Once upon a time
In a world
“Really? Do you even believe yourself?” She rolled her eyes at me.
I was back at my usual table beside the lake. It was mid-morning, the sun was bright, the breeze was cool. There were a few ducks on the lake. It’s good for a story to have ducks on a lake, I noted to myself; it establishes the setting as peaceful, tranquil…
My partner for a late breakfast was anything but tranquil. Today she was in the form of a tall, lanky teenager, with short-cropped red hair that looked like she cut it herself, a loose-fitting tee shirt with the name of a band too new for me to have heard of, and a bored expression. And chains, so many chains. “You’re not getting this whole story thing, are you?” she asked me rhetorically.
“Why,” I tried to find the words, “young lady, why are you here today? My usual inner critic is an old Italian guy who smokes a cigar.”
She scoffed. “First off, calling me ‘young’ says more about you than it does about me. Second off, cigars, really? There you go with stereotypes again.” She slumped back in her chair, crumpled an empty egg mcmuffin wrapper on the table so the wind wouldn’t take it. “At least tell me what you have so far.”
I picked up my tablet computer to read my notes, and pushed a glossy photograph across the table for her to see. “The picture I was given to write about this time is of a sandy knoll at night under the stars. Looks like it’s along the side of an empty highway through the desert. So there’s this fellow, see, I figure a car pulls over just long enough to kick him out. The driver’s a woman, a spurned girlfriend who mocks him, ‘you’re the master of space and time! you want your space, you want your time, here you go!’ and she drives away. He wanders out into the desert. ‘I am the master of space and time!’ he says. Thunder booms in the distance. The ghost of a female warrior appears, holding an immense warhammer. He recounts his triumphs … but they’re all from video games, see? The mayor of the town in Animal Crossing. The ruler of a country in Civilization. The head of the space exploration program in Kerbal. He rolled up planets in Katamari. He saved the galaxy in Mass Effect. And with each triumph he recounts, with each achievement he’s earned, the ghost grows and grows until she towers above him, until she can practically reach the stars herself. Finally he realizes she’s the manifestation of all the legends he’s won for himself … through games, at least; she represents everything into which he’s poured his life. The only thing left with which he can feed her magnificence is himself. And so he throws his arms wide, and she lifts that great hammer and crashes it down onto him, and the earth shakes, and when the echoes die out both of them have disappeared. He had poured his entire being into these legends he had created, but the legends were nothing beyond himself.”
I locked eyes with her across the table. Silence hung in the air for a few moments until she broke it. “So there’s that. And then what happens because of it?”
“Er,” I looked away. “Well … the woman who we saw earlier driving the car, she wakes up. Turns out this was all a dream – her own dream. Maybe she’s mad at this guy for spending more time with video games than with her. Or! Or maybe it was just a nightmare and she’s been working too hard and she slips out of bed, leaving him asleep, and she goes and logs on to work email and tries to get an early start on the day even though it’s four in the morning, but then he brings her some hot tea and a nice backrub and tells her she shouldn’t work so hard. Or … maybe she’s never met him, he’s her blind date for the evening, and when she finally meets him she understands him immediately and she kisses him before they even say … before they even say a word … you’re not buying any of this, are you?”
“If you don’t believe in the stuff you write, why do you write it?” she challenged.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I like the process of filling out a story, but I hate coming up with the story in the first place. Like, say I were a chef. I’d be the kind of chef who enjoys skillfully making dishes from recipes that are time-honored, tested and true, but I’d hate coming up with my own new recipes, because it’s all been done before and if it were good it would have become time-honored by now, which means that the only ideas I could have that are new would be – by definition – weird or bad.”
I took another bite of my breakfast croissant. It was burned on the bottom, but I didn’t feel like making an issue of it with the bakery. My critic studied me thoughtfully, until she asked, “Where’d you get the picture?”
“It was, ah, delivered to me this morning.”
“Today’s Sunday,” she pointed out. “Nobody delivers on Sunday.”
I shook my head. “Someone brought it to me. A friend.” I held up my hand to quell further questions down that route.
“A moment ago you said ‘weird or bad,'” she continued. “As if, if you didn’t want bad, weird is always an option. And everything that’s comfortable today once started out as weird, right?”
I asked her, “So you’re saying that the stuff I gave you has potential?”
“No.” She sighed. “Story requires plot. This happened, THEREFORE that happened. That happened BECAUSE this happened. What you’re giving me isn’t plot, it’s events. Like those old Native American folk tales where anthropomorphic animals mess with peoples’ lives. Panther kidnaps hunter’s wife; hunter gets Wolf’s help retrieving her. Event, event. Things happen, but no reasons are given. Why does Panther kidnap? What does Wolf help? Just like that, you’re missing the foreshadowing, the consequences, the ‘why.’ No interest. No life. You have the ingredients, but anybody can get ingredients. You haven’t put them together in any meaningful way.”
I opened my mouth to disagree. I changed my mind. “You have a point.”
“And, by the way, that bit about the woman kissing the fellow at first sight? Completely sexist.”
“Sorry. I was trying for ‘romantic.'”
“Do you even hear yourself?” she growled. “Remember that Yoda thing about doing, not trying. Decide on your message, believe in it, and then make sure that every word you put down carries it there. Now,” she said, pushing her chair back and standing, “you won’t see me again for a while, because your other guy’s coming back from vacation.”
“Well, I appreciate the feedback, miss … sorry, but I forgot to ask your name?”