where the writers are
Busy Making Other Plans: What Failed Dreams, Missed Opportunities and Narrow Misses Can Teach Us About Fiction, and Visa Versa

I’ll admit it. One of the things I love about Facebook is that it gives me the impression of being in contact with so many people from all phases of my life–elementary school classmates, lost friends from high school, college comrades who fought the good fight alongside me or worked at the Kresge Food Co-op with me or studied women with me (in class, you know), exes and colleagues and acquaintances and friends of friends all jumbled together on my home page. Warm. Cozy. Seriously, though, I love the crowd.

Plus, I imagined I would always know these people all my life. Even the kids in school who teased me or the housemate of a boyfriend who annoyed me–I just thought the world was a lot smaller than it is. Or was–before Facebook.

Still, getting the occasional or regular status updates is not the same as curling up on the couch for hours of talk, hot drinks in hand. It is not the same as taking over the highway together in our determination to stop the war. It is a lot shorter than a three-hour-long consensus meeting to decide what brand of toilet paper to use. Less detailed than surviving third grade side-by-side. More succinct than wandering the city in the middle of the night with feather boas askew.

I just thought I’d have enough time to live the thousands of lives each connection and context promised. And I don’t. “Life is what is happening while you are busy making other plans,” is the line that has been attributed to John Lennon, though it’s uncertain he said exactly that. In any case, while I love the life I turn out to have, it is just the one life and necessarily excludes the hundreds, nay thousands of others that lived as close to the surface of possibility at one time or another.

This is where fiction comes in. The art of imagining other lives is nurtured in us, the more so now that we have so many opportunities (the good and the bad) that we have to pass some by. I don’t know about you, but I am constantly carrying on little imagined conversations in my head–with the cop I fear will stop me and whom I am, before he exists, assuring misunderstood the situation because I would never merely slow at a stop sign or speed to make a light; with the jerk from high school whom, I’ve learned, lives very near where I buy my vegetables; with the person who assumed I had no artistic role to play in making our film because I was looking after the children. Those are the defensive or vengeful fantasies, but of course there are lovelier ones.

There are fan letters I write in my head but never send. I’ve been doing that since I was a child. Now there are blogs I imagine but don’t get down on the screen before life rushes in and demands my attention. There are futures I imagine, multiple, irreconcilable futures. There are worries and fears, the scenarios I concoct when someone is very late and can’t be reached by phone.

The reason there are meditation practices and self-help books to try to pin us to the moment, to reality, is that all of us, I venture, are close to spinning off into the fabricated possibilities we conjure at each juncture. What if? What might . . . ? It could have been . . .

That’s the business of fiction–to explore the truth of what doesn’t happen.

When I was in high school, I used sometimes to imagine that I was somebody else who had been transported into my life and my body and was getting to experience this entirely other, different life and perspective. In reality, I was ten years younger than my next sibling, and lived alone with my mother. I longed for a big family. In my fantasy, I would imagine that I was a kid with seven brothers and sisters who was getting to experience, for the first time, having my own room and no other kids around. It’s a little twisted, I know. But it’s a good training for a fiction writer. We are all tangled up with each other, are each other’s might have beens and could have happeneds.

Want to live a thousand lives? Wonder what it would be like to be him . . . or her . . . ? Write it and see.

As the New Year approaches, and we all begin to make resolutions and create–in our minds–a life in which we eat perfectly or exercise daily or read as much as Junot Diaz or write as much as Joyce Carol Oates, remember that you are using right in those moments a powerful muscle that may not create changes in your life, but which can create worlds on the page: your imagination. And even if you don’t make it to the gym on Jan. 1, you could probably make it to the laptop, which unlike the exercycle can be dragged into bed.

When someone catches you staring off into space, rehearsing a conversation, playing a small smile across your face, you can just tell them, “I was practicing writing fiction.”

Next step? Get those fantasies onto the page.

Happy New Year! Come join my online Building Your Book course, starting Jan. 15, or sign up for my monthly newsletter for writing tips and discounts on classes. http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses