The morning after watching and absorbing The Leftovers finale, I felt a certain kind of emotional hangover. I woke up to a different life, one irretrievably changed by the show. The world outside my apartment pulsed with emboldened color and mystery. The sun shined brighter. The grass gleamed greener.
I needed something to guide me back from a place of transformation to a place of reality. My brain craved not only a better, more efficient way to gasp and gulp at life, but to put it in expressive, actionable steps.
Water wouldn’t quench my thirst. I needed something more.
Owen and Jodi Egerton’s This Word Now sat on my shelf for weeks. I even renewed it with the library twice. I meant to read it at some point, and that morning, of all mornings, felt like just the right time.
Talk about serendipity.
While the Egertons have done a fantastic job of putting truly actionable and creative steps for a writer together (seriously: buy the book; every section traps your excuses and sends them to space), the best thing it does is change the way you think.
Prior to watching The Leftovers, I had a beef with one of its creators, Damon Lindelof. In several interviews over the years, he mentioned how he liked to give every character a secret. And while it sounded like a great writing tip, in execution, it often faltered. How could we care about characters when we didn’t know what they wanted? How could we have conflict? It seemed like a non-starter. It also led to him having a hand in blockbuster movies that had no lasting impact, big, giant light shows that slid off your brain as you exited the theater.
What Lindelof seems to have learned with The Leftovers is that you can have secrets and mysteries as long as the characters are compelling. It certainly helps to have great actors and directors tell your story. But we can go a long way from home if we’re at least somewhat interested in the people we’re riding along with.
But the biggest thing The Leftovers taught me is the same thing This Word Now reminded me, over and over: that there is truth and beauty in questions, mysteries, and the abstract. The Egertons use a David Lynch (who else?) quote to anchor their point:
Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch a little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.
– David Lynch
I would happily bet a six-pack of cold beer on a Texas summer afternoon that the quotes the Egerton’s use throughout the book are posted somewhere in their own home. They hit the truth of writing and storytelling so hard on the head you could build an entire house with those few nails.
Here is what I mean:
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.
– Gilda Radner
I couldn’t think of a better quote to drag me from my Leftovers emotional hangover into something I can work with. Delicious ambiguity.
There are several times throughout the show that the audience wonders if something is real or supernatural or there is some explanation they have yet to consider. But Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, and company did the best thing they could have: they refrained from giving their interpretation. Whatever way you think of it, they suggested, is just as real as the way anyone else thinks of it.
They definitely went deep and hooked some big fish. They took wild risks that paid off beautifully. They threw assassins, resurrections, and the Australian Outback at us, and all of it felt real because it all rang emotionally true.
The most meaningful passage, to me, of This Word Now comes from Owen, and it literally stopped me cold. I must have stared at the wall for a solid five minutes. Owen describes a white-and-brown dog his grandparents had, which he would play with when he visited them in England in the summers. One day he came home only to be informed that Norman had passed away. Distraught, Owen went upstairs, pulled out some paper and a pencil, and wrote about it:
“Then I was done,” he wrote, “the story complete – a simple, sentimental piece. There was nothing breathtakingly brilliant about the writing. But I felt better. I breathed easier. The writing had helped, but not in the way I had expected. I was no longer sick, but I had not answered a single one of my questions. Instead the story had given my questions and confusion a place to be.” (p. 98)
The characters of The Leftovers are all struggling in the aftermath of the Sudden Departure. There is no explanation for what happened, and it leads to a lot of questions and confusion. But what this show – and the story it told – did, is give the characters and the audience a place to let their questions and confusion be. Without judgment. Without demand for answers. Just a place for it to exist.
Some critics, like The New Yorker’s Matthew Zoller-Seitz, had an intensely personal reaction to the show. You don’t get responses like this from your average Netflix or network TV show. And it’s only because Lindelof, Perrotta, and company so relentlessly and consistently went deep-sea fishing that they were able to bring up all of the emotions and the questions that followed.
“I had written stories before,” Owen continued, “but Norman’s story was a turning point. It was born from questions.
There are countless ways into a story or essay, but I’m drawn to the cracks made by questions. Questions that would be cheapened by answers. I am convinced that a life is defined more by the questions we return to than the answers we can temporarily embrace. Those answers change, but we circle the questions again and again.”
The best theme song the show uses – for Season 2 and, fittingly the season and series finale in Season 3 – is Ingrid DeMet’s “Let the Mystery Be”. It summed up the point of view of the characters, the creators, and the audience. What could have become maddening became freeing. What became freeing gave way to a sense of purpose and place in a way we never expected.
Everybody’s wonderin’ what and
where they they all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go
When the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain
And so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be
Another humdinger of a quote the Egertons include, of which slides right into The Leftovers so beautifully they cannot be separated:
Fiction’s purpose is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it.
– Tim O’Brien
So much of the show is an exploration of the stories we tell each other to give meaning to the things we cannot explain. But the most important thing, in as close to a mission statement as I imagine the show would venture, is the presence we provide each other. When Nora asks Kevin, after all they’ve been through if she believes him, he says, “Of course I do. You’re here.”
She smiles and says, “I’m here.”
Writing can be a lonely, isolating practice, but the tools we write with and the questions we have give us company. They surround us and goad us on, right until the end. They become so much a part of us that it feels criminal not to let the story out to the world. It has to come out. It has to have a place to be so the story can be passed on and envelop itself just as The Leftovers did me.
The title of the Egertons book comes from the beginning, when they inform us that we don’t need anything fancy to tell a story. We just need one word to start. And that’s it.
So when I finished This Word Now, I felt emboldened to pursue the writing questions stuck in my head and to give them a place to be. In trying to revel in another five minutes of air-conditioning, I almost sidetracked myself before I even started. And then I remembered another quote Jodi and Owen used:
A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.
– E.B. White
Here are the words to paper. Here is to This Word Now, a guide and mind-transformer I can’t recommend enough, and to The Leftovers, a show that merely a week later I already deeply miss.
Here’s to searching for and cycling back to the questions, and as Owen and Jodi remind us, we don’t need anything fancy. We don’t need a table or time or talent. We just need this word, and this one word to start.