I recently went on a traveling jag that took me to several parts of this patchwork nation—Hawaii, Texas, Iowa—and this is why I have been a bit lackadaisical with the blog: too much time on the road, too much jet lag. Each time I landed in a new place, I found that I was a different person, that I assumed a new role. It was strange—like being superman who enters not a phone booth but a plane—emerging as an entirely different person.
Part of this came from the fact that there were new people suddenly all around me.
At the Dallas airport, I met an eighty year old, a career salesman now happily retired, who was returning from his Caribbean cruise. He was still wearing his tropical shirt and panama hat. His face was pink, peeling from the exposure to constant sunlight.
Like all seniors, he had risen at the crack of dawn, getting to the Florida airport so early that the staff let him get on an earlier flight, which made him land now, with much time to spare, at his transfer point–Dallas. Now he had a half day to spend while waiting for his connection and did not relish it. This was a vast desert for a man whose occupation made him crave interaction, whose life had primed him for talking.
“Are you going to Des Moines?” I asked. And in minutes my attempt to read a John Grisham novel was put on ice: he switched seats and was on me.
“No, I’m going to San Diego. That’s where I live now.” And thus began his life story. By the time we parted company, I felt I knew too much about his sons, both in their sixties—one married with children; the other a confirmed bachelor, teaching community college. I learned about his life as a used car salesman and the intricacies of making a deal. “You can’t lie to people. They’ll find you out and never trust you again.” Used car sales, it turns out, makes a lot of money back in his day, but now the car business has been gutted. “I put two boys through college with that money and once a month the owners took me and the wife to the nicest hotel in New Jersey and we could order whatever we want.” There was a pride in his voice. It was the pride of someone who bought IBM when it was still a small fish in a very big pond. “Now these guys in the car racket, I feel sorry for them. The commission is nothing.”
So here is the Creative Writing Exercise: Put your character into a space of public transportation—an in-between space—where he can collide with all sorts of other folks: salesman, data analysts, prostitutes, conventioneers, celebrities, students, confidence men, terrorists. From there, he can pivot to a number of possibilities, a few of which I will name but many more of which I will leave you to figure out: he can lie about his identity, he can suddenly develop a friendship or animosity, he can be caught in an intrigue, he can be forced to perform a task, he can catch somebody in a deception, he can have a confrontation.
These are just some of the possibilities that come from a space of transit. Transit yokes character to plot, the cart to its horse—pushing onward, pushing upward. If your character is just lying around in bed or too lazy to get out of the house, public transit will force him to do some work for a change…so this exercise is a good remedy for the plot that has stalled. Remember that many great novels and films both begin and end in zones of public transportation—Casablanca, to name but one—so this simple fix-all is not just an exercise that goes nowhere but a legitimate entryway to producing great art that goes somewhere.