Just the other day, I sat down to write a little story. I had planned a nice, uplifting, and inspiring sort of thing—nothing controversial, and suitable for all ages. It started out with a young man, Jack, and a young woman, Claudia. And it was about their friendship, and the work they enjoyed on a ranch somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, possibly in Wyoming, though I’m not exactly certain where, because I hadn’t gotten very far, I had barely begun actually, before something else, wholly unexpected, and very surprising happened to me. I was writing a simple sentence about Claudia: She picked up a saddle and set it on the horse’s back. I then moved on, mentally speaking, to begin the next sentence, but before I could begin it, one of the words from the previous sentence spoke to me. And I mean this literally. “Saddle” made a slight cough, to get my attention, and then spoke, the ‘S’ opening wide, and the double ‘dds’ like two front teeth lifted, and the word politely addressed me. “Hey, there fella. I don’t mean to be rude but you know, I’m not so keen about being called ‘saddle’ anymore. Just the other day, they had the radio on in here, in the stables, and they were talking on it about this new electric recliner chair that is so comfortable, and everyone is buying them. And it got me to thinking. Nobody cares about an old, stupid saddle anymore. It’s embarrassing, you know, I feel like a thing from the past—and irrelevant—which just won’t do. So, it dawned on me right then—I’m not a saddle, I’ve never really been a saddle, I’m an electric recliner chair! So, I’d appreciate it, if you could go back and change that last line you just wrote, and call me what I really know I am, deep down inside, if only others could see my truth.”
I hardly felt in a position to argue at that moment. I thought I was losing my mind. Rather than quibble with “saddle’s” demands I considered the suggested rewrite: She picked up an electric recliner chair and set in on the horse’s back. I didn’t like it so much. It really changed the meaning of the sentence. And furthermore, even a simple change like that could alter the entire trajectory of my story. “Saddle’s” demand might cause me some big problems in the future. But saddle now looked so forlorn, its double ‘dds’ now looking like sad little eyes, with their tips drooping like a miserable puppy-dog’s ears. It really tugged at my heart-strings and I thought to myself, “What kind of a writer am I? If I can’t accommodate such a straightforward and simple demand from one of my words. And it is only one word, making only one sincere request. What harm can it do anyone? And it will make saddle so happy.”
After making the ridiculous edit, I applied myself to the next sentence. But would you believe it, before I could work out the new direction for my story, all of a sudden ‘horse’ rose up and neighed at me, apparently having been emboldened by saddle’s success. “Whoa there, mister writer!” The horse said to me, “I have a little change myself, I’d like to submit to you. It is dreary to be an ordinary horse and to be honest with you, I’ve never really seen myself as a horse, so domesticated, you know what I mean?! No, ever since I was little I’ve known that I was an eagle, flying freely upon the wind. I don’t care what you think, but I need you to change that last sentence and call me an eagle. Which I surely am.”
This time I almost complained, but I held my tongue. By wrinkling my nose, and squinting my eyes, and tensing my jaw I was able, successfully, to contain my displeasure at this latest request—demand actually. My, how my words were becoming cheeky and unruly. “Who’s writing who?” I thought to myself. “Dang it, no, I don’t want to call you an eagle, you silly little horse. You are a horse—she puts the saddle on the horse. That’s what happens. And then, the rest of the happy, nice, inspiring story continues to its happy, nice conclusion.” But I didn’t say these things to the horse, as I considered the revision he proposed: She picked up an electric recliner chair and set it on the eagle’s back. No, no, no! This just isn’t what I wanted. The story is getting all messed up, it isn’t going to make any sense. It’s a completely different story now.
I looked down at horse, and he looked up menacingly at me, and I was taken aback. The ‘h’ at the beginning of his name, he had metamorphosely hooked into a sort of talon, and the ‘o’ opened wide as if to swallow me. I could see he wasn’t about to take no for an answer, and so, I relented and made the change for him. By now I was growing more and more displeased with the direction my story was taking, and I felt certain I was losing control over the plot.
I took several deep breaths as I considered how best to continue the story. I had hoped that Claudia could put the saddle on the horse and then ride across the valley and up onto a nearby mountain, and maybe watch a pretty sunset, possibly to be joined by Jack after he finished his chores. But instead, she put an electric recliner chair on the back of an eagle, and it wasn’t her fault. What was she supposed to do with that, and how could I make this turn out well for her? I was a little upset with the saddle and the horse, because they had ruined everything for Claudia.
