Lately, my sons have taken to picking up the books I am reading. Leo seems particularly drawn to A Spot of Bother (by Mark Haddon), which I have floating around the bed in hardback. “That’s Mommy’s book,” I say.
He looks through the pages.
“There are no pictures,” I tell him. “The pictures are in the words.”
This is a key point in writing. It’s not that we move beyond pictures; it’s that we find them in the lines that we read. I am working on this is my class right now: you have all these wonderful ideas about your characters and your plot. How, when you sit down to write at a fast pace next month, will you turn those thoughts into pictures, into scene, into physical actions and details? This is probably the number one issue I tackle in editing, too. I want to see see see (taste, touch, smell and hear) the world you are giving me. I don’t want to have to trust you and your understanding of the characters and their choices. I want the evidence laid out before me so that I can decide what’s going on for myself.
Here’s an example: your friend is dating someone new. She tells you about him. Do you really want to know if she thinks he’s nice or smart or considerate? No, you want to know if he arrived on time and where he took her to eat and what he looks like and what they talked about and why he and his ex broke-up . . . You want no abstract ideas. You want physical evidence. CSI style.
There’s another quote whose originator I don’t know: “The more he talked of his honesty, the faster we counted our spoons.”
Let’s face it: We don’t trust people’s opinions of themselves. They’re telling, but not in a one-to-one translation of idea to fact.
Scenes from a wedding:
We have seconds to spare when Angie, the boys, their stroller, snacks, diapers, my extra shoes and alternate outfit and I roll up to the San Francisco City Hall. The over-loaded stroller goes through a special gate, but we, in our fancy clothes, go through the metal detectors. The building is paved in marble, with statues of mayors scattered throughout. We dash along, past the grand staircase and under the chandeliers. We wait in a line, fill out a form, are given a number (A110), and wait in another line. Quickly, we are called forward to present our IDs. The woman takes a look at mine and hands in back. “This expired yesterday.” Yesterday! My birthday. Of course.
Our options: go to the SF DMV and try to get a renewal or drive home and hope that my passport is where it should be and is not expired. Well, you’ve been to the DMV. I take my long white dressed self and drive back to Berkeley. I pray to the parking goddess that my passport–unlike anything else in the house–in where it should be. I listen to the radio. I think about the class I am teaching tonight. I receive an angry call from the place where we’d made a reservation for lunch.
We are getting married this day because it is the very last appointment available before Nov. 4, and on Nov. 4, there is the possibility that we will no longer have the right to be married. In fact, Oct. 22, 2008 is the four year anniversary of my father’s death and the day after my birthday when my license expires and a day I teach at 6 p.m. and we haven’t had time to plan anything or create a real wedding or even to learn–as I did as soon as we signed up for it–that I really wanted all of that. But there is a ticking time bomb: if this doesn’t happen now, it may never happen. And for the sake of my children, not to mention my relationship, it needs to happen.
I rush into the house, slide a box of toys and a folded rug back from where they’ve been pushed in front of my filing cabinet. I kneel down in my white dress and fling open the top drawer and being to file through the neat tabs that someone helped me put together a couple of years ago but which I rarely actually use. Bills and Insurance and this and that and then Official documents. There are the boys’ birth certificates. I lift them out and there, at the bottom of the folder, is my passport. I fumble it open and look closely: it expires in 2013.
We meet again at City Hall and feed the boys some apples and plums babyfood. Some San Francisco friends show up. Shilla brings a beautiful bouquet for me and a boutonniere for Angie. Katia brings lavender that smells wonderful, and strongly enough to cover the smell Leo brings right as our second number (B263) is called. Thea comes from work nearby, and brings joy and tears at all the right moments. Jennifer brings a fancy camera and her son Jacko, who had to leave chess early, and who consents to bear the rings.
A woman named Noni marries us. She wears the officiants’ outfit of long black robes and her head is shaved. She looks like a Buddhist monk, as if we are being married my a young Pema Chodrun. She zips us up the elevator to the rotunda. Charlie hates the elevator and Leo wants “more” elevator. Instead, we stand in a circle of darker marble, Angie and I. Charlie is on her back in the Ergo, and Angie has to bounce throughout the ceremony to keep Charlie on this side of the contented/ hysterical line.
Then Noni is speaking, about grace and love and commitment, about the honor she has of being vested by the State of California with the power to declare us “spouses for life.” And we?
It was rushed and crazy, but in that moment, I was fully present. I looked into Angie’s beautiful blue eyes, and I heard every word I was being asked, and I could agree to all of it, willingly. Really, what more could I ask?
But for purposes of today’s literary lesson, I want to bring you back to that moment when I did not have the correct ID and this was possibly the last possible chance to get married ever. This is what is known as a ticking time bomb, something in the plot that is set to go off at a certain time. It raises the stakes, ups the ante and puts all kinds of pressure on the obstacles that create a story.
When you get married? Check the expiration on your ID and bring an extra one just in case. But when you write your novel? Make sh*t happen, make it matter, and make sure it will explode, turn coaches into pumpkins and horses into rats, just at midnight and not a second later. And make sure that I, your reader, can see it with my own eyes. Don’t make me trust you. I’m saving that for my spouse!