparents. Many had retired. Some had careers that were still rising. One was dancing the tango in Argentina. One wants to open a B&B. One lives on the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. Another of us had been to see her—twice.  What had life dealt you and where are you today? The stories came, all night long.

Where’s the rabbit hole we fell into?

And yes, the former boyfriend was there too, with his wife who seemed terrific. He’s an ophthalmologist, and a good one, people said, and he just took a position at Stanford. I wondered what he could see when he looked into a person’s eyes. There was no time to ask him. His own eyes, his wife’s eyes—in fact, when you got right down to it, everyone’s eyes were killers. Especially those that peered out at you from a ruined face. Life is so arbitrary.

The bar did a business. And then there was the stage, with the microphone in heavy use at the madcap attempts at order.   There was laughter. Shock and recognition, all night long. Lipstick rubbed from cheeks. A video. A slipping out to the parking lot. A slipping back. Don’t think I didn’t see that. An impromptu madrigal experience. Notes compared on who still did music and who did not.

Some hadn’t changed even a tiny bit. And some turned out wholly different than I would have imagined. White dinner jacket? White pony tail? Wild enthusiasm for just about everything? From what wellspring do you drink, sir, and where can I find it? And yes: weep not. She loved you.

Or how about that fellow who delivered a drink to a fetching gal, napkin folded over his presenting arm like a waiter. “You know I always take care of you,” he said.

And how about the psychiatrist who pulled up a chair and listened to another’s tale of a rough time. It was so skilful. It was so kind.

There was a lot of talent in that room, a lot of compassion. “If only I had known” was a common refrain. Even the ones you might have thought, back in high school, didn’t know your name were happy to see you. Come on, sit down. Tell me all.

Oh, the half sentences. Oh, the innuendos. The things I would mull later, wishing for the chance to cross-examine.

And how about that conversation in the ladies’ room where we took score, once and for all: who had sex in high school, and who did not.

Oh, the dreams that didn’t happen. Oh, the dreams that did.

And then there was one who told me, my face in his opened palms, his darling wife not far: “I’d do anything for you.” I did not see that one coming.

Now, what can a writer learn from all this?

In the real world, people are complicated and lead rich and varied lives, with layers yet to be revealed. On the page, we must strive for the same surprising complexity in our characters.

And, what are those characters doing? What do they want?  Where’s the story? That’s what your reader seeks, why he comes around. Not for your pretty sentences. Not really for your acuity or invention. Not even for what he may learn. Most of all, end of the day, your reader wants to know what happened next.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: rabbit by Paul Beattie; Central Park statute of Alice in Wonderland by Kiki Maraschino.

Where’s Your Story Going?

As I’ve written before in this blog, a pair of magnificent ospreys took up an unlikely residence on the power pole at a key intersection in my town, built a huge stick nest, and then another when the power people took the first one down.

The ospreys set up housekeeping, one bird keeping a vigil over the nest while the other foraged for food.

Something smoldered atop the pole and when the firemen came to remove the nest, they saw eggs, so they insulated the wires instead, and left the birds in peace.

Motorists began stopping, taking pictures. The local newswoman was there with a big, fat camera lens, pursuing the rumor that the babies were flying. But it wasn’t true.

Day after day, those of us who passed through this area took pleasure in their progress. Look, one is flying. Look, a bit of grass in its mouth. Look, the osprey is fishing in the cove nearby.

There was something cheerful about the birds, something encouraging and affirming. If the ospreys can build in this awkward location, raise a family, and perform all the duties of living, strong wings spread in flight, tufted little head lifted to greet the world—so, too, possibly, could any of us.

And then one day, a breaker blew and a serious fire broke out. The baby, just one as it turned out, fluttered to the ground. The parents circled in frantic distress. Power trucks, fire trucks, and raptor rescue arrived within minutes. A fireman cradled the baby in his big, padded gloves. A new pole, a new home, was erected licketedy-split, no one calling the Dig Safe people and sure enough, they hit a line and took out phone service, but they got the job done. The baby was returned to the new nest with a supply of fish and the parents followed not long after.

And now?

The baby has not yet flown, still too young. The parents, one standing vigil, the other in search of sustenance, continue their routine.

Meanwhile, I came across some lore about these birds from Shakespeare’s time, the idea that the ospreys are such magnificent birds, the fish go belly up in surrender to them. It serves to underscore the point to this story: in the face of something magnificent, something worth preservation—the idea of freedom, let’s call it, the idea of flight, the idea of survival against the odds—everything and everyone must capitulate.

If I know that this is where I’m headed in telling this story, it will determine all that came before: what I choose to tell you and what I leave out.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: ospreys by Mr. T. in D.C., roap map by Pigsaw.

Why Do We Write?

Why do we write? Respect, income, and the desire for perpetuity come to mind. One of the most prevalent answers is likely: because we must. We are writers. It’s more than what we do. It’s who we are. But there are reasons within the reasons, and these can be as individual as each of us.

Me? I want to be heard. I come from a family where “just don’t say anything” would be stitched in a sampler hanging above the hearth, if anyone knew how to stitch and were willing to adopt Yankee ways of decorating, which is never going to happen.

I write to have a clear record of what’s what, with none of the messiness. Tint it, smash it, turn it inside out—it doesn’t matter. Say it the way you want. Story is how we know ourselves, how we reconcile with the past, stand in the moment, and usher in the future. What matters is that order seems to prevail.

So, why do you write?

Answer this and your writing life becomes a lot easier. Needs defined, your target square in your cross hairs, the bones of your writing life are in place. After that, it’s just a matter of giving flesh to the form.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: dancers by James William Dawson

Long Live . . . Our Work

I have a thing for the royals, an interest my British friends find despicable, but I like the fairy tale elements. It’s not just the wash of beauty and glitter that draws me but the instructive parts.

Here’s a recent example:

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, nee Middleton, known as Kate, walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011 wearing a smashing dress, the specifics of which were flogged around the tabloids for weeks, a dress made by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.

Alexander McQueen, the driven, dark, openly gay, provocative, inventive, wunderkind designer known for his ability to shock and surprise, killed himself a year earlier. He was, at age 40, found by the housekeeper, hanging by his favorite brown belt in his wardrobe on Green St, London W1. He left behind a note. Take care of the dogs, sorry.

And yet, there’s a dress going down the aisle that bears his name on a young woman whose smile has been seared into the public consciousness like a cattle brand. One look at that smile, that poise, that dress, that workmanship, that mix of timelessness and modernity in the best Alexander McQueen tradition, an adherence on good construction and simplicity—and know that all will be right with the empire; just give it time.  

And McQueen? Once living high, living wild, living at the edge of what-the-fuck-mate-let’s-try-it thinking, didn’t live to see where his talents got him.

So, what can a writer learn from the Duchess and the Queen?

Two things. And a blessing:

First, please know that your work, your name, can live on well past you, your mark on a banner still flown high.  This shouldn’t change your day-to-day one whit, but you should hear this news as liberating.

Next: please write what you want. Like McQueen himself, break through your boundaries, as it’s where the good stuff comes from.

And now the blessing:

May you not implode in the process. Or hurt anyone. Or abandon your dogs. May you continue to do what you are doing and only get better at it. May you live to see Her Royal Highness—Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, Baroness of Carrickfergus—radiant and poised, go down the aisle in one of your masterpieces, the hope of the empire pinned to her 29-year-old bosom.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Her Royal Highness by Audrey Pilato, americanistadechiapas; McQueen by Fashion Wire Press.