The Landing Place
Your story has an ending, and the ending is not the end of your life, and it's not the end of all the other stories. But the particular conflict, the particular journey that you have set out on has some kind of resolution. It may not be happily ever after, woops. It may not be happily ever after, but there is some kind of closure to the story. And once you know where you land, that is probably going to inform where you begin, and where you begin tells the reader what that journey is. You know, I always use the example of the movies here. When you go to the movies, think about the first shot in a movie. It is pointing you towards what the journey is going to be about. We would never think of getting in the car and driving and saying, "I don't know where I'm going. I might be going to Indiana, I might be going to the store to get some milk." And depending on where we're going, we pack differently. We set ourselves up for our trip. When you go to the movies, that first shot in the movie i...
s a signal to the audience. First of all, is it gonna be funny? Is it gonna be sad? And what are the stakes? Think about, I'm gonna name a movie that we probably all know, Gone With the Wind. Remember the first shot in Gone With the Wind? Beautiful party at Tara. This is like 1863 or something. Everybody, all the girls are wearing their hoop skirts and eating wonderful little sandwiches that they can't really eat because they wouldn't fit into their outfit anymore. And Tara is beautiful and everything is lovely. And we know when we see that, that the Civil War is coming, and Tara will burn. And everything is going to be changed. Okay, I'm gonna read you a couple of points of entry and landing places for some essays that I think are really terrific. This first one is by Junot Diaz, wonderful writer. This is an essay called The Money. I'll try to affect Junot Diaz' voice. "All the Dominicans I knew in those days sent money home. My mother certainly did." Listen to the voice. You don't have to sound like William Shakespeare. You want to sound like you. "My mother certainly did. She didn't have a regular job outside of caring for us five kids, so she scrimped the loot together from whatever came her way. My father was always losing his forklift job, so it wasn't like she had a steady flow ever. But my mother would rather have died than not send money back home to my grandparents in Santo Domingo." That's the point of entry. Here comes the landing. Gotta read this essay, it's a really terrific essay. And you learn a lot from it too. "Took me two days to return the money to my mother." The money's been stolen and then stolen again, and it's changed hands a few times. "Truth was I was seriously considering keeping it. I'd never had that much money on hand, and who in those days didn't want ColecoVision?" I don't know what that is. And it doesn't matter that I don't know what it is. "Who in those days wouldn't want ColecoVision? But in the end, the guilt got to me, and I gave it to her and told her what had happened. I guess I was expecting my mother to run around in joy, to crown me her favorite son, to at least cook me my favorite meal. Nada. She just looked at the money and then at me, and went back to her bedroom and put it back in its place. I'd wanted a party or at least to see her happy, but there was nothing, just 200 and some odd dollars and 1500 or so miles. That's all there was." Here's another ... Here's another good one. Oh, this goes back to Star Wars. "In the summer of 1977, I saw Star Wars 21 times, mostly by myself. I was 13, that kid alone in the ticket line, slipping past ushers who'd begun to recognize me, impatient to get to my favorite seat. All 21 viewings took place at the Loews Astor Plaza at 44th Street, just off Times Square. The Astor Plaza was a low, deep, stretched hall with a massive screen and state-of-the-art sound, newly enough renovated to be free of the soda-rotted carpet that was a feature of New York theaters in those days. I associated the theater with the Death Star. Getting into it always felt like an accomplishment." Now, he actually spends a lot of time talking about the Loews Astor Plaza. And that could seem to be violating a rule of mine that you've gotta move in and grab the person's interest, but the theater, of course, he's talking about with a kind of reverence because it was the location in which he experienced an absolutely transformative event of his life. So he's writing about it very tenderly, and every detail matters. And there are many details that do not matter. Landing place. His mother had a brain tumor that summer, and she didn't last very much longer. But she did go to see Star Wars with him near the end of her life. "After my mother and I saw Star Wars that day, I decided to stay and watch it a second time, and she left me there and took the subway home alone. I see now that this was a kind of rehearsal. I was saying in effect, 'Come and see my future, Mom. Enact with me your parting from it. Here's the world of cinema and stories I'm using to survive your going, now go.' How generous of her to play in this masquerade if she knew." And here's a beauty. This was a Modern Love column published about a year ago by a woman named Nina Riggs. I'm sorry death is a big part of this day. And you know it's gonna happen to the best of us, so Nina Riggs died also, not long after writing this. It's a piece about shopping for a sofa online. "Were I healthy enough these days, I would be sipping a glass of free wine and running my hands over an exquisite accent pillow in an impossibly hip showroom called something like Space or Lust, while a sales assistant speaks to me of the virtues of aniline versus semi-aniline leather." And incidentally, do we need to know what aniline leather is? No, we do not, landing place. "Buying a sofa online, like many of life's biggest decisions, takes research and trust, but mostly trust. As I lie here with John's chest rising and falling under my cheek, I realize that my careful calculations, how long do I have left, who am I really buying this couch for, am I getting a good deal, are irrelevant. As in all things, I have to believe I'll know what's right when I see it." And this incidentally, was a 1,700 word essay that told you just about all you needed to know about being a young mother contemplating her own death, and imagining her family without her. Keeping on track, something I need to do. So what belongs in your story, what doesn't? The difference between telling what happened and exploring your arc. You know, we've gotta keep, first we identify what the story's about, and I believe in writing it down, so that as you write, as you're putting in your sentences, you refer back and you say, is this detail necessary? Does it inform my journey? Do we need to know that my teacher had brown eyes? Probably not. Do we need to know that my teacher chewed tobacco and spat it out in the middle of the class? Maybe so. Oops, I'm going ahead too fast. Very many people put in, and you've all heard this in writing classes, use detail, use pictures, specific images. Great, but in the service of what? It is not enough simply to have all these colorful details, perhaps similes, metaphors, if they are not informing our journey. And everything that you add to your story that does not do that, doesn't simply serve no purpose. It actively takes away from the story. It dilutes the soup. It's like having this great pot of Cioppino, and then you start pouring water in, you know?