Guest Post, Douglas Light: Connect

The scene:

Doors ClosingIndianapolis, late September, Saturday night.

The hotel brimmed with wedding parties and attendees of the National Black MBA Association Conference.

I was attending neither.

I’d been nominated for an award for my story collection Girls in Trouble—an award I didn’t win—and had just returned from the dinner celebration and award ceremony. Was I disappointed that I came back empty handed? I’ll lie: the honor and a thrill of being nominated was award enough.

Having fulfilled my obligation of smiling and shaking hands and chatting and posing for photos, all while waiting in agony until the winner was announced, my wife and I decided to check out the town.

We hit the hotel, changed, then made our way down the hall.

Waiting at the elevator was a group dressed in gowns and suits.

Nodding hello, I stated the obvious. “Just come from a wedding?”  It was 10 p.m. The reception would have been in full swing. Drinks, dancing, and fun. The group should have been elated. Instead, they were dour. They looked like they’d just been brutalized in bankruptcy court and were now pondering a eight-floor window exit to the parking lot below.

No one responded to my question. So I asked again. “Come from a wedding?”

A grunt. “Yeah,” one woman said.

The elevator arrived. We all clambered in silently.

Guess they’re not in the mood to talk, I thought. But I was cagey. (Was it due to the fact that I hadn’t won the award, the effects of the three strong cocktails, or nasty dessert kicking about in my stomach? I can’t say.) There was no way I letting this group off easy.

When the doors slipped closed, I turned to the young woman nearest me. “What did you do wrong this week?” I asked.

She looked up at me, startled. “Nothing.”

I turned to her friend. “What did you do wrong this week?”

Her face lit with fear. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

One last query. A man in his early 20s. “And you, sir. What did you do wrong?”

He shook his head, refusing to meet my eyes.

The leader of the pack poked me in the back. “You can’t ask that kind of question in a public elevator!”

“Is there any other type of elevator?” I said, realizing that—of course—there was.

But my question silenced him.

“Well,” I announced, “would you like to know what I did wrong this week?”

Everyone turned to me, rapt.

“I lied to my students,” I said.

“About what?” the poker asked.

“Yeah, tell us,” the grunter said.

“Well, I lied about—”

The elevator chimed. The doors glided open. The lobby. “Looks like we’re here,” I said, striding out with my wife.

“What’d you lie about?” they all called after me.

But I didn’t answer.

Yes, I’d been a bit of an ass. And what did that accomplish? Nothing.

But after a day or so, I realized I had been striving for something more.

I was trying to connect. Trying to find commonality in a crowded elevator. But we’d all done something wrong that week—how could we have not? We’re human. I was, heavy-handedly, trying to tap into that fact. Trying to acknowledge that we are all in a fight to be better individuals, and that we all, daily, experience the failure of accomplishing perfection. And it’s the acknowledging and sharing of failures that make us able to relate to one another. It is what enables us to bond, to understand, and to feel we are not alone. It’s how we endure.

Good fiction does the same thing. It connects. As readers, we may never experience an Oklahoma dustbowl, a vengeful ghost, or espionage in a foreign country. But as readers, we have experienced similar joys, heartbreaks, terror, love, and disappoint as the characters in our favorite stories.  And that’s the connection. The bond. The unique universality that affirms our humanity.

And for the record, I didn’t lie to my students—at least not that week.

Douglas Light

Douglas Light is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer. His novel East Fifth Bliss received the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. He co-wrote the screen adaptation (The Trouble with Bliss), which stars Michael C. Hall, Lucy Liu, and Peter Fonda. His story collection Girls in Trouble won the 2010 Grace Paley Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2011. His writing won an O. Henry Prize and was included the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology, as well as in Narrative, Guernica, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Failbetter.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post, Douglas Light: Connect

  • October 15, 2012 at 9:47 am
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    What a fascinating story – I can think of quite a few things I did wrong this week, but I wouldn’t divulge in a public elevator. But who knows, maybe I will start asking. I enjoy the comparison of fiction to a means of connection. It is most certainly true.

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    • October 15, 2012 at 11:00 am
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      Rikki:

      Elevators can be strange places, for sure, and I definitely moved into other’s comfort zone. But it’s healthy to be a bit uncomfortable at times–or so I keep telling myself.

      Douglas

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      • October 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm
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        It might be a little uncomfortable, but strangely, sometimes it is easier to divulge in the company of strangers, than in the company of friends. You can be a little more candid and speak with fewer restraints–perhaps as Douglas did! I think it’d be sort of a treat to be asked what I did wrong this week!

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        • October 17, 2012 at 9:12 pm
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          I think it’s definitely easier to divulge in front of strangers, especially in cases where you know that you’ll never see them again. “What happens in Vegas.” Or, in this case, I suppose, “What happens in Indianapolis.”

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  • October 15, 2012 at 2:06 pm
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    I love that question, “What did you do wrong this week?” It makes me want to laugh and ponder at the same time. I can see how this would be an uncomfortable situation for some people, but it also reminds me why writing and reading is so special. It provides a space for people to express things about themselves they wouldn’t normally be comfortable sharing in, let’s say, a public elevator. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed this.

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    • October 15, 2012 at 9:01 pm
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      I loved this blog post as well, Brooke. Things I did wrong this week include overspending at Whole Foods and over-parking my time limit at the parking meter. I hope the wrong things you did this week were more exciting and less expensive. 🙂

      Reply
  • October 17, 2012 at 12:09 am
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    It’s so reassuring to read experiences like this from other writers. Reading this, I felt a connection! And how beautiful it is to make a connection through fiction–or poetry–or even short posts on a blog.

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  • October 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm
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    I think elevators are one of those weird spaces where it’s hard to have the right boundaries — we have to come off as both non aggressive and willing to let the empty space lie, so that the other person feels comfortable, but also perhaps make conversation… and yet there’s nowhere to run to. If you say something awkward, you’re stuck with your embarrassment until the elevator stops. I’m a server, and there are times when I am so grateful to be able to walk away from the table because I’ve said something incredibly stupid or awkward and I need a moment to regain my composure. When you’re trapped in an elevator, you can’t!

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  • January 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm
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    To some of us an inquiry from a stranger is reassuring tht someone is aware of my presence. I am an identity(that stranger), maybe unnamed, but an identity, recognized and addressed as one human being to another. That could be a whole world to someone! Dad

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    • January 19, 2014 at 10:27 pm
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      Nice comment. It reminded me of something Dave Eggers once wrote “I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”

      Reply

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