January 20, 2006 My day started listening to Aretha Franklin sing, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and it will end singing the Internationale while my grandmother is interred. By then it will be tomorrow in the place I am traveling to.
A premise is a journey. It’s the itinerary of a journey, more precisely. It says, if you get on this plane in San Francisco, you will get off in London. It does not say that all planes go from San Francisco to London nor even that all planes that leave San Francisco arrive in London. It just talks about this plane, this journey. But what it says is true.
A premise is not the flight itself, not the play list you listen to or the memories each song evokes. Not the two seats that you try to lie upon, legs folded against one armrest, head propped on pillows, blankets, jacket at the too-close other armrest. A premise is not the orange juice you drink, the articles you read in the New Yorker, the way you laugh at Eddie Izzard and wonder if the people around you notice. It is not the freelance golf writer on her way from Maui via Los Angeles and San Francisco and London to Scotland who does not like to fly. It is not the view of the ocean cliffs and the Richmond Bridge that you point out to her, feeling that you have been drafted to distract her as the plane takes off. It is not the baby boys you have left behind, the nap they are supposed to be taking and the park they will go to afterwards. It is not your questions about what they make of your absence. It is not your grandmother’s funeral ahead, the dawning realization that she died of old age and is only twenty years older than your mother, her daughter.
The premise takes all of this and more and kneads it as your reader’s mind will knead it, until it joins together and rises, and the journey becomes clear, the specific journey–San Francisco to London, child to adult, a person who feels outside a family to a person who feels inside a family, perhaps. Your premise looks at where you started and what kicked you over to where you landed, and it makes a claim:
Commitment leads to connection.
Ritual triumphs over daily life.
Responsibility conquers division.
Not always. Not all commitment leads to connection. Not all ritual triumphs over daily life. Not all responsibility conquers division. Not all planes that leave San Francisco arrive in London. But this journey went that way, and showed us something about these qualities: commitment, ritual, San Francisco.
Once you have made the journey–written the book–you read back over it and you dig out your premise. What does this journey teach you? Name the qualities that characterize the book’s movement.
This becomes the lens through which you revise. It is the unity that pulls your book together, and anything that does not support your premise belongs in another book.
Now, just to be clear, this does not mean that scenes, actions, characters and events that directly oppose your premise should be excised. On the contrary, your premise requires a good fight, a fair fight, to prove itself. Let it do battle with ideas and forces that suggest it is wrong. Just don’t wander off on a little Los Angeles to Los Vegas loop when you are going SFO to Heathrow. See?
When someone dies there is, I’ve found, a kind of internal reckoning. Their premise becomes clearer, once the whole arc stretches–rainbow-like–before you. Not that I can see anything like the whole of my grandmother’s arc, but I see that she lived a single life, after all. My father used to talk about how life zigzagged while you were living it, but looking back, it turned into a straight line. What is remarkable about a human life is that its conflicts and contradictions and layers all unite, in the end, into a single strand of days, years, decades–nearly nine, in my grandmother’s case.
Near the end of her life, my uncle asked my grandmother what the purpose of life was, and she mouthed one word: “Love.” Now, this is not the most original idea, but if you’d read the whole book, you’d know that there was a distinct character arc, that that moment and that insight represented a journey and an arrival.
Love conquers even politics.
Bitter memories and eccentric independence lead to the embrace of love.
The revolution of the heart conquers even a family whose spine looks like the post-1988 Berlin wall.
What’s the premise of a book you love? Of your own book?