Crossing the Bridge

Bridge-crossing is a metaphor, of course, and a clichéd one at that.  It’s also an action grounded in regular habit for anyone who lives near water:  to get to work, to school, to home, we cross a bridge.

Growing up, I crossed one bridge most often:  a world-famous landmark, its International Orange towers looming on movie posters, picture-book covers, and tourist postcards.  As a girl, I knew it as the slightly eerie, almost ghostly passage home from my grandfather’s house.  Miles of highway, city boulevard, and then, the fog-swirling bridge itself, huge lights casting the air outside the back window into something out of Oz—except we’d call it Topaz City, not Emerald, because of the amber lights.  I’d watch the fog rush around our car, I’d marvel at the movable yellow reflectors between lanes.  They reminded me of the pegs from my Battleship game.

Later, when I learned to drive, I followed my mother’s lead in choosing the “fast lane”—the farthest left—of whatever direction I was traveling.  Because the bridge has no permanent divider between southbound and northbound traffic—only those yellow pegs, moved to accommodate changes in traffic flow for the morning and evening commutes—this lane unnerves drivers.  In some ways, though, it’s the safest, because the proximity of cars traveling straight at you keeps you alert—and away from the gawkers who hug the sides, snapping their photos.

While I’ve bicycled across the bridge—a far windier and louder experience than I’d imagined—I’ve never walked it.  I’ve been telling myself for years that I needed to walk it, that I couldn’t write a certain scene in my novel until I had done so.  I’ve been avoiding this scene—maybe because I don’t particularly want to walk the bridge.  Or maybe because when I write it I’ll be done, the rest of the novel mere dénouement.  The scene is one of pitched conflict, and conflict makes me anxious.  But fiction depends on conflict, so here we go.

Other reasons exist for my hesitation, reasons having to do with my brother, dead now for 20 years (no, he didn’t jump off the bridge); with family lore I’m sick and tired of (while he didn’t jump off it, he did climb the north tower, a feat my mother announced to anyone given the slightest opportunity); with my parsing out of where my character Chris ends and I begin.  (Chris has his own issues with the bridge.)

Last week, though, I started writing the scene.  I’d been stuck, really stuck.  Reviewing notes, making lists, going around in tight little circles.  I’d started referring to my novel as the hairball.  How could I know not the right ending?  How could I, after all these years, not know the answers to every question about my characters, my plot?  Josh, a writer I work with at the Grotto, suggested that I give myself a break.  Not from working on the novel, but from beating myself up.  Have a little fun, he suggested.

Fun?  Usually this kind of advice makes me tense, like when the dentist tells me to relax.  But Josh said it so kindly, and with such compassion and intelligence in his eyes, that I found myself listening and taking his advice.  I wrote a few new scenes, not thinking about where they’d fall in the narrative arc, not thinking about their cause or effect, just writing them.  I had fun.  I learned some things.

In this way, I snuck up on the bridge scene. I started writing it, even though I hadn’t yet walked across it.  (And still haven’t.) I used my imagination.  I thought about those yellow Battleship pegs—turns out they collapse under the weight of a car, if you happen to drive into one.  I thought about the fog swirling in the amber lights, the way the tall towers disappear overhead, how all that can appear as magic or mystery or danger (or all three) to a child passing below. I thought about the noise and wind and cold, and the surprising incline from either end toward the middle.

I got across.

There’s more to do, in terms of research and detail.  But I’m grateful I wrote a scene before going out there myself, grateful I let myself—thank you, Josh—rely on the fragments I already had, long before I ever thought of this novel.  I knew more than I thought I did, which reassures me.

Now if I could just remember it, next time I get caught in the hairball.

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