I have an aversion to certain public places. The more crowded and bureaucratic, the more I do my best to avoid them, or at least I try to limit my time in these places. For example, I hate airports, yet I love to fly. My dislike of airports used to make me chronically late, until one day — I missed my flight. This made me rethink my relationship to airports, and now I am always on time, but not without some trepidation. Right up there with my airport aversion is my intense dislike of subways at rush hour and parades of any kind; whether they are political or celebratory, I hate parades.
By now, you may think I am claustrophobic, but I swear I’m not. I function fairly well, despite my little eccentricities. But I admit that my aversion of public spaces does not include elevators. Elevators are different. For one thing, there’s not much room for bureaucracy in an elevator. Elevators are quite interesting. Being in such close proximity with complete strangers always tempts me to stare at my fellow passengers. This makes people uncomfortable, I know it, but I can’t help it. What else is a writer supposed to do? Here is an opportunity for research! Can you think of a better place to examine another human being at such close range without getting personally involved? In an elevator, I can imagine all sorts of things; the details of that person’s inner life make up the kernels that are the beginnings of STORY. Here are just some of the things that spring to mind as I stare unabashedly at my fellow elevator riders.
Is this person in a relationship? Married, or not? Good in bed or not? Cheating on the spouse or not? Any children? What does this person do for a living? What secrets is this person hiding from his or her family? What secrets is this person hiding even from him or her self? What is the worst thing that has ever happened to this person? What’s his or her greatest fear? What’s this person’s secret dream? What’s the most unexpected thing this person has ever done? Would I want to be stuck in an elevator with this person, or not? There are lots more questions…but hey, remember, this is just an elevator ride!
Of course, if you’re not the type or writer who is comfortable staring at your fellow elevator passengers, you can strike up a very time-limited, meaningless conversation. Why not? It’s done all the time, and I admit, I’ve been guilty of it myself…Hi, pretty hot outside, isn’t it? Good thing it’s Friday! Or…Did you have to wait forever for the B train too? If you don’t feel like engaging in chatter, you could let out an accidental fart, and glance at everyone else in an accusatory manner, shrug, and if you’re really brave, declare, It wasn’t me! — just as the elevator door opens and you run out like the coward that you know you are.
Another option for smooth elevator riding is to avoid eye contact, especially when the elevator is packed. You keep your eyes riveted to the changing floor numbers above the elevator door. Ever wonder, what’s so fascinating about those lights?
No matter which option from the ones enumerated you choose — if you’re a writer — you should have the beginnings of a PLOT by the time you’ve exited the elevator. The CHARACTER part of your story is already taken care of, since you’ve been studying your specimen at such close range. Here are the beginnings of just one possible plot scenario. WRITERS TAKE HEART: There are as many plot scenarios as there are writers, and … there are many more revisions to any given plot than there are writers.
Elevator Scenario #1. A young woman who has just moved to the big city from Omaha, Nebraska gets into the elevator from the lobby of the New York Life Building. The elevator is empty because she is early. It is 7:45 AM, and this is Mary Malarsky’s (I’ve just given her a name!) first day at her new job and she does not want to be late. She is nervous. She’s had a hard time sleeping last night (on an air mattress) since she is staying at cousin Janet’s apartment in Astoria, Queens, until she saves enough money to get her own place. Mary is holding a cup of Dunkin Donuts Coffee (she hates Starbucks; it’s too bitter and it’s pricey). Her job as an actuarial intern at the insurance company pays very little, not enough for Mary to afford her own apartment, but once she completes her internship, she will be gainfully employed. Mary’s real dream, however, is to write an Op Ed column for the New York Times. Her secret hero is Maureen Dowd.
The elevator stops on the 15th floor, and Benjamin Walker gets in. Ben is about three years older than Mary and he is a native New Yorker, and a trust fund baby who has graduated from Princeton. Ben has a job at New York Life, but Mary is unaware of that.
Mary, who is very friendly by nature, greets him with, “Good morning, Benjamin.”
“How’d you know my name?” Ben asks her.
She points to his shirt pocket, “Your name tag.” She answers, taking a sip of her coffee.
Ben laughs. “Oh, I forgot about that.”
Mary smiles back the kind of smile that lights up all 40 floors of the New York Life Building.
Cut. We are now on the 36th floor and Mary walks out of the now empty elevator crying. What happened between the 15th floor and the 36th floor that made Mary cry? END of Scenario #1.
Okay. Whether you like this scenario or not, is irrelevant. And please, please, don’t write me back with possible answers to the “What made Mary cry?” question. Honestly, I have no idea! And the only way I’ll discover that is by writing it. I’m trying to make a point here. When you’re a writer, stories are all around you, waiting for you to breathe life into them. In fact, stories are EVERYWHERE. If you’re a writer, you will surely recognize a story when it walks through your elevator door. Even when the elevator is empty, except for you. Especially when the elevator is empty.
If you are a writer, you know who you are. Keep writing!
All my best,