There are some light spoilers hidden in the blank spaces below. If you don't mind ruining some of the surprise, highlight the white spots to reveal what's hidden underneath.
Where you in the time called March 2020?
I know it’s probably hard for you to remember something so long ago. It was right before my 6th Birthday. Does that jog your memory?
I can tell you what Mom and I were doing, because that's when our plans took a very unexpected turn. On March 6, 2020, Mom and I left our job and set off on a month-long road trip to see Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Spoiler: Devil's Tower was closed by the time we got there. We left The City on the same day that a ghost ship full of a virus no one had ever seen before came to town.
I always thought that plot twists were supposed to be sudden, but it turns out that they don’t twist lazily like a leaf set free in the wind, or lead you to a new level of perspective like a spiral staircase. Plots twist like screws, driving you in deeper and stucker with every turn until you’re sitting in front of a closed gate in eastern Wyoming, wondering what to do next.
You may not have noticed because I’m such an easygoing guy, but Mom is a little tightly wound herself sometimes. She follows rules mostly because it's the easiest way to get people to leave her alone so she can do whatever she wants. When doing whatever you want was outlawed, it was hard to make sense of anything. It was a trying time for life coaches.
At first I thought that the new rules were great for me. All of a sudden even humans weren’t allowed indoors, which meant that dogs could go everywhere that their people went. What could possibly be bad about that? But when we came back home from Wyoming and started working again, I no longer had an office to manage. Without so much responsibility to keep me sharp, the boogeyvirus even put me off my game. Me!
What good is a life coach who doesn't have a life? There were many days when I couldn’t think of anything positive to say.
Mom losing the plot and me no longer having a life to coach turned writing our story into a tough challenge. Somehow we needed to tell our tale in words that wouldn't make readers close the book just to get away from Mom's whining. That was harder than it sounds. Since Mom is both whiner-in-chief and chief editor of our project, first I had to convince her that her whining wasn't an important theme of the story. Then I had to convince her to cut thousands of words of "brilliant insights" that she thought "the world needed to hear."
Life is a lousy writer with no sense of direction, pacing, or symbolism. It throws in way too many unnecessary details and characters, out of order, and with side plots that never go anywhere. Life’s first draft gave me the premise, hook, rising action, climax, and falling action, but it left out the resolution. Character arcs were another essential story ingredient that life overlooked. To outsmart life, first I would need to fix the plot and sort out how it changed the characters.
All story is just a tool to organize the messiness that change makes in real life. Change starts with a flaw or a misbelief that the plot that puts it to the test. Story puts all the mess-ups that characters make on their way to learning a lesson in order so that any fool can understand the lesson that the characters had to figure out the hard way. We had plenty of foolish mess-ups, but what the heck was the lesson?
Another difficulty we had to overcome was that my protagonist is flawless, and far too smart to have any misbeliefs. Mom's got flaws to spare and misbeliefs coming out of her wazoo, but she hadn't changed because most of her was still stuck in March 2020. Even after all these years.
Nobody likes an unhappy ending, so on top of everything else, I had to find something positive about the boogeyvirus after all the rotten things it did to the world and the people that I love.
And to make the whole storytelling thing boss-level challenging; my Friends all lived through the same story and have their own version of events, so I would need to tell the story in a way that's true to your version and mine. It's a tough job, even for a dog as friendly as I am.
On the couch
A funny thing happened at the same time we started writing: we got a new-used couch.
Mom and I hadn’t had a couch in the Stuck House for a very long time. Our last stuck house was barely the size of a back yard dog house, so Mom had to choose between a couch and the dreadmill. She chose the dreadmill, and the couch I'd napped on as a puppy went to the big Ikea in the sky.
After that, Mom and I shared a couch that was only big enough for one of us to use at a time.
We never spent much time inside, so when we moved to this Stuck House at the End of the World, a couch wasn’t in Mom's top 3 wishes. We spent more time inside when the boogeyvirus sent us home, but Mom’s working station took up the space where a couch would live.
Then, finally, on the same exact day that Mom and I committed to writing this story, a couch came into our lives. Coincidence? You decide…
I called Mom to the new-used couch and told her to sit. Then I sat beside her.
“We need to talk,” I said. “One of us is going to have to change in this story, and I’m already perfect.”
