Welcome back to another week of writing!
This week’s prompt was: You got on a bus and woke up in a strange town where things seem a little wrong (Prompt courtesy of Reedsy.com)
I know as soon as I wake up that I must have got on the wrong bus. I lift my head off of my duffel bag and sit up to peer out the window. We’re on what appears to be the main street of some little town that would fit in beautifully on The Twilight Zone. Or The Andy Griffith Show. You know, one of those stereotype 1950s small towns where everyone sits on their porch Sunday afternoon and, depending on the show, sings a folk song or meets aliens.
“Maybe this is just a stop on the way,” I murmur to myself, even though the bus has that sagged feeling of a vehicle that has stopped and isn’t moving again for a good long while.
Like a confirmation to my irrational gut feeling, the bus driver bawls out, “Final destination! Everyone off!”
The bus is almost empty—evidently a lot of people got off while I was asleep, I suppose at previous stops—but a couple passengers shuffle along the central aisle towards the door, bleary-eyed and silent.
I grab my duffel and make my way up to the front, stopping at the driver’s seat. “Excuse me, but this isn’t Greenwich Village.” Despite myself, my voice is rising in alarm. “This is definitely not Manhattan.”
The driver squints at me. “This is Greenwitch Village. Isn’t that where you wanted?”
“No!” I cry. “I definitely asked for a ticket to Greenwich. Gren-ich,” I pronounce carefully. I’ve only been dreaming of coming here—there—my whole life. I know how to pronounce the place.
The driver just shrugs, with none of my alarm. “Well, apparently this is where the ticket seller thought you wanted. Everybody off.”
“But this isn’t where I—I’m not supposed—when’s the next bus back?”
“There isn’t one,” the driver says, getting up from her seat and heading for the door too. “Final destination.”
A shiver crawls down my spine, because that seems a lot more Twilight Zone than Andy Griffith. “Oh, don’t be stupid,” I tell myself, and stump down the steps from the bus to the pavement. Obviously she meant there isn’t one today. Or something like that.
“Good morning, good morning, welcome to Greenwitch!” a cheery-eyed woman with a clipboard greets me as soon as I get two steps from the bus. “I’m Adalia, and I’m on the Official Welcoming Board. Welcome!”
A little over the top, especially for seven in the morning, but reassuringly more Andy Griffith than Twilight Zone.
“Thanks,” I mutter. What am I going to do, now that I’m in completely the wrong place? But maybe the welcoming committee can help. “Can you tell me how to get a bus to Manhattan?”
“Oh, I don’t think you want to do that,” she says, ominous words with a bright smile to contradict them. “Now, name and artistic pursuit?”
I blink, because while I’ve been asked “what I do” a lot, it’s never been said quite like that. “Lauren. I’m…a writer.” I’ve been trying to get the sentence out without the pause, but fail again. I am a writer. Just because I haven’t published anything—or finished anything recently…
“Excellent,” she chirps. “Come along with me to the library then. You’ve come at the perfect time—some of the night people are still up, and the morning people are already starting to arrive.”
“Wait, what?” I protest, but find myself following her in spite of myself. I mean, it’s not like I’d go off into a dark alley with some big guy—but this is a woman with a clipboard, trying to get me to go to a library. That’s weird, but pretty non-threatening, and she’s the closest thing I have to a guide in this town.
“The writers,” Adalia says, walking briskly along so I have to hurry to keep up. “The dancers like the cafe, the painters prefer the pizza place—except the en plein air ones, of course, they’re at the park—and the musicians are—well, anyway, each type has their place, and obviously the writers go to the library. Where else?”
“Um…” All right, so maybe I’ve stumbled into an artist’s community? Just not the one I was expecting?
That’s why I was going to Greenwich Village, of course. The place for artists for at least the last century. Writing was impossible back in my boring suburban town, but in Greenwich Village—I’m sure that’s where I need to be for inspiration to find me.
Right now, though, Adalia ushers me into a community room at the library, where a handful of people are sitting at a long table with laptops or notebooks.
To my intense embarrassment, Adalia claps her hands once, loudly, and announces, “Everyone, this is Lauren. She’s a writer, and she’s new in town! I’ll just leave her to get acquainted.”
“Um, hi,” I mumble, ducking my head awkwardly.
There’s a round of “hellos” and nods and I slide into the nearest seat, just so I don’t have to stand in front of everyone anymore.
“So what are you working on?” an older woman sitting at the next seat asks, hands still on her laptop keyboard but fingers still.
“Some…short stories,” I say, because the truth is, I’m not really working on anything right now. I’ve started lots of stories, but after a little while everything just sort of…ebbs away.
She nods seriously. “Very nice. I’ve been doing world-building for my epic fantasy novel.”
“Wow,” I say, because that sounds so much more focused than me. “Is that a lot of work?”
“Well, I’ve been at it for ten years, but I’m making real progress!” she says cheerfully.
“Oh…” While I’m still thinking of something to say to that, the man across from me at the table speaks up.
“I’m outlining,” he informs me. “I have an eight book fantasy series in mind. Very important to have the outline just right.”
