Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sorry, Unicorns

by Elizabeth

Last weekend, I piled into one of four cars headed to Corpus Christi and spent the next three days and nights in the company of six other families as we cheered our kids on at the State Destination Imagination competition. The Pink Unicorn Galaxy and their parents and siblings hit the beach, played in the pool, enjoyed some great meals, and worked hard. I'd never gone any further than Boy Scout camp with any of these folks, so it was a mostly brand new mix of people, and it was a lot of fun.

But now I'm worried about them.

Can we just say, it's dangerous to travel with me? Or maybe it's a terrific insurance policy, better than anything that other lizard can offer. Hard to say. Why don't you be the judge?

In January, a week after we pulled out of town, a tornado ripped through Trussville, Alabama, flattening all but nine of the houses on the street our friends have called home for fifteen years. Theirs was damaged, yes, but left standing. Last month the wife of the family and I headed to Charleston on a long-planned girls' getaway--and this was not the first time we've traveled together. Back before kids, we trekked from Alabama to California; most summers we spend a long weekend in the mountains of North Carolina; the adults all cruised together sans kiddoes one glorious week about eight years ago. So let's say, this is a woman I've traveled with.

Last month, a tornado ripped through North Texas. I think everyone who reads this blog realizes that Susan's house was damaged, but left standing, while other houses on her street were flattened. Another thing readers of this blog know is that we've enjoyed three annual retreats so far, and nearing the planning stages for 2012's getaway. So this, too, is a woman I've traveled with.

Two women, two disasters, two damaged houses. But left standing. I have to wonder, am I the good luck of the spared house, or the bad luck of being in the path at all?

Another of my dearest friends also joined us in Charleston. She'd been robbed at gunpoint about the same time the Alabama tornado hit. At the time, I figured bad things happened in threes, and wondered what I was in for. But now it seems it's all about the tornadoes. Here's the deal: my Virginia friend has been with me to not only South Carolina, but London, Krakow, Guatemala, and we are trying to decide whether Paris or Prague will be the next place we use our passports. Does anyone know if Northern Virginia is in tornado alley? Heaven knows all those Unicorn homes are, though.

What's funny to me as a writer is that you almost wouldn't believe this if you read it in a novel. Sure, the main character has not one but two close pals who are not only hit by a tornado within a couple of months, but miraculously spared right down to the dogs and hamsters. It's just too coincidental, even if it were to drive the narrative (maybe especially if it were to drive the narrative!).

Or is it? That's maybe where craft comes in. There are all sorts of incredible things that happen in fiction, and sometimes we buy it and sometimes we don't. I think it comes down to the skill of the writer. I had no trouble accepting people flying on carpets through the jungle when Gabriel Garcia Marquez told me they did in One Hundred Years of Solitude. No doubt that spiders could spell when E.B. White suggested it. And when Amy Tan introduces a ghost, I believe in it every time. But with other books, it's throw against the wall time if they start messing with reality.

Which tells me I can write outrageously, but it has to be done very carefully and very well. And not just things that really happen, but stuff we get to just make up. (What a great job this is! Sometimes it's too easy to forget that.) The tornadoes? That really happened to me. Well, to my friends. And while I have no plans to write about it, it does remind me that you can be outrageous if you are authentic, because life is too. And when writing is authentic, you can get as outrageous as you want.

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