Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Best Present of All

Cranky shoppers—including John and me—crowded the mega store. At the point we could not fit one more packet of gravy mix in the cart and were debating what Christmas carol the muzak was playing (I still say it was “Up on the Housetop”) we finally admitted we needed a break and sat down with sodas at a table in the deli. After a few minutes I started telling John about a story I was writing for an anthology. I was pretty happy with it but was worried he’d think the whole idea was silly (a sculptor becomes obsessed with releasing a beautiful woman from a ton of stone) and still wasn’t sure about the ending.

I needn’t have worried. He thought the premise was solid and even contributed an alternate ending that the editor eventually chose. (John’s a terrific writer himself and has that much-pursued and rarely discovered ability to bring out the story a writer really aches to tell.)

In the middle of the store, in the unforgiving heart of the Christmas crunch (only twelve shopping days left!), we sat next to our cart full of groceries and talked story. The ice cream was melting, the turkey thawing, the mac ‘n cheese from the deli cooling down. Supplies for baking twelve dozen cookies and a half-dozen loaves of bread awaited checkout, too. So did a number of gifts that needed immediate wrapping and mailing. But there we sat, happily oblivious to all the noise, twinkling lights, and sweaty, smelly, hustling and bustling workers and shoppers, talking story. We sat there for a half hour. It was wonderful.

Over the next couple of weeks, despite the baking, shopping, wrapping, mailing, delivering, cleaning, cooking and socializing demands of the holidays, John helped me carve out writing time and I finished the story by the deadline of December 31st. Traps came out the next year. I can’t remember what other presents I got for Christmas that year, but that thirty minutes John gave me in the deli is the one I remember.

That was three years ago. This year we found ourselves in the same mega store two weeks before Christmas, this time with two full carts (we’ve taken on shopping for John’s elderly mother), feeling a little overloaded from several hours of shopping. We went to the same deli and plopped down. Again, I started telling John about a creative idea that I wasn’t sure about. I’ve been futzing around with several mysteries, all with solid plots and good characters but missing that essential element that grabs the reader and propels him onward.

I thought perhaps I’d chosen the wrong narrator and proposed the idea of using myself as a model for one. Would an interested bystander based on myself who observes and reports on the action around her be viable? He warmed to the idea and suggested I try it. “See what happens,” he advised. I’m excited about it, especially in view of the good luck that came my way three years ago after talking story in the same spot. (I knock on wood, won’t pass salt directly to the person who asks for it, and avoid walking under ladders, too.) But I think the magic will hold because it comes from the love and support of a very honest and true partner—the story he encouraged me to start today will be done soon.