“Sure,” I agree, glad of a new topic. “Does everyone write fantasy?”
“I write historical fiction,” a woman farther down the table volunteers. “I’m in the research phase. So interesting. So much to explore!”
I’m starting to see a pattern, and it’s giving me a weird feeling. How do I ask about it without being rude? “So, sometimes I have trouble finishing stories,” I say carefully, and it’s slightly alarming how vigorously everyone around me starts nodding. “Do any of you…have any advice? I mean, have you finished…?”
“I finished chapter one of my novel,” the last person at the table jumps in with. “Now I’m revising it. And once I have it perfect, then it’s straight on to chapter two.”
“Huh. Okay…” It’s just, the weirdness is getting weirder. I feel like I’ve said everything I’m hearing. I’ve done the research, I’ve done the outlining, I’ve done the world-building and the revising, while I waited for that elusive inspiration to come and carry me through the rest of the draft—or to start a draft. And somehow it doesn’t happen. “Should you…maybe finish the draft?”
Everyone looks away then, and the feeling in the room gets distinctly frostier. “When the time is right,” the Reviser says in clipped tones, “I will.”
“You have to be inspired,” the World-builder says, giving me a sharp look.
“Right, I know,” I say, because that sounds even more familiar. “That’s why I wanted to go to Greenwich Village! I feel so sure, if I go there, I’m going to get all the inspiration I need. But—maybe it’s kind of like that here? I mean, if all of you, and all these other artists Adalia mentioned, came here…” I trail off, because everyone is looking uncomfortable.
“You’re new, so we’ll explain it to you,” the Outliner says, in a condescending tone. “We don’t like talking about it and Adalia really should have done this, but—this isn’t where people come to make art. This is where people come to not make art.”
I blink, because that doesn’t make any sense. “I don’t…”
“Inspiration doesn’t come here,” the Researcher says bluntly. “Ever. And it’s much easier that way. We talk about writing, and we think about writing, and we tell each other about our plans to write. We never write. That would be so much harder.”
“We’d have to deal with those moments when the words don’t want to come,” the World-builder says with a shudder. “Or when you realize your plot has a huge hole and you have to fix it.”
“When you can’t find the right way to say ‘idiot,’ and every synonym feels wrong,” the Outliner contributes.
“And critiquing,” the Reviser says. “We’d have to deal with critiques if we actually wrote something for people to read.” A collective groan goes up.
“But here, no one’s ever inspired,” the Outliner explains. “So we never have to face any of that.”
“Isn’t all of that kind of the point though?” I say in a small voice. “Isn’t that what writing is?”
“No,” the Outliner says, voice even more patronizing than before. “Writing is when you’re hit by a bolt of inspiration and the story flows right out onto the page exactly the way you wanted it. But we’ve all realized that we aren’t people that happens to, and we’ve decided to stop hoping. And here, we don’t have to. We can be writers, who never have to write.”
I’m starting to feel dazed. Part of me thinks this all makes a lot of sense, like it’s things I’ve been thinking all my life. “I guess…I could think about titles for my short stories?” I say slowly.
Nods of approval all around, and the World-builder says, “See, that’s exactly the right way to go about it!”
Without thinking I start to reach for my laptop, ready to begin noodling around with titles, maybe forever…
And then it hits me. It’s the word “forever” that tips me off. This is definitely The Twilight Zone. I mean, not really, that’s just a TV show, but this still has all the earmarks of The Twilight Zone. Weird group think, no practicality, people trapped in endless cycles forever. Classic. And the thing is, you can’t trust reality in the Twilight Zone. And when people there tell you a thing is true, you can be pretty sure it’s not.
I consider sharing this insight. But people get hostile in the Twilight Zone when you tell them their version of reality is seriously messed up.
So I just get to my feet and say, “I think I’m going to walk around a bit. Maybe look for some ideas. For titles.”
Everyone smiles and approves and wishes me luck, and I carefully walk back out of the library.
But now I’m stuck in this town with no way to get out. I don’t even know where I am and…then I see the bus. The one that brought me here, heading down Main Street.
“Hey!” I holler, and run after it.
I’m out of breath and my legs burn and I’m sure it’s not going to stop for me before it finally does. The door consents to creak open and I all but fling myself inside.
“You said,” I accuse the driver, who looks at me without emotion, “there was—no bus—out of town.” I haul air into my lungs and try not to gasp too loudly.
“For most people, there isn’t,” she says, and resumes driving.
I sink into a seat, and don’t relax until Greenwitch Village has disappeared behind us. I don’t know where we’re going, if it’s towards Greenwich Village or not, but I don’t care. Anywhere has to be better than back there.
At last I relax in my seat, and find myself wondering what lesson Rod Serling would tell the viewer to take from this seriously weird little episode.
If the Twilight Zone-people’s ideas about writing were wrong, maybe I should do some thinking about what writing is. About what the pitfalls are, and the challenges, and how I can deal with them. I could draw up a list, and…
Or I could just start writing. Even if I’m not inspired, even if it’s not coming out perfectly.
Yeah. Maybe that’s the best way to do it.