The holiday season ended. I hadn’t enjoyed it, but I dreaded what came next, everyone inquiring how it was.
"Uneventful." I don't add, "I didn't get what I wanted, but I guess you can't get what you want when you don't know what you're asking for."
The pages, white pages, of my story felt so far away that they were not even the seed that could become the tree ground into pulp. What went well this past December? What did I have to discuss? “I managed to watch a few more movies this year. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer made his yearly appearance on television. My favorite.”
Dad didn't watch each one all the way through. He never did. He said he knows when to come and go. Still, he enjoyed the story, at least enough to ask questions.
“The bumble, his teeth, why would you pull those teeth out, why would it make him less angry?” As the group floated away from their first encounter with the monster, further observations emerged. “It would be an interesting story, one about people on an iceberg that is slowly disappearing,” Dad noted. “You would know the end, but that isn’t what matters is it? It’s not the inevitable end, but what happens in the middle.”
I had put down the most recent writer’s craft book I found, Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron. My feet had scuffed the faded rug, cut into often by dog nails and snouts. A slim border, dirty rifts, hair balls. Around the house windows glimpsed receding snow pelted by rain. More rain than snow. Climate change. The white island slimmed, lessened while the road had expanded. Throughout December I had prayed for patterns. To break one, we need to know what it is, I had read. My dad never reading the ever shrinking local paper, somehow already knew where to direct his focus.
“The brain is a born cartographer,” Cron quoted Antonio Damasio.
My dad loved maps although he had not traveled extensively.
“Your brain doesn’t like anything that appears random, and it will struggle mightily to impose order—whether it’s actually there or not” (186). “Stories are about the things we need to keep an eye on” (187).
My dad loved to talk, but my eyes don’t hear much. Too many words coming and going. Dad stood up. The dog laid down. Vacation days from work had trapped me in my chair. Dad paced to the window. Words. He rambled to the kitchen. Coming. Doors slammed. Going. Smoke swirled.
“Let’s play a game,” I suggested on New Year's Eve. I yearned for a distraction. Numbered dice, colored cards. I craved a path, an arc that would move me forward a certain number of steps and pause me at the next important point.
“A game?” Dad shook his head, “No.”
My grandmother taught me to play cards. I told my brother he could have all the cards, except the high ones. I won hand after hand. Game or not, I needed to see Dad's cards. The envelopes and folders. What did he see? The aces and the twos. What did he know? He did not know why. Dad did not play games. Our game was not to be found in a deck of cards. Instead, our musical chairs were not made of wood or plastic or folding metal. They were the spurts of observations, critiques and repetitions. I skimmed another page.
“It’s interesting, too, that the most common obstacle in both life and story is figuring out what other people really mean. . . Mirror neurons allow us to feel what others experience almost as if it were happening to us, the better to infer what ‘others know in order to explain their desires and intentions with real precision.’” (66-67).
This was not a game. Why fuzz the tongue with fog flung loose from metaphor? This was not a game. My story had no urgency, no inertia. If I thought the iceberg was shrinking, more immediate was the danger that I was not on its flat, dry surface at all. My nails dug in.
“We are always looking for the why beneath what’s happening on the surface. . . being curious is necessary for survival,” (14).
The dog growled and followed a scent underneath the floor. His nose always caught on scents in cracks. I choked on unnamed smells I claimed to sense, lamenting missed knowledges, raspy questions splintered. I turned the book’s page again. Dad sipped his drink. I stretched open eyelids. Midnight was too far away. Jealous, I shoved my own snout back into my book's pages.
“As for the wrong assumptions this something begets? It’s our acceptance of fallibility that makes us human, as evidenced by the courage we muster to take risks, knowing things might not turn out as planned. It’s when they don’t that people usually tell us not to make assumptions. What they really mean is, the assumption you’re making isn’t working; try another” (146).
As an educator, I had long known that if you can say something in a sentence, you understand it. But, maybe everything I knew was wrong? Dad knew what made a good story, what made a good life. I was the one with questions, “Where are we in the distance from before to after? Is the farm an iceberg? The living room rug? Does it matter that no one will sit on mine with me as it shrinks?”
Dad tapped my shoulder, “Do you want a drink?”
“Don’t let your characters admit anything they aren’t forced to, even to themselves.”
“Dad, I like it here.” Dry lips.
“Do allow your protagonist to have secrets—but not to keep them.”
“Coming home feels like failure.” Quick sip.
“Do ensure that everything the protagonist does to remedy the situation only makes it worse.”
“New connections. New jobs. No friends. Garden plants. Dog messes.” Throat puckers.
“Do make sure everything that can go wrong does.”
“No connections. Good jobs, but not here. Local food instead of local friends.” Taste bud tucks.
“Do let your characters start out risking a dollar but end up betting the farm.”
“The farm is always in play. You dedicated your life to keeping it. If I leave it, I make dollars. If I stay, I make none. Risk doesn’t shrink the iceberg but it does grow the ocean. Cough.
“Don’t forget that there is no such thing as a free lunch—unless, of course, it’s poisoned.”
“By guilt.” Sip. Sip.
“Do encourage your characters to lie."
“Except you don’t, Dad, not to me. So, I’m the only one lying, always, to myself.” Sputter.
“Do bring in the threat of a clear, present, and escalating danger—not a vague facsimile thereof.”
“Never moving forward.” Swallow.
“Do make sure your villain has a good side.”
“But, I am the villain.” Burn.
“Do expose your characters’ flaws, demons, and insecurities.”
“In my frustration I chastise you, Dad, for my inheritance in DNA, dirt and dreams.” Almost gone.
“Do expose your demons.” (174-183)
“Except, Dad, you don’t believe they exist, like an abominable snowman.”
Yukon Cornelius’s pick axe pricked across my wrinkled skin furrows. Now frigid hands grasped the thin champagne glass, bubbles asleep on my tongue exhaling sweet dreams chased by bitter swallows. What will happen? No. How does what happens affect me? No. How does what has happened affect me?
“Memories are continually revised, along with the meaning we derive from them, so that in the future they’ll be of even more use” (201).
I typed and I read. Television hum and newspaper whisper became my the ticking of the clock. Stories are layered. Icebergs exist more beneath the surface than above. The future is not in the horizon, but in what’s left to be forgotten. I read and I typed.
“Look,” Dad tugged the curtain closed. “It’s snowing.” Cold closed in around the iceberg to keep it. “Going to stay up until midnight?” he asked.
“Yes,” I nodded, grateful for more time.
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