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Behind Door Number Three

My son, a fourteen-year-old high school freshman (with a hyperactive amygdala and a sleepy frontal lobe) plays the viola. My daughter, a thirteen-year-old seventh grader (whose frontal lobe is only slightly less sleepy) plays the violin. The important information in those sentences is not that my children’s brains are akin to those of prehistoric reptiles, but that they play string instruments.

That said, may I tell you what the reptiles’ bedrooms look like? They are icky. Swamp-like. My son’s is choked with stinky laundry.  Old math tests and candy wrappers from candy I did not give him. My daughter’s is a bog of art supplies, Tupperwares of slime and sequins, knickknacks up the wazoo. I keep their bedroom doors closed.

The important information in the previous paragraph is that I keep my reptiles’ bedroom doors closed. And, yes, that my reptiles play string instruments.

In Seattle, there are several amazing makers of violins and violas, and when my son and daughter need a bigger instrument, a tune up, a bow re-hair, we go to James Martin Violins*. But as many times as I have been there, I can never recall where on the block his shop is located. There’s no big sign advertising his name and his craft, no storefront with a display of string instruments. There’s only a nearly-invisible recessed door and a small brass plaque that reads James Martin Violins. I always walk right past the door. Always. And I always worry I am on the wrong block.

But I never am. I eventually find that brass plaque, and the kids and I pull open the herky-jerky door, walk up the creaky set of stairs (likely last carpeted in the 70s), hide our nostrils from the smell of cigarettes (James Martin is a secret smoker) and finally open a second door with weary, protesting hinges.

Through that door we enter a different world clearly set in a different century.

Dozens of instruments hang by their scrolls from wires. Some have never been played before and are too orange, too shiny for my taste. Others are dinged-up and well-loved. These whisper, Play me. Listen to the musical story of my long life.

To the right of the cashier’s counter, a young book keeper pays bills in a paper ledger, types up appraisals on a real live typewriter, and organizes the clutter of newly-arrived shipments of Brazillian-wood bows. To the left sits James Martin’s apprentice, an up-and-coming craftsman clad in Levis and tattoos; a snoring mutt sleeps on the floor at his feet. Something classical plays on the radio.

Every piece of the hodgepodge of furniture is at least fifty years old. The upholdstered sofa pokes my derrière when I sit to wait our turn. On the wall hangs a faded watercolor portrait of James’ daughter, now a professional cellist. We often hear a story about his daughter’s musical gifts, and we always hear about James’ dear wife, a violist, gotten years ago by cancer. James’ grief feels like ragged fingernails. It fills every cell of my epidermis. After our business is done and we walk back down the stairs, it feels like his grief has made me one hundred pounds heavier. Also one hundred times more alive.

I love this shop for the musty stories and fraying furniture. I love that there’s no large sign on the storefront, that there’s no indication of the magic of the violin-maker’s shop until we push open the door and walk inside. I love the vague feeling of concern that perhaps on this particular day, we will not find the bronze plaque. Or worse, that we will find the plaque and push open the squeaky door only to find that the shop is no longer there. Maybe never was there.

Have you heard of 826 Valencia? It’s a writing center in San Francisco with a mission to support under-resourced students with their creative and expository writing.

Unlike the mystery and magic of a nonchalant storefront like James Martin Violins, 826 Valendcia’s magic lies in the storefront and the signage; 826 Valencia’s storefront claims to be SAN FRANCISCO’S ONLY INDEPENDENT PIRATE SUPPLY STORE.

When kids walk through that front door, they aren’t greeted by desks, whiteboards and teacher-looking volunteers, but by pirate cashiers ready to sell eye patches, one-leg socks and skull bracelets, corked bottles of Scurvy Be Gone pills, and for newer pirates, a helpful guide titled, How to Begin: A Guide to Starting a Life on the High Seas.

Instructors, whiteboards and writing tables are tucked behind the pirate merch.

Since the birth of 826 Valencia, other 826 writing centers have opened across the country with their own magical doors.

Walk through the door of 826 NYC and you’ll enter not a writing center but BROOKLYN’S SUPERHERO SUPPLY where cape-clad cashiers sell various Weapons of Mass Creation including Personal Aviation Aids, as well as an array of masks and invisibility potions. Obviously.

826 Los Angeles bears this on its storefront: TIME TRAVEL MART (with the tagline, Whenever You Are, We’re Already Then)

826 Boston: THE GREATER BOSTON BIGFOOT RESEARCH INSTITUTE

826 DC: TIVOLI’S ASTOUNDING MAGIC SUPPLY COMPANY & ILLUSIONARIUM  (AND DE-LUX HABERDASHERY)

That last one’s my favorite.

One volunteer at 826 Valencia claims that these various magical (and impossible) storefronts provide doors of opportunity. Deep down, kids know the store’s not an Illusionarium and Haberdashery, but their curiosity and willingness to trust such a trustworthy facade pushes them into worlds with vendors that promise Jungle Rain Gear, Shark Repellant, and Psychic Reader Bandanas.

Our stories–just like the fantastic and magical storefronts at 826–provide doors of opportunity for our readers. Sometimes our fictional worlds’ storefronts are boldly labeled. Other times, they wear subtle signage. Sometimes, our story worlds are labeled merely with the equivalent of a small bronze plaque that suggests a special and little-known world and era lies beyond that door … if we are willing to tolerate musty carpet and the lingering odors of cigarette smoke.

Maybe our stories promise a tin of Mermaid Repellant, a bottle of Emergency Treasure Burial Sand or Ogre Dental Floss. Maybe they promise adventure or love or hope that the readers cannot always find on their own. Maybe we promise a dance with a violin maker’s grief over the loss of his dear wife.

And friends, we better deliver on our promise to make the pretend story world well worth the risk of suspending a reader’s disbelief. Why would anyone want to purchase a lie? Why would anyone pay money to be duped into caring for people who are not real? Why does anyone choose to forget that an author is nothing more than a charlatan hawking wares from the town square?

Because a reader knows it feels good to take a risk while holding the hand of a trusted tour guide. While a reader opens a door knowing a story is not real, she forgets it’s not real when it fills every cell of her epidermis.

The writer’s job is to make the lies feel so true (and so beguiling, alluring and puzzling) that the reader cannot help but turn the doorknob and walk inside.

As for my adolescent reptiles? For now, I keep their bedroom doors closed, mostly because their rooms are, well, gross. And they like keeping their doors closed because they are, well, teenagers. But I am curious about the magical worlds they are building, and I’m eager to hear whichever stories and adventures they choose to share with me. I hope they’ll leave the door open for me someday. I hope they’ll invite me in.

Your turn! What is the intriguing, magical storefront of your work in progress? What is the beguiling premise (and promise), or perhaps even the working title, that will lure your readers in the world of your characters–AKA superheroes, explorers, investigators, magicians and robots—even when the reader knows that they are only make-believe? Thank you for sharing what’s behind your stories’ doors.

*I have changed his name.

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Tim Green.

About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.

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