I once knew a woman who wanted to write but didn’t know where to begin. I started her off with a brief springboard exercise: Imagine a man on a beach. He is wearing a red leather jacket, like Michael Jackson in Thriller or Brad Pitt in Fight Club. The jacket is worn and cracked — maybe the man is too. Tell me about him.
This blew her mind. “Why would he have a jacket on the beach? Who is he? How did he get there? What’s he doing there?” All reasonable questions but firmly rooted in the reader’s mindset. Our discussion kept circling back to the jacket. “Nobody would wear that to the beach!”
As readers, we are a passive audience who delight in the reveal. We feel confident that every enigma will be explained, whether it is a question of who killed who, will good triumph over evil, or will Bella convert Edward to Mormonism before he takes her vamp-ginity? Guesswork is our pleasure, but it is not our business to generate concrete answers. We need only suspend disbelief.
A writer is in possession of all of the facts (or, at least, we have a solemn duty to pretend). We are the historians of our microcosm, and the reader trusts that all of the implicit minutia that never make it to the page remain present and accounted for in our heads. There is a terrific sense of trust inherent in that relationship, even if much of that social contract is institutionalized (because what publisher is going to accept a manuscript that says, “And suddenly, fire rained down from the sky and killed all of everyone’s favorite characters. Eat a dick, fanboyz!”). The writer is tasked with closure, imparting to the reader a complete acceptance of what has happened.
The red jacket dilemma is that we don’t know all of the facts, because our imagination is confined by our limited perspective of the real world. The average person says, “I want to be a writer,” because they have the rights to a particular vignette that exists solely within their own mind’s eye. Maybe it would, though more often it wouldn’t, look good on paper for everyone to see. However, a storyteller becomes a writer as a byproduct of their need for greater perspective. The story changes the storyteller, whose world must perpetually expand to accommodate an experience that is not about “me” but about “us.”
The easy path to becoming an author is to pursue the desired outcome and eliminate the extraneous details that get in the way of how the world should be. The red leather jacket doesn’t exist in this person’s narrative, because that just isn’t what the story is about. A storyteller’s narrative takes on a life of its own, leaving the author with the unenviable task of researching evidence in support of the inevitable outcome. The red leather jacket is there, because it came into being. That it is there proves its significance. What does that say about us?
[This is a revised version of an article originally posted on the Bedford Writer’s Group blog.]