“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” — attributed to, among others, John Lennon (in “Beautiful Boy”)
My dad recently celebrated his 70th birthday at a party thrown by his wife and his kids (one of whom is me, of course). We offered lots of dessert — my dad does love his lemon meringue pie and Watergate cake — punch, munchies and conversation. As I looked around the room at the people visiting with each other, my dad sat next to me and started telling me stories about some of the guests. He started off by saying, “There are a lot of good people in this room.” I raised my eyebrows at him, and he began offering such interesting tidbits that I wished for my computer so I could write things down!
One man handled logistics for the Air Force in Vietnam. Considering that about 250,000 Air Force personnel fought in Vietnam, he just might be the most organized person on the planet! This same man, always very active, experienced a terrible car accident almost 40 years ago and still uses a walker … but he never stops moving and travels extensively. A very meek, mild woman voluntarily dog-sits, usually at no charge, for other people simply because she loves dogs just that much. One couple claims the title of “environmental detectives.” From what Dad says, their jobs sound pretty similar to Erin Brockovich’s (from movie fame). Yet another couple is studying to be shamans (not quite sure what that entails, but it sounds pretty mystical so I like it). Several other people currently suffer from potentially fatal illnesses — including one who arrived wearing a mask — yet they risked their health to celebrate my dad’s birthday. One woman recently lost 80 pounds. Her husband, a counselor and professor, is an exceptional handyman. All those fascinating attendees don’t even include my family, which boasts a psychologist, a writer (HELLO!!!), a concert pianist, a minister, an economist and two adorable children who just took home medals from their tae kwon do tournament.
And yet … I bet that, if you asked any of those people whether they planned those life experiences, most of them would say they hadn’t planned for those things, although perhaps their education led them in certain directions. Most of us live our lives like pinballs in a machine, ricocheting from one thing to the next. I’m not making any judgements here. Goodness knows, I’m of the pinball persuasion myself.
But — and here comes the writing tie-in — novels, by their very nature, ask readers to follow someone else’s stories, and cannot be random. When writers create plots, dialogues, scenes, locations, characters, etc., they MUST plan or risk losing their readers’ attention. In addition, the “pinballness” of everyday life must be squeezed out, or at least minimized, in the story. Otherwise, the random events detract from the story and lead to places the writers might not want readers to go.
And yet, although most people don’t want to read about other people’s pinball behavior, writers must add some extraneous details. Every word and/or action cannot be “fraught with significance” or readers might guess plot twists and character motivations that the storytellers would prefer to be left uncovered at the moment. Plus, there’s something to be said for allowing stories, as well as life, to evolve in unexpected directions.
Where does that leave me as a writer? In between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
I must plan … yet allow for open-endedness that enriches the writing and reading experience. I must focus on the narrative … yet include the random to distract the reader from predicting the plot. I must streamline the story … yet add details that expand the tale from just a bare bones recitation.
Hmmm, I’m beginning to understand why writing is a lifelong pursuit. It just takes that long to get it right!