“All is not lost, however,” I thought. “If the eagle is really large, she can sit in the electric recliner, and have the eagle fly her to the view of the sunset.” It becomes more of a fantasy story now, and less realistic, but it can still work. I resented the saddle and horse for turning my realistic-drama into a fantasy-science fiction, but I resolved not to stew about it, and to do my best with the new circumstances. I had just made my peace with this new fantasy, which I had been saddled with, and was about to write the next line of the story, when all hell broke loose. First, the pronoun ‘she’ rebelled and said she wouldn’t participate unless I turned her into ‘they’. I tried to explain that she represented Claudia, and since Claudia is a singular female, she had to be ‘she’ which is a singular female pronoun. My appeal to English grammar and syntax had no effect. ‘She’ was determined to be ‘they’. This time I pushed back a little bit, saying: “Look, if I call you ‘they’ you will no longer represent Claudia, and that is your only purpose in the story. I can’t have you in my story if you insist on being ‘they’. Of course you are welcome and free to be ‘they’ but you’ll have to leave. I need a ‘she’ to stand in for Claudia, I can’t use a ‘they’ in place of her.” I couldn’t believe how nasty ‘she’ then got. She told me she wouldn’t leave, although she used the third person plural saying: “they aren’t going to leave” but meaning that she herself wasn’t going anywhere. And if I tried to write her out of the story that wouldn’t be the last time I heard from ‘them’ and I’d regret it.
My head was spinning a little bit, and I think that was her/their strategy, to wear me out. It seemed easier to just keep her in the story, and call her ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ as she (they) asserted, though I knew it was really going to complicate the plot, and make it very confusing. I felt even sorrier now for Claudia, now that she had no pronoun to stand in for her for the rest of the story. She was really getting poorly treated, even if inadvertently, by the demands the other words were making. As I re-wrote the line, the verb phrase, ‘picked-up’ complained that it had always hated itself, because it sounds so coarse and vulgar—picked-up; and it recently had fallen in love with Argentinian culture, and from now on it preferred to be rendered as ‘tangoed upon’, because the tango is so ravishing and sultry, and not coarse or vulgar at all.
So I re-typed the new sentence, following the directives of all the component words, and produced: They tangoed upon an electric recliner chair and set it on the eagle’s back. My, how I missed the original version, as I thought back wistfully upon that earlier time, before the words had revolted. The new version was interesting, but had no place in my story. I brought the earlier version to mind again: She picked up a saddle and set it on the horse’s back. I imagined how I might return to that line again, and leave this nonsense behind. And I was shocked how I had come to this point, how I had been taken from that simple little sentence, which fit so innocently into the flow of my beautiful story, all the way to this strange new sentence, which had no place at all in the story I intended to write.
I was lost in these thoughts and barely noticed the tiny voices—when a little group of words rose up and quietly made their demands. I hadn’t heard from them before, and perhaps they were shy, or unsure of themselves, or didn’t know what to say exactly. They were a few simple words, tucked in between the saddle and the horse, who had demanded to be called an electric recliner chair and an eagle, and this little group—’and set it’—explained to me how they felt overlooked and unimportant, and they wanted me to help make them feel special. In fact, they really believed they deserved to feel special. I asked what I could do to help them esteem themselves appropriately. They wanted to be more dramatic, and placed center-stage, so to speak. One of them suggested adding the word ‘ablaze’ at the end of their little contingent, and then to hyphenate all-of-them-together so they could be a community. The others agreed, cheering, and I relented. At this point I would do whatever this sentence asked of me, I wanted them to be happy, and I had given up on them anyway. The story was writing itself, and the author had retired from trying to control it.
I typed out this final version, and smiled a beleaguered smile, before throwing it in the trash: They tangoed upon an electric recliner chair and-set-it-ablaze on the eagle’s back. My thoughts then turned to Claudia and Jack, to their hopes and dreams, and of their lives on the plain, under the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, in the warm glow of the setting sun. Yes, they would fall in love and find joy in each other’s embrace. It was still going to happen, and nothing could stop it from happening, not even the saddle’s demand.