A few weeks ago, during a lull in Austin’s unusually rainy autumn, my husband and I and our two dogs went out for a walk at one of our favorite parks. It is rugged and off-center enough to have remained somewhat confidential in dog/park crazy Austin. A three pronged path runs through it, which means you are likely to meet the same people up to six times as you retrace your steps to explore each prong.
Because the path is narrow, groups passing by each other have to respect a priority system in which one group steps on the ledge above the path while the other walks on, nodding and thanking profusely. About 500 meters in, we met a group of 60somethings, who stepped aside and gleefully exclaimed on how adorable our dogs were as we walked past, appraising their color, head tufts, eyebrows, and general friendli- or feistiness. They did this, with unwavering enthusiasm, four other times. When they were out of ear-shot after our last encounter, my husband suggested they were aliens doing dog tourism on Earth.
A-ha! Great story idea, but instead of poking and probing it in my head as we drove home, I decided to let it simmer a bit to see what might surface on its own. I wanted to experiment with letting my unconscious do some work.
This was something a friend from back home had said worked for him. Incidentally, he shared this in response to my grumblings on the difficulties of planning for a satisfying arc, as we were walking out of the preview showing of his latest movie:
“I never really plan anything. I just have an idea, I don’t write or actively think about it. I put it in a mental drawer and two or three weeks later I open the drawer, and it comes out almost fully formed. It’s just like I’m printing out of my unconscious.”
I fully expected that the Gods of Writing would dispatch one of Paris’ notoriously aggressive bikers to end his life, but none came and I was forced to consider that his “method” might have some merit.
Three weeks after the old people and the park, dog-centric tourism from space was still just that, a sunken idea in a drawer.
No choice then, but to reexamine it, to play with some intro sentences, all in the glaring light of the conscious stage. I do it with some reluctance because this process has culminated in the death of a story, or rather my enthusiasm for it, many times before. First, I make it do a little spin, to see if I still think it a story worth telling:
Same alluring rustle as before. It’s a surprising, albeit modest, idea with a great potential for humor. Plus, I am already obsessed with the subject matter. I adore dogs, and when I can squeeze in a dry thought in the deluge of love I shower upon my dogs, I marvel at how they ground and define us as much as we define them.
Then it’s on to stretches, perhaps with a little vocal warm-up, to assess its full range of motion: a story that would focus on dogs and would let mankind linger in the silence of the text; that would be clever. But would that be all? What does a story like that has to say, apart from being a quip directed at our sense of superiority. How can it be satisfyingly meaningful?
And that is usually where things start to derail. Because somehow, space tourists visiting Earth’s dogs doesn’t readily lends itself to a dense reflection on our place and purpose in the world and what a good life can be. Because anything else feels like a distraction, a waste of your time and mine. Because I want to have my story and write it too; validate the full extent of its meaning, before I can commit to it.
In other words, the only stories I want to write are large in scope but necessarily narrow in focus. Well there you go. Just reduce your scope! But then I can’t sustain my enthusiasm for the story.
Whether I concentrate on arc planning or dive directly into scene writing, or do a bit of both, it is not long before I see the limits of what I can do. I don’t shy away from writing bad prose, and painstakingly editing it, I shy away from writing decent, even beautiful meaningless prose. And even though I sense that work on the prose can influence the depth of the story, it feels like trying to reconcile general relativity, which “describes the universe on the largest scales” and quantum theory “that governs the subatomic world1“. Sounds paralyzing enough?
Some days I think this just isn’t for me. On better days I let the chatter play at the back of my head, run a bath and get down to it.
Today I will do just that and I will finish something small, neither arc planning nor scene writing.
-I want the fact that the people admiring dogs are aliens to be a reveal towards the end but I don’t want it to be the point of the story.
-I want to hint at an actual or impending mass tourism initiative but feature exclusively a small family or friends group, as well as a solo traveler, in order to address the hierarchy between “good tourists” and “bad tourists”.
-I want them to have different means of transportation so I can explore what the actual travel experience means in hyper-accelerated situations.
-I want an alien to pluck a dog out of the planet, or at least refer to this having happened despite it being illegal, so I can explore the paradoxical compulsion to appropriate the unfamiliar and relocate it in a domestic sphere.
-I want the aliens disguised as humans to have something truly alien about them and not just be token aliens so I get to surprise myself and the reader.
-I want one of the aliens to be named Stu and have an irresistible impulse to see which dogs float.
Now comes the trickiest part, and it will require absolute silence.
To be continued…