It occurred to me last night as my brothers and sisters and cousins were sitting around after dinner, retelling all the old stories we have retold for years and years: There is a commonality to every good story, and that commonality is "Nothing that goes right will ever make a good story." Allow me to give an example.
Ten years ago my family and I went hiking at High Point Park in Northern Jersey, with my brother Eric and his wife. It was a sunny Good Saturday in April, and we were enjoying the warm air after a cold winter. The group spread out as groups do on a hike, and the kids went charging ahead as kids do. But I wasn't worried, because we were experienced hikers from VT, and there wasn't anything in NJ that was going to phase us Vermonters (even my boys, who were 7 and 9.) Well, we made it to the top and tried to gather everyone for a photo--with the Manhattan skyline as the backdrop--when we realized my seven-year-old wasn't there. Apparently he had lagged behind his big brother enough to not realize he had made a wrong turn, and we didn't realize it until a good 30 minutes had elapsed. I can still remember the lump in my throat, and the jackhammer pounding of my heart when I came to the conclusion he wasn't just hiding behind a rock as a prank. So, we split up, Eric going in one direction, me in another, and my wife, sister-in-law and mother leading the other kids back to the trailhead. I ran around that mountain side for the next two hours, growing more frantic as the sun sank lower in the western sky, calling out his name every few minutes and waiting in vain for a reply. At one point, I thought I heard him calling for me, but in retrospect it proved to be just another group of hikers.
When I finally made it back to the car, I was rewarded with the sight of a NJ State Trooper cruiser (they can give me a ticket anytime, I will always love them) pulling into the parking lot with my seven-year-old in the back seat, fired up to be riding in a patrol car. He wasn't even upset until he saw me running towards him like a wild man, and even then he regained his composure quickly. It turned out he finally realized he had become separated from the group when the trail ended at the edge of the park and a dirt road appeared. He walked down the road a few miles until he found a cluster of homes, and knocked on doors until one of them opened. A kindly woman let him in, gave him a sandwich, a glass of orange juice and a piece of pie (let's say it was apple, although I really don't recall) and called the troopers.
Unfortunately, our happy reunion didn't last long because it dawned on Eric and I soon after that the rest of our group should have been back at the trailhead, and yet there was no sign of them. The hike back--by the most direct route on the map I had given them--was 30 minutes at best and yet two hours later they were not there. Well, as luck would have it, one of the other groups of hikers I had queried about my lost son had called the local fire department (can you say debacle?) and all of a sudden several volunteer fireman started showing up (picture a trio of Rambo like characters) for an old-fashioned search-and-rescue operation. Just the object of the search had changed, from a seven-year-old boy to a three adults and two children, including my five-year-old daughter who had been walking for over three hours--without complaining, my wife later told me.
Dusk had fallen thick and heavy by the time one of the firemen located them, hiking in circles in the middle of the park. When they got back to the car, they were exhausted, hungry and cold, but relieved that Tom had been recovered safely. We thanked the rescuers, packed back into the van and drove back to Paramus: no one in the van made a peep for the whole ride. But everyone's spirits lifted when we got back to the condo, and Eric cooked up a big pan of Chicken Picatta, filling the air with the scent of lemons and capers. We had almost all fully recovered when Tom came down from the shower and announced. "Heh Dad, come check my head. I think there's something on it." And sure enough there was, a deer tick, burrowed deep into his scalp, prompting the lot of us to start shedding our clothes for an impromtu tic check. It would make the story even better to say that we were all covered with tics--I know my friend KG advises never to let the truth get in the way of a good story--but there weren't any more, and my recollection of these unfortunate events ends here.
And I suspect you know why I can't remember anything beyond that. It's because things started going smoothly after that (although Eric did use a half-dozen too many lemons in the chicken), and no one bothers to waste brain space on things that went smoothly. Sometimes I find myself hoping that my adventures will become misadventures because I am always looking for a good story, and the short term suffering seems to be a small price for a good story that lasts decades. It's the same with fiction, which is, after all, at its heart, a story. So I wonder, being the guy I am, what it is about the stories we keep telling year after year that makes them memorable? I think about this because I am sure that the same elements will help me write better novels.
And here's what I learned: There has to be conflict, the more visceral the better. Losing your seven-year-old on the top of a mountain as darkness approaches scores a passing grade on the conflict test. How do I know? Because I can still remember it ten years later like it happened yesterday. The other lesson here is the never-out-of-the-woods (pun intended) lesson: as soon as we thought we were in the clear, we learned the other half of the party had become lost, and then we find out Tom had become tic infested, and then we learn that Eric had used too many lemons. Ok, so those last two could use work--in a fictionalized account, which I will tell next year, the tic will become a man-eating spider and the Chicken Picatta will be contaminated with Ebola virus.
I will end here, because I have gone on long enough and lunch approaches. Thank you for your attention and support. I appreciate it. Make sure to check out my website, and leave a comment if you want. Also please feel free to share the blog, preferably with someone who has wronged you in the past