After a long and sleep-deprived cross-country trek, INTERN and Techie Boyfriend are finally settled in at their most recent nest, this time a rustic cabin in the Maine woods. Internet is spotty at best (and picked up via a Rube Goldberg-esque antenna contraption Techie Boyfriend assembled from twist ties and bits of metal, which must be pointed North at all times and never, ever touched, especially by INTERN, whose touch has the awesome power of rendering most technological devices unusable). If the rate of posts on this blog is somewhat erratic this summer, you now know why.
All this rustic living (outdoor kitchen, outhouse, gallons of water carried from a pump, fireflies at night and tiny wild strawberries growing in tall grass) has put INTERN in a storytelling mood. So here goes.
There was once a young adventurer, let’s call her Brunhilde, who wished to receive the great secret of life from the queen. She traveled many days, crossing deserts and paddling through oceans and thwacking her way through thick, prickly, brush, and finally arrived at the queen’s palace at the top of an icy blue mountain.
She went into the palace and took a number from the small plastic machine at the door, and when her number came up on the digitial display, not unlike the one at the DMV, which was hanging from the pressed-copper ceiling, the queen received her in her throne room.
“Why,” said the queen, “have you sought an audience with me?” She was clad in a plain black suit and sat behind a mahogany desk twirling an ostrich-feather quill pen.
Brunhilde quivered in her boots.
“I wish to know the great secret of life,” she said.
The queen smiled. She opened one of the drawers in her desk and took out a silver spoon. She opened another drawer and took out a small crystal flask full of polar bear oil. Without saying a word, she opened the flask and poured a few drops of the precious oil into the silver spoon, and handed it to Brunhilde.
“Go out and enjoy the wonders of my queendom,” she said. “There are many marvels. Go explore. Come back and talk to me in a few days. In the meantime, hang on to this spoonful of oil for me.”
Brunhilde took the spoonful of oil and dutifully did as she was told. She went to the carnival district and rode the Ferris wheel; she went to the polar bear district and played with the cubs; she had a wild fling with a fellow explorer she met in the palace pub. When a few days had passed, she returned to see the queen.
“Your queendom is marvelous!” gushed Brunhilde. “I went on a sleigh ride and took a pottery class and sampled ten thousand flavors of halva at the market. Truly, your queendom is the most beautiful and stimulating place in the world.”
The queen accepted the compliment demurely. When Brunhilde was finished talking, she cocked her silver head and looked Brunhilde in the eyes.
“I’m glad you had so many adventures,” said the queen. “But pray tell: what happened to the drops of oil in the spoon?”
At those words, Brunhilde blushed. Somewhere between the Ferris wheel and the tilt-a-whirl, she had forgotten all about the silver spoon, and oil had splashed out on the ground.
“I forgot all about it,” Brunhilde confessed. Fearing the queen’s wrath, she began to quiver in her boots once more.
But the queen opened the drawer in her mahogany desk and took out the crystal flask.
“Hold out your spoon,” she said.
Brunhilde did as she was told, and a moment later there were three more drops of oil in her spoon.
The queen looked her in the eyes. “Go out and explore my queendom for three more days; then come back and talk to me.”
This time, Brunhilde resolved to be more responsible. She never took her eyes off the drops of oil in the spoon. Instead of riding the tilt-a-whirl, she stayed on the ground where it was safe. She was so worried about the oil that crossed the street whenever she saw people coming, for fear they would bump into her and cause her to spill the oil. Most of the time, she just stayed in her tent where the oil would be safe.
When Brunhilde went back to see the queen, the queen questioned her again.
“My queendom is full of marvels—tell me, what did you see?”
But this time, Brunhilde confessed that she had not seen anything. She had been too busy guarding the drops of oil in the spoon.
“What a shame,” said the queen. “All these days you could have been attending the kite festival, or learning to dance the electric rumpus, or trading bits of poetry with that lover of yours, and instead you spent the whole time watching a spoonful of oil.”
At this, Brunhilde grew frustrated in spite of herself.
“What’s this?” she cried, stamping a booted foot. “If I partake in the marvels, I spill the oil. If I guard the oil, I miss out on the marvels.”
At this, the queen shook her head sadly.
“The great secret of life,” she said, “is to enjoy all the wonders of the world—but never forget the drops of oil in the spoon.”
To INTERN, this story (a version of which she encountered for the first time several years ago) has always suggested a multitude of writing metaphors.
The drops of oil are a story’s theme, its kernel of truth, that writers must carry gently through the hall of marvels without either losing control or clinging too tightly.
The drops of oil are a middle path between being a pantser and being an outliner: a way of keeping your goal in the back of your mind, even as you make room for the unexpected.
The drops of oil are your readers: do you lose them in your flights of fancy, stifle them with too much explaining, or guide them with a light touch?
Wishing you all ten thousand marvels!