Last week, my editor tweeted this quote by Herman Melville:
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
It immediately reminded me of a lesson I learned from storytelling teacher Brian McDonald. In his book INVISIBLE INK, he writes about armature, which is “the idea upon which we hang our story” in the same way that a wireframe lies unseen beneath a sculpture. A mighty theme — or any theme, for that matter — is not a single word, like “love” or “greed”; it’s a fully-formed thought, a moral of the story, a grammatically complete sentence. And he illustrates his lessons with examples from well-known stories. I quote him often, and I echo his examples. (Do you know the theme of The Wizard of Oz? It’s not “home” or “There’s no place like home.” If you want to find out, write to Brian or write to me. Or better yet, read his book!)
So I retweeted the quote along with a snippet of Brian’s advice, and got to thinking about how long he and I have been out of touch. Great teachers are a rare commodity and a precious resource. Brian is one of the best teachers I’ve ever studied with. Ever. And his book is a treasure trove of information about how to write a great story.
And then last night, I went to my favorite jazz venue in Seattle to see musical genius Burt Bacharach. I love Burt Bacharach. I grew up listening to his music, and hearing his songs all these years later gives me such a sense of nostalgia. Getting tickets was serendipitous. I had seen one of his ex-wives promote her autobiography on TV last fall, which inspired me to read her book and google Burt to see whether he was alive and well and maybe even performing. And jackpot! He was coming to Seattle. But then I checked the concert dates, and I had just missed him. By a couple of weeks. Heartbreak. And then I read that he had suffered an injury that required him to postpone his appearance. Poor Burt. But happy me! The rescheduling opened up a table for two, which I snapped up before you could whistle the opening notes of “The Look of Love.”
So there I finally was last night, eagerly awaiting Burt’s arrival on stage, with memories of Brian’s wisdom swirling around in my head, when the lady at the next table turns to me and says, “You look familiar.”
We had only a handful of minutes before show time to figure out how we knew each other, and we still can’t remember how we met. But we figured out that we both attended the Austin Film Festival the year that I was a semi-finalist in its screenwriting competition and Brian won the festival’s Sci-Fi Screenplay Award. I say something along the lines of how that’s probably the last time I saw Brian. And then the woman, whose name is Heather Hughes and who’s a successful screenwriter, pulls out her phone and shows me a photo of her good friend Brian’s recent wedding to his long-time girlfriend, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Austin as well. And all this is happening while Burt’s band is starting to warm up and he’s winding his way through the crowd to reach the stage.
It all made me think about how exciting it is to stumble upon moments of serendipity, even if people wouldn’t believe the intertwining of coincidences if they turned up in a work of fiction. But a good mystery series, among which I hope to count THE KNITTING DETECTIVE, sometimes relies on serendipity to move a story along. Not always, but often because the protagonist overlooked an important clue, and the universe has to help him or her get back on track.
I’d love to thank Burt for an awesome night of beautiful music and magical nostalgia. And I’d love to thank Heather for recognizing me on her left when she could have easily spent the entire evening looking only at the stage on her right, and for initiating a lovely conversation. But the person I’d like to honor in this post is Brian McDonald. He gave me the tools I needed to tell beautiful stories, which has always been my life’s ambition. I just needed the right teacher to come along at the right time to teach me what I needed to know to set me on the path to achieving that dream.
Now how’s that for a bit of serendipity?