How To Begin a Story
It begins with a person. A woman wanted to turn herself into a benediction machine. What if I gave you the line: a woman arrived at the St. Petersburg, Russia airport at two o’clock in the morning. You need a setting. It was deserted. You need concrete details, but the airport looks like every other airport, you can already see the blankness of it, beige walls decorated with men carrying machine guns. You get used to it, someone might say. You don’t.
Where would you take this woman? Who is she, you ask, you want character details. Why is she so special? She’s running away from something, she wants to be forgiven, she wants to forgive. What if I said she was young? Brown hair, jeans, sweater, a sign across her forehead that reads “break me.” What if I said she was alone? You would think she was scared. She had spent 36 hours in airports, delayed in Chicago, rerouted to Warsaw, flown to Munich, finally transferred to St. Petersburg. She hasn’t slept in days. Why is she here anyway, you ask, you want backstory. She came because she could, she came to stare, she came to write poems. Where else to study poetry than a place where poetry meant life and death?
But there must be some hint of conflict. She wants to write a fairytale like the ones her mother told, but what does she know? Her hands are myths, never still, never concrete details, always defining and redefining and so often wrong. You would need to convey that she didn’t speak Russian. She walks out into the dark night. Would you stop here? No, you need action, you need plot. You would need to know that there were no official taxicabs at two o’clock in the morning. You would need to know there were no other women.
But this isn’t enough, you say, to just know what happens. You need to open her up, have her spill her guts, watch her learn that empathy is a difficult skill to learn, that you are not born with it. You want to watch her learn or unlearn something, something potentially painful so she can teach you. To do this, you must trust me, I am the narrator. The more fleshed out her character, you know, the more fun she will be.
And here it is. She shot a man in Reno, had thought sex equaled love, that love was married to forgiveness, that love was bruised or not bruised, black and white, not gray like the night, like the dead man’s fists. Now, you say, she is more interesting. But when will something happen, you ask. Soon, I tell you, this story I assure you, has a narrative occasion. Men push themselves away from black cars, walk towards her; they smell American, tourist, money. Only one can win. He’s in his mid-4os and wears a pink shirt with the word cocaine written across his chest. He only has one arm. They barter, it’s like dancing. A ride to the hostel in exchange for 80 dollars, no 40 dollars, no 60.
He grabs her bag. She doesn’t ask his name. Where’s the drama, the chase scene, when does he pull a knife, you ask. It’s about time someone loses something. Be patient. There must be a climax. There must be a narrative arc. What goes up must come down, you say. Where’s the emotional resonance?
She gets in the car. The car feels like a prison. She remembers sitting in county lockup with blood on her hands. She watches the neon lights flash by, makes up meanings, a liquor store here, a pharmacy there. She doesn’t know the way, only handed him an address. He could be taking her to the hostel, or to his house, or to a deserted park to kill her. She thinks her hand on the door handle makes her safe, wonders if at any moment she should pull a Charlie’s Angel move and roll out of the car. It’s not enough, you say, she needs to do something.
Okay. Here it goes. A woman arrives alone at the St. Petersburg airport at two o’clock in the morning. She thinks, what the hell have I gotten myself into. She pays a strange man to take her to her hostel. They drive past an old cathedral, the entrance doors as tall as heaven and just as notched. He pulls up to a block under construction. Tarps, crime scene tape, blocks of wood and metal poles blocking the side walk. She can’t open the car door. It’s locked. She pulls and pulls. She watches him come around the corner. He pauses. A car passes by and honks so loudly she thinks a gunshot went off. He opens the door and stares. Maybe his definition of love is better than mine, she thinks. Whatever happens next, she forgives him.
What happens next, you ask. You need closure. Not necessarily, I say.
Let’s try it again: A woman turned herself into a benediction machine. Traveled to all the churches, prisons, and boy-girl parties within 50 miles. Collected quarters in a bottle between her breasts, released absolution between her legs. The story goes, she wanted to start sinning for herself, she closed her eyes and said, give me freedom. And so she invented the first whorehouse.
Or maybe: A woman was turned into a benediction machine. Was paraded to all the churches, prisons, and boy-girl parties within 50 miles. Stored penance like quarters between her breasts, stripped of absolution between her legs. The story goes, she never sinned herself, she closed her eyes and said, give me the illusion of freedom. And so she worked in the first whorehouse.
No, wait. A woman wanted to turn herself into a benediction machine. How would you write it?