I started this story in response to an assignment given by Nancy Zafris in her workshop at Kenyon Review Writers’ Summer Workshop in June 2012. Nancy gave the group a list of sentences. We were to choose one as the closing line for a story.
We were given one or two assignments every day for the whole week of the Kenyon Summer Workshop. This assignment was the hardest by far for me. I am fine with starting (usually!) but to start already knowing how I was going to finish? Impossible! I just don’t know how people do that! I must have started seven or eight different stories, each time aiming for a different finishing sentence.
By half past midnight I was desperate. I paced around my room (quietly, so as not to disturb the others in the same house although I knew they were probably writing too). For some reason I started thinking about a woman I’d seen at Heathrow Airport several years ago. I started to write yet another new story and at last began to be drawn in.
The woman I saw in Heathrow as I was having a coffee, waiting for my flight, stood in the same spot right in the middle of a busy aisle for a long time. She was dressed respectably, even elegantly, and waited patiently, somehow very contained in herself. She didn’t move. She never looked at her watch. Was she waiting for someone? Why wait right there in the busy aisle? Why not sit down? She didn’t seem sad or surprised or agitated. She remained motionless while hordes of people milled around and rushed past her. After well over an hour I turned away to check whether my departure gate number was up on the board and when I glanced over again, the woman had disappeared. I searched for her in the crowd, to see if she was with someone but she’d vanished.
As I got to the end of the word count Nancy required, I realized which sentence I would use. Not the one I had been planning to end with!
I kept with this final sentence as I worked on the story through several drafts. Eventually, my critique buddy pointed out that the sentence was stopping the story from moving on. After my struggle to find it, I had become very attached to it, so it was hard to let it go, but I did and then “Arrivals” took a new turn…and then another…and another…
One of the things I find so fascinating about writing fiction stories, is the way the brain connects seemingly random events – a workshop assignment in Kenyon, OH, a list of final sentences, a memory of a moment in an airport years previously. Sometimes it feels like magic!