It isn’t unheard of for me to write a little something, share it with my husband, and have him look up at me and ask, “Where did that come from?” I don’t always know, to be honest, but there are times that I can track an idea by following the breadcrumbs of my mind and the leaps it takes. The starting points are often the most simple and ignorable parts of life, but there they are.
I often find myself distracted from the largeness of life by the minutiae of it. I get caught up in trying to define the exact shade of yellow that is falling from my neighbor’s tree or wondering if the pebbles and rocks ground and mixed into the cement of my street is local or if it is broken bedrock from far away – a material once surrounded by the rugged beauty of earth, exposed and fractured by machines, packaged and shipped by machines, reincarnated by machines to serve as a smooth surface for machines. It’s part curiosity about how things work and part adoration for the stories behind why they do. These questions trigger memories which trigger new ideas which sometimes trigger stories.
For example, there’s a man that waits at a bus stop close to my house no matter the weather Texas happens to be blessing us with. He’s reasonably well-dressed, bearded, but neatly, and carries a leather briefcase. The image clings to my mind as I drive past and I find myself combing through my memory of what he looked like long after I have lost sight of him in my rearview mirror.
Perhaps, I wonder, he is a true, blue eco-warrior doing his part for the environment by using public transportation. Maybe he’s just down on his financial luck. Or maybe he has some intimately personal or psychological reason for not wanting to drive. And that’s where the story starts simmering. By the time I reach my destination I’ve created an entire narrative about this bearded man with a briefcase and a dad-bod.
His wife is fighting cancer. A vicious sort that is slowly leaching her youth. His live-in mother-in-law helps take care of her while he’s away at work. When his wife has an appointment with her life-saving poison the mother carries her in their junky car crammed with car seats, crushed crackers and prescription receipts littering the matted carpet on the floorboards. The pair of midsize SUVs, once housed neatly in their garage, had been traded in for the aging four-door sedan to help cover what the insurance didn’t. The Bearded Hero is quietly living an ongoing sacrifice, though he would loathe hearing it referred to that way. He spends extra hours at the office, underappreciated for all he does for his boss and co-workers. Even more of his valuable time is spent on that damn bus travel that extends his commute. And every day, as he stands at the stop, waiting for the cough and wheeze of the city bus to come over the hill and carry him away from his love and the life he’s sacrificing for, the little boy inside of him still carries a torch for everything he dreamt his life would be.
By this point, I’m brushing tears from my eyes, crying for a man I do not know and a wife I have invented. But it could be real. So a silent prayer is said for whatever that man’s life really looks like – whatever pains and difficulties have manifested. Because, regardless if I’m right or just a crazy writer pulling at a thread, we all could use a little extra grace.
The characters of the man at the bus stop and his family are easy to grieve and root for. It’s simple to slip into their shoes and trudge alongside them in the trenches of life. I can imagine the pain of setting aside dreams because you feel obligated to tend to other things. Can’t you? I’ve had cancer and mortality touch my life in ways that made it easy to slip away from my goals with a half-hearted promise to return and settle myself into “caretaker”. Just as easily, I can lay alongside the wife in her bed that is swiftly molding to the shape of her shrinking body. I cannot relate to the illness itself, though I have witnessed it in others, but I can relate to the thoughts that eat at your mind when all you can do is exist. I am horrendously harsh on myself on quite a frequent basis about my mothering and wifing, sistering, daughtering, friending…writering. How much more difficult and guilt-ridden it must be for someone truly incapable of performing on all cylinders when so much of life is calling for attention and care.
That’s where the tears come from. From that place of knowing just enough of what it feels like to empathize with the fiction come to life in my heart. That’s where the good stories are born. The books I’ve read where the author has delicately teased out emotion, allowing it to bloom quietly just as it would, had all of it been true — those are the ones that stick with me. Because no matter the setting, how fantastical or unimaginable the situation may be, the emotions are real. That’s the difference between a sentence wonderfully wrought, but not wonderfully put.
In case you were wondering, I’m shooting for the latter.