I've been sitting in the cafe at Border's bookstore for a couple of hours, struggling with this manuscript, trying to figure out why I can't seem to make it come to life. It has the elements a story requires, but it’s missing that spark, the thing that would draw you in and keep you reading.
Right now I think if someone picked it up, they'd shrug it off by page 10 with a "meh" as they tossed it aside.
It works, but it doesn’t work
Then this couple walked in. He looks like he's 90 years old, walking in microshuffles, his hands clenched tightly in front of his stomach; he takes a few steps, and pauses, as if he's trying to remember where he is and why. She seems to close to the same age, but she has that youthful bounce that says life has not yet swung its mighty sword at her. She's clear about where she is and why, and when he pauses with uncertainty she places her hand on his arm and waits, patiently.
I watch them out of the corner of my eye, not wanting to stare but wanting to drink them in. He stands by the counter, staring at the menu board, and she rubs his arm, as if to let him know she's right there, and it's okay. After a moment she tells him in a strong voice that he really enjoys their muffins, and some cold tea would be nice. He brightens a bit, nods, and she leads him to a table just off to my right, making sure he's safely in a chair before placing their order.
When she brings their food and drinks to the table he asks, quite loudly, "Is it cold outside?"
She reaches over to pat his hand and says no, it's very nice outside, but if he needs his sweater she'll go out to the car and get it.
No, he replies, I thought it was cold because of the coffee.
She reminds him it's ice tea as she unfolds a napkin to lay across the table. She breaks up the muffin into several pieces, and tells him not to worry about getting burned, because it's a cold muffin.
There are only a few other people in the cafe; no one seems to mind the volume at which they have to communicate. He tells her repeatedly that the coffee is cold, but it's good anyway. She reminds him that it's iced tea. He asks again if it's cold outside. Three times he mentions wanting to buy a new book by "that bald fellow." Three times she promises they'll look for it as soon as they're done with their muffin.
"It's the biggest fucking muffin I've ever seen," he declares once. I know I'm not the only one biting back laughter; she simply agrees that it was very big and that's why she only bought one for them to share.
"Is it cold outside?"
She never lost patience with him. When the muffin was nothing but crumbs, she reached over with another napkin and brushed it gently across his face. He smiled and in a moment of clarity thanked her, and asked if they could look for his book now. His eyes sparkled: I know who you are, I know that you love me.
I watched them leave; he walked in the same microshuffles with which he arrived, pausing to look around, seemingly unsure of where he was. She kept a hand on his arm, rubbing gently, assuringly. I watched decades of love and devotion inch across the carpet, and then disappear in between book stands.
They are the spark I don't have in this book. I'm trying to write about people who are patently unkind to one another, who are clueless about how to find the rhythm to dance with each other through life. I'm having a hard time writing about it because my life has been more like this old couple who shuffled into my periphery for 20 minutes. Even when bad things happen, my life has been peppered with these sparks of kindness, the unspoken understanding that even when we don't like each other very much, we will always love each other and treat each other with respect.
I'm having a hard time creating these people because I don't really know
That old couple, I know them. I was raised by them. I married into a family with people like them. I'm not enough like them to satisfy myself, but I know them well enough.
That's a good thing. It's not helping me whittle away at the words I’ve already committed to virtual paper well enough to finish the story--sooner or later it will get done--but at least I think I now know why.
It's not true that writers should write what they know; sometimes they need to write what they need to know...sometimes that brings their own reality into focus.