Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tea? For How Many?

You are sitting in a small, wood-themed office, conspicuous in its neatness even though you are aware of tall, gravity-defying stacks of manuscripts.  The woman facing you  radiates a confidence and presence well beyond her small frame.  You reckon her to be in her mid sixties.

"Shall we,"  she says, "go to tea?  You do take tea, don't you?"

She watches you for a response.  "Ah,"  she says, "you don't.  No harm, then.  This will be your introduction.  This will be the one you remember."  She pauses, thoughtful.  "I can't imagine they never took you to tea in New York.  Were you never at The Russian Tea Room?"

"Yes,"  you say.  "Many times.  But always later in the afternoon."

You noticed a trace of the wistful in your voice.  You had been in a number of such New York offices as the one where you now sat in Boston. You'd sat and worked in a number of publishers' offices in New York  You'd nearly been invited to tea earlier by a legend from New American Library, but the invitation from the iconic Ned Chase had had to be put on a Next-time basis because of a sudden emergency.  

Now, the subject of tea had come up again.  At 8 Arlington Street, Boston, for that matter.  In many ways, hallowed ground.  The Atlantic Monthly  offices were here; they had been so for years, time enough for Mark Twain to have been here, and Twain's great friend, William Dean Howells.

The woman you faced, Sylvia Burack, was a name you'd known since your teens, when you'd begun to read her books and the monthly journal, The Writer, which she and her late husband had published and edited.  She rose with an elevation of majesty.  "Come,"  she said.  "I will introduce you to tea."

Soon, you were in the main salon of what was then called The Copley-Plaza Hotel.  You were well aware of the maitre d' greeting her.  "We have your table, Mrs. Burack.  There will be you and your guest then?"

"I was thinking,"  she said, "we might have Mr. Cooke join us, if--" she let the remainder of the sentence follow her gaze to the bar, where a man you recognized as the TV host, author, and journalist stood among a group.

The maitre d' picked up the thread Sylvia Burack had allowed to linger.  "Hors' d combat, Mrs. Burack.  Beyond extended conversation."

"A shame,"  she said.  "But do tell him to stop by."

This was by no means your first visit to Boston.  Your sense of wistfulness across the street, in her office, was in its way nostalgia.  An author of yours from Boston was the occasion of one of your more triumphant trips to New York, where you arranged the massmarket rights of this author to go to Bantam Books, producing in the paper edition a million-copy sale.  You'd been to Boston for publishing-related conventions and events.  This was your first time in Boston as a writer.  This was your first time in Boston for tea.

The afternoon was in metaphor a slice of Boston on your plate, a parallel to the tiny sandwiches, the savory and the sweets set next to your tea, a smoky oolong.  The afternoon was a turning point.

A turning point is a necessity in a scene, bringing one or more characters to a tangible change from one mindset to another, from an observer to a participant, to an understanding that there is no turning back.

Turning points energize, propel, incite future action, the consequences of which lead to some form of resolution.  Why look beyond Shakespeare for turning points, when there are so many?  Macbeth turns from being a good man to becoming a murderer.  Hamlet, previously a carefree college kid, decides to kill his uncle.  Romeo and Juliet marry.

While taking tea in Boston, you were experiencing a turning point.  At the time, you were drawing a paycheck from a publisher.  Good, challenging, honest work.  You'd already been responsible for one or two things you felt considerable satisfaction for having championed.  

You were nearly at the point of thinking this could be the job you might ride into the sunset, writing your own books as you wished, perhaps as editor in chief of this publishing house, perhaps even as its publisher.  There is a likelihood these books would be safe books, books written by an editor in chief or publisher of a scholarly publishing house, tart, edgy, perhaps even a tad smoky as the oolong you drank at The Copley-Plaza.

Trouble was, this publishing venture did not satisfy the entire body that was you; it was a scholarly publisher, which is a useful, honorable, vital thing.  But it was not tea at The Copley Plaza.  It was not you.  At the time, you were sliding along in your forties, delighted to have found yourself at this point, but not at all confident you wished to stay here because you continued to have the sense of a journey.

Story is about journey, isn't it?

A straight line is not a story.

Story is a journey with distractions, oppositions, and dead ends.  It is a maze which you are able to solve when one of your characters does.


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