“Yes you are. Who’s a good boy? You!” She booped me. “Yes you are.”
“Mom, I’m serious. You being stuck in the past is going to ruin our story, so we need to figure out how you’ve changed.”
“Well obviously that’s going to be fiction,” Mom said, like it was a very silly idea that she should have to change to amomodate the world. "No one would believe it!"
“It’s okay. My Friends have open minds. They take life coaching advice from a dog, after all. Now, let’s list out all the things that are wrong with you…”
Mom’s always reminding herself of all the things that are wrong with her, so we had a long list in no time.
“Okay, now we need to spend several hunerd pages proving that one of these things is wrong," I coached. "Which one is best for that?”
“None of them are wrong, silly. I’m never wrong,” Mom said. “Each one of these 1,924,836 flaws is objective fact, and changing them would make the world a terrible place... even worse than it is right now. Obviously.”
“I know, I know. But it’s fiction, remember?” I lied. “Which one of these would you like to learn is a lie?”
“Hmmmm…” Mom studied the list, which took several weeks because Mom is a very slow reader.
"This one," she finally decided. "I would like to write about how it was stupid to close public bathrooms and instead they should have put more effort into keeping hand sanitizer stocked in public places."
"But that one isn't even about you," I said.
"It's a misbelief," Mom said triumphantly. "And I think I could fill several hundred pages with reasons why it's wrong."
"What's your second choice?" I asked.
“I wish it hadn’t felt like the whole world was out to get me. I know it wasn’t about me, but I think it felt that way because I was trying to control things that were out of my control.”
“That’s good! Write that down,” I therapooted. “Now, of the thousand stories over the past thousand days, which one was a time when it would have been most helpful to know that?”
"Ummmmmm..." Mom studied the list for several more weeks. "This one!" she decided, finally.
"Good girl. Now all we have to do is rewrite history to make it true."
"You have such an active imagination, Oscar. You think that even impossible things are possible."
The non-Hollywood moments it takes to get there. 👇
As Mom and I showed up at the couch day after day, we slowly rewrote growth and healing into the story.
“You remember that time I tried to hold my breath for an entire trip to the grocery store?” Mom said one morning. “That was sort of funny, wasn’t it?”
“Remember how you tried to push that guy off the cliff when he stepped in too close because he couldn't hear you?” I giggled.
“What were you thinking when you almost ate that nerdy couple?” Mom asked.
“I thought they were a bear. What were you thinking when you ran me through that herd of horses without a leash?"
"I couldn't help it, they were in our way," she sighed. "I was so annoyed that I didn't even notice how good you were that day. Here, you deserve a cheese stick."
"Finally! And remember how you were ready to drive a thousand miles with poop bags on your hands?”
As we figured out how to put it all into words, we found the humor in retelling things that had been scary or annoying at the time. And each time we reached the end of the story, we found another lesson that we hadn’t noticed before. Were the lessons fiction that we’d made up for a good story, or had they been there all along waiting for us to find them?
It’s easy to see a change in facts —like where some events happened, or when we rephrased someone’s words to make more sense in the story— but thoughts are different. Is something true if you could have thought it, even if you really thought something different at the time?
What about if the thought is the same, but you change what’s around it to make it easier for someone who wasn’t there to understand your perspective?
Is the truth of a story in the lesson, or the events as they happened?
We’re on our fourth draft now, which means we’ve told the story five times, and experienced it six. With each retelling, we need to change something to make sense of it all, and yet each retelling seems to become more true, in a way.
If there’s one thing that we’ve all learned since then, it’s that the facts are never as important as the story you believe about it. So as we rewrote humor and growth into the story and made sense out of senselessness, we found that we were rewriting the actual memories into something more true than what actually happened.
I hope that when when you read the story on your own couch, it will be a similar journey of self-discovery for you. The events you lived may not have been exactly the same as ours, and maybe you saw things differently at the time, but if I’ve done a good job then the story will ring true for you, too.
Preview of coming attractions
📖 Do you want to read the story early?
🔀 Do you want a chance to influence history by nudging parts of the story in a different direction?
🤓 Are you good at grammar?
🤩 Do you want to be on the cover of the book?
If you said yes to any of these things, I’ll have an exciting opportunity for you in my next message!