Heat rises. Everybody knows that. But for glider pilots the rising columns of air called thermals are like free gas stations. Really good glider pilots can stay aloft all day and even conduct cross-country flights by “thermalling” across the sky. It’s a matter of skill and luck. And it’s a matter of being keenly sensitive, or, I would say, intuitive. Which is also true of writing.
There’s an instrument called a variometer. It’s a highly responsive vertical speed indicator. This helps in identifying the presence of thermals, which are invisible and can be subtle. But the best glider pilots have their own built-in variometer, much like Hemingway’s “built-in, shock resistant shit detector.” The pilot feels the slight updraft of air–sometimes barely perceptible–and banks steeply into it, climbing hundreds or even thousands of feet, pivoting on the long, elegant wing of the airplane. The first time my glider instructor handed the controls over to me I cluelessly soared through multiple thermals without even realizing they were there.
I used to do that with story ideas, too.
Really, calling them “ideas” is overstating the case. With “What You Are About To See,” my story appearing in the Alien Contact anthology, edited by Marty Halpern, the first thing I had was a short, declarative sentence, like a stubby knife: "It sat in a cold room." This sentence lifted out of my unconscious like a thermal seeking my attention. By now I was experienced enough as a writer to recognize that the sentence might be a valuable skyhook that could carry me into a story, or it could be nothing more than a bump in the air. It was far more likely to be a bump.
I was writing very fast that summer. At least, very fast for me. I wanted to emulate some of the more prolific writers from an earlier era, writers like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. At the Nebula Awards in Tempe, Arizona, in 2006, Harlan had suggested we collaborate on a story. As part of my run up to that possibility I spent the summer writing short stories as fast as I could. When I felt the updraft of "It sat in a cold room" I banked steeply into it, without hesitation, without thinking–and at once ascended vertically into a story. If I’d been more methodical and slow, as was more usual for me, I probably would have missed it altogether.
I had been thinking about desert landscapes. I find them evocative, and they were on my mind because of Tempe. But the next thing that came to me in my rising column of warm air, after that first sentence, was the smell of cigarette smoke. My parents had both been smokers. My father eventually quit but my mother never did and she died young–younger than I am right now as I type these words. I think I got to the cigarette thing by way of a tough-talking clichéd picture of a hardened government agent. That was a conscious image, something no doubt received from the pop culture universe of movies. Certainly I didn’t know any government agents. I looked at the image and asked myself what was in it that I could relate to personally, and it was the cigarette, the way different people hold them, the whole ritual of tamping the tobacco and lighting up, the way my mother, who had only one arm, could light a match one-handed, the way she let me help her change the flint in her classic Zippo: replace the fibrous cloth wick and saturate it with lighter fluid. As a child I did that many times. It was fun. It was something I did with my mom.
Now I had a desert landscape (conscious intention) and cigarettes (gift from the thermal). I made it nighttime under a nearly full moon–and suddenly there was a 7-Eleven store standing by itself in the middle of nowhere with its glaring bright fluorescent lights. The desert ran right up to the double glass doors. I got to the 7-Eleven, probably, because I associate it with cigarettes, with customers asking for a “packa Marlboros” or whatever. I once worked in a 7-Eleven store in Portland, Maine. It was not a good experience.
And by now I was rising rapidly in my little thermal and I knew what my story would be about. All I had to do was go into the cold room and see what was waiting for me.
At the time of its writing I didn’t view this as a particularly personal story but rereading it today, after a number of years, I was struck by a couple of obvious things. My narrator, Brian Kinney, is a guilt-stricken “extractor of information from reluctant sources.” He was hurt as a child, which drove him inward and estranged him from everyone, and this provided sufficient detachment so that, for a while, he was able to be a not very good guy. To say the least. Pretty simple character sketch. But guilt was the hot spot informing the whole thing. The world had gone all wrong, and Brian was part of that wrongness. And I remembered helping my mom with her cigarettes and lighter. As an adult I don’t see myself as culpable in any way for the havoc–for the wrongness–that my mother’s early death visited upon me and my family. But the child I had been felt plenty of guilt, and that child never really disappears. He lives down there in the unconscious and sends stuff up the thermals now and again.
The other thing I noticed was how political the story is. The fearful climate of the times is reflected in almost every paragraph. No doubt that’s why I saw the clichéd government agent, this caricature that represented my general unease. Suffice to say writers are creatures of their times, as much as anyone else, and are likely to express opinions, even when they don’t realize they are doing so.
The collaboration with Harlan Ellison, by the way, never panned out. But in the year or so it went on I learned a ton about being my own writer and trusting myself beyond my influences. Really, that was the best possible outcome. Life itself follows its own quirky story process for each individual. Tempe changed my writing life and, eventually, my real life. But that’s another story. Suffice to say, a thermal rose up, and I banked into it.