13 Miles and Literary Karma

What happens when anticipation turns, unexpectedly, into distress? When we hit the wall? That moment when we are zinging along, nearing the end of our journey, and suddenly find ourselves derailed. If we are writing, it is when we suddenly realize the ending we imagined doesn’t work; the resolution is shallow; the disappointment is inevitable. But we were so close, so very close.

Switch to real life. We left on an 880 mile road trip a few days before Christmas. We’d made reservations at a comfortable hotel 550 miles from our house.  We’d been driving since 6 a.m., and had covered 537 miles; it was dark, as it had been that morning when we left our driveway. For most of the way the weather had been good, the highway dry, traffic moderate. I was taking my turn at the wheel–tired, but looking forward to checking into our motel, flopping back onto a snowy-white comforter, opening the one Stella Artois I’d tucked into the cooler, and relaxing until the next morning.

The gas gauge was below a quarter of a tank, and I really, really needed to find a “facility,” but we were, according to our GPS, only 13 miles from bliss. Then it all went wrong: men on the highway were waving red flares just a few yards past an exit. We stopped; they said there was an accident ahead and to proceed carefully. We continued for another 100 yards and came to a dead stop. And waited, and waited. The temperature was dropping quickly. Black ice had begun to form on the roadway. Icy rain was pinging off the windshield.

We sat there. I fidgeted and eyed the gas gauge. I kept saying, “This can’t be happening to us so close to the exit for our hotel,” as if that would change anything. We had a CB radio with us, one we’d thrown into the back seat at the last minute. It only took a few minutes to hear one trucker telling another to stay where he was, get something to eat and grab a few hours sleep. There was a major (he said 31 vehicle) pileup and he was caught in the middle of it. He said he wouldn’t be going anywhere for hours–he guessed 5 or 6. I looked at the gas gauge and checked the outside temperature: both were sinking.

People were getting out of their vehicles, walking around, smoking cigarettes, talking to each other. I was clenching my teeth and trying to stay calm. I noticed that people who were situated close to an entrance ramp were using it as an escape, since no cars could possible come down the ramp with the highway blocked for several miles behind us.

I was in the far right lane, next to a narrow emergency lane. Maybe I could manage it if I made a very tight, acute-angle turn. I tried, I succeeded, and found, to my delight and amazement, a pleasant hotel at the top of the ramp, across from a gas station. Thirty minutes later, I was relaxing on their fluffy, white comforter, drinking my one precious Stella, and eating microwave popcorn.

As I sat there, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d just experienced a little good karma. Since then, I realized the situation wasn’t that different from what we, as writers, occasionally experience. One minute we are sailing along, the words are flowing, and the conclusion seems logical.  Then, unexpectedly, we arrive at what seems a dead end. The plot has stalled; the ending we had in mind is not realistic; we are stuck. A lot of good fiction is turning yellow in some file cabinet or drawer because the writer hit a verbal road block with no discernible way past it.

But what if we take a risk, forgot our previous plan, and make an acute turn in our novel or short story? Forget where we thought we’d be (we’re not going to get there), and explore new options. Perhaps we will have to break a few rules, go against “traffic,” take a risk, but it’s worth it if there’s something of value at the other end.

The alternative is staying trapped in a writing dilemma where it is impossible to make satisfactory progress, wasting time and whatever inspirational energy we have left at the  moment.

Will it work every time? Probably not, but even if it doesn’t, we will have made an effort that will motivate us to keep writing until we get the closure we and our manuscript deserves.

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