In her Ted Talk a few years ago Elizabeth Gilbert shared how the American poet Ruth Stone believed her poems came thundering at her across the vast fields she worked in. She’d have to run as fast as she could to her house, chasing after the poem, to try to get a pen and write it down before the poem rolled onward.
Well, running might have worked for Ruth Stone about sixty years ago, but when a chunk of fiction comes thundering toward me and I’m on the Sea To Sky highway, driving 120 km/hr on the single-lane curvy stretch, I can’t exactly pull over and write it all down.
But what do you do? Ruth Stone said that if she didn’t get to her pen and paper in time, the poem would roll onward, looking for another poet.
I’m fiercely competitive so when the fiction comes to me, there’s no way in hell I’m letting it go to another writer.
So I do what all good writers do: I keep one hand on the wheel, hoping the thousand and five times I’ve driven the highway means I remember precisely in how many seconds the next curve is going to appear, and I fumble for a piece of paper. Any piece of paper. A napkin, a receipt, the box I’m going to mail tomorrow, and in the case of a few months ago, the field trip permission form I had to photocopy for my students.
Did I mention I’m writing a young adult novel? That means the content I write about is, well, teenage-y. The characters swear, talk about sex, and sound like a bunch of fourteen and seventeen-year-olds.
What came thundering down the highway at me wasn’t an insightfully descriptive passage, full of symbolism and depth. It was a conversation between two of my characters. A stand-off conversation, if you will. Full of “Piss off, bitch” and “What are you going to do about it?”.
So that’s what I scribbled onto the back of the field trip form that I pressed against the centre of my steering wheel while I tried not to cross the yellow line.
It’s also what got photocopied ninety-five times because, as all creative minds do, I forgot about the dialogue the second it appeared on paper.
And handed out to ninety of my Grade Nine students.
And taken home to their parents.
It was only the next day that I realized what was on the form.
So what did I do?
What all good teachers and writers do.
I lied. I blamed the Grade Eights. Oh foolish, young silly Grade Eights. They do silly things like write on field trip permission forms. With swear words.
And now, when the fiction comes thundering at me on the highway and I’m swooping through turns, I make sure I don’t write on an important piece of paper.
I write on my arm.