Last year, I stuffed my prompt box with words that would put me in the world I want to be in: on a boat in the Caribbean. I was (and still am) learning how to sail, and I filled my prompt box with sailing terms to help me inhabit that world. These are the prompts I’ve been writing from now that I started free-writing again.
The words — mooring, pelican, Force 3 wind — do pull me into the world I want to be in, and they help me envision myself there. They are daydream tools that help me manifest the future I want. And if daydreams can be called fiction, the prompts also result in me writing fiction.
When I pulled the “squall” prompt the other day, though, I thought, ugh. I don’t want to write about tension; I don’t want to write about a storm. I had just written about Tropical Storm Isaias, and I wanted calm.
I wrote “Squall” at the top of my page in turquoise ink and thought of Chekov’s gun. If you introduce a pistol in the beginning of a story, it has to go off by the end, right? If I title my story “Squall,” there should probably be a squall in it.
I’ve run into a disappointing trend when trying to learn about sailing. I learn by reading. If you want to be a sailor and you read a lot of sailing books — memoirs or novels — you will encounter a frighteningly high proportion of disasters and catastrophic weather and terrifying seas.
Because this is what is published, because this is what is available for me to read, because it is not balanced by books and stories where the sailing is smooth, I am left with the message that sailing is super scary and dangerous and risky.
Stories are built on tension and drama. The types of conflict are one of the first things you learn in a literature class: character vs. character, character vs. nature, character vs. self, character vs. society, etc. Violence and disaster are easy ways to find drama and suck readers in. Extremes rivet the audience. Nuance and subtlety are harder; finding traction in peace is not an easy thing to do, and especially not if you want to hook your audience instantly.
So we end up with the extremes, which lead us to believe the extremes are the norms. Instead of seeing peaceful protests as the norm — which, with 95% of protests being peaceful, is the reality — we see violence as the norm because that’s what the news reports. Instead of seeing calm, gorgeous days on the water as the norm, we see the rarer high seas drama.
We see the squalls.
I don’t want the squalls right now. I want the smooth sailing that I believe is and can be the norm.
When I wrote my daydream “Squall,” I decided not to put a squall in it. It’s just a peaceful happy day on the water. It’s not dramatic, there is no climax. It’s just the place I want to be.