I have written previously about synchronicity, the relationship between things and events that have no obvious link. But what about serendipity? Our daily lives are filled with the unlooked-for but "fortunate discoveries" that define the term. However, the nature of those discoveries becomes serendipitous only when it leads to something else. Something good.
I may have had such an incident last Saturday.
I was sitting in an incredibly crowded airport terminal, having lucked into the seat when it was vacated just as I walked past. After first making sure that there were no women or disabled veterans or aged people in the immediate vicinity who might have made better use of the seat than I, I settled in to await the boarding call some 90 minutes hence.
As flights departed more seats freed up, including the one next to me. I was scanning my phone and deleting emails that had built up during the week while I was away from the office when I looked up and saw a woman motioning to the vacant seat. My return glance let her know that the seat was free. She took it. I smiled and went back to my emails.
The fractious nature of flying makes it such an unpleasant experience that most people just want to be left alone to suffer the indignity in silence. Your seat neighbor–whether in the terminal or in row 14–probably isn't looking to make small talk and likely isn't interested in you or your story, even if you are the "most interesting man in the world" and have won the same lifetime achievement award–twice. Sorry, but it's true. The serendipity would be in discovering that you are indeed sitting next to the world's most interesting man, but most people do not allow themselves that opportunity these days.
She pulled out her laptop and went to work. As is often the case when circumstances place us in such close proximity to one another, I couldn't help but notice that she was writing. Not an email or a memo or a legal brief, but actual dialogue. She was writing a story. She's an author, I thought to myself. How interesting. As a person who has always enjoyed writing and been told that I do it well, I was intrigued. I've been working on a story idea off and on for perhaps 20 years now, but for reasons that are entirely my fault–mostly ignorance of the process–I have never reached the critical mass that would allow me to finish what I have started so that I could enjoy all the publishing house rejection letters.
When I have an blog idea or when I am writing an article for the sports website to which I occasionally contribute, the words spill out and I finish in a span of time that any deadline-challenged writer would find impressive. With regard to my book however, I'm stuck. If every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, before I took that first step I bent down to tie my shoe, then I took a phone call, then I decided I needed more hydration and stretching and another look at the map, and before I knew it here I am twenty years later still wondering if my premise is workable. I don't know if a writer can have writer's block before actually writing anything, but that's what I call it anyway.
Airports hardly seem like an environment conducive to creativity, but here she was churning out dialogue. If she can write here amid this chaos, I thought, then writer's block certainly isn't an issue for her. She's probably a female Stephen King, the author who has made a career of turning the most insane ideas into bestsellers. Man, I'd love to talk to her. But alas, she was a stranger and we were in an airport and she was working and the rules of society dictated that I not be profoundly nosy and butt in. Remember the fraternity rush scene in "Animal House" when Flounder asks the guys playing cards if they are playing cards?
Hey, whatcha writing?" Nope, I wasn't going to be Flounder.
But then, serendipity.
Her children appeared. Her son was wearing a UVA sweatshirt. That changed everything. Wahoos, (or Hoos) as students and alumni of the University of Virginia are known, always exchange greetings when away from the mothership. I'm sure that this ritual applies to alumni of every school, but UVA is something of a cult and we take especial delight in making our affiliation known. My non-UVA friends generally are sickened by the over-the-top affinity we have for our school, but like I said, it's a cult.
"Wahoowa," I offered. (This is the UVA call sign. The University community is divided on the correct spelling of this term and some spell it "Wahoowah." Not me. Not ever. I suppose that since it's a made-up word it shouldn't matter. But it does.)
"Wahoowa," she replied. And as simply as that we became acquaintances. In the matter of a few short minutes I discovered that her husband and I had overlapped in Charlottesville, that I remembered him as an athlete even though we hadn't actually known each other, and that she was herself a UVA law school graduate. And yes, she was an author. And in literary circles outside of mine, a well-known one. Famous even. New York Times bestseller list famous. Numerous times.
Besides UVA, we discovered additional common ground. We talked politics and sports and her writing. She professed an interest in this blog. She was engaging and friendly. Feeling more at ease than I probably should have, I asked the big question.
"Where do you find your ideas?"
I worried about my temerity. Is this an appropriate question for an author or is it akin to asking the Coca-Cola CEO to show you the Coke recipe?
"From life. From everywhere," she replied.
Not exactly the revelation I was hoping for, but given the circumstances it was enough of an answer to get me thinking. What I determined was that if you are attuned to your surroundings and locked in, there are ideas everywhere. So what if there already are fifty books exploring vigilante justice or unrequited love. No matter. Your approach and tone will be unique. Ideas are everywhere. Look at Larry David. He made "Seinfeld," the greatest television show in history, a "show about nothing." Lunch at the diner? That's a show. Waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant? Another show. He even made a show about pitching to NBC a show about nothing.
Over the span of that visit I remembered my love for writing and for this blog. My output has tailed off these past few years as I have been distracted by life's more immediate responsibilities but thanks to her I plan to rededicate myself. Sometimes we all need a nudge. A serendipitous nudge.
I'll start with this entry.
Wonder if she will see it. I hope she does because I want her to know that I'm thankful for the gift of her serendipity.