Lately—who knows why—I’ve been a teensy bit preoccupied with air disasters. Last month I stumbled upon full episodes of Mayday, Air Crash Investigation, Air Emergency, Air Disasters, and Seconds From Disaster on YouTube, and I’m still working my way through. This, weeks before I’ll take my first flight in years to see some of you fine people at the AWP conference.
It’s not about fear; it’s fascination. I watch these shows knowing that the sky is generally safer than land, and with the appreciation that lessons learned after many of the crashes have made airline travel safer.
It’s also about the stories. The cockpit voice recordings are often eerie, being the last words of some of the pilots. They are the authors, narrators, and characters of their extraordinary experiences, and their trajectories often resemble the hero’s journey: if they survive, they come out of the incident transformed after struggle. Each story is truly distinctive, and has a clear dénouement.
Here’s where I’m going with this: pilots are amazing. Seriously. They have to have a hell of a lot of confidence and skill to fly a giant thing with lots of people over land and water and mountains and ice. I’m surprised by how few crashes are one-hundred-percent the result of pilot error rather than a perfect storm of manufacturing flaws, maintenance blunders, company culture, weather, bad design, or plain bad luck. Quite often (or maybe I’ve just seen the most promising episodes), pilots save doomed planes by pulling them out of certain disaster with their quick thinking and expertise. They have to make critical decisions lightning-fast.
This is no small thing for me—someone who likes to take her time to make imperative choices. Not crazy-long, but longer than, say, a single minute, when a plane is in a dive, when there might be the teensiest thought that if this is the last minute before death, flipping through a jet manual is not what I’d want to be doing when I hit bottom.
But that’s just what the pilots do: they work until the very end, which may or may not turn out favorably. In cases of structural or mechanical failure, they exert extreme physical effort to combat the effects of nature on tons of potential dead weight. And they have to act immediately, try everything they know, and stay calm. Even on a flight with two crews of flight engineers, captains, and first officers, I’m amazed at how well all these people have to work together to solve a problem—a problem that may not have a solution. But dang it, they’ll try to find one.
There’s a lot riding on them. Passenger airliners are just so huge—like, they have bathrooms and galleys and beds for the crew. We can walk around in them, tens-of-thousands of miles in the air! It’s the closest most of us will get to outer space. Really, it seems like one of those things shouldn’t even be able to get into the air and stay there. Who really understands Bernoulli’s principle? How is it that all the sensitive electrical and mechanical components work most of the time? Did the Wright brothers see this in the future at all, that we could casually fly across the Atlantic in six hours?
Writers are not notoriously quick thinkers. Writing takes a lot of time and careful effort. It’s a process. We get to edit, re-edit, have someone else edit, then edit again. We get the chance to perfect our stories. No one is threatening us with deadly nosedive if we don’t COME UP WITH THE PERFECT SENTENCE RIGHT NOW. There’s not an alarm shouting STALL! when we get stuck.
Those six hours over the Atlantic? You can find us reading or going over that short story one more time while everyone else is snoozing. We like time. We seek it out and peck at it like vultures. Our decision points sprawl out, sip tea, play bridge. They come on slow. They are deliberate, and, if we so decide, they can be prolonged—until we think of the perfect character name, the brilliant beginning to the next chapter, the most stunning ending.
How lucky are we? If we make a bad decision, the worst that can happen is that our book gets panned and people don’t buy it. We won’t see fellow passengers flip it open and settle into it during a cross-country flight. Sure—this might feel like death to a lot of writers, but it’s not. We get to try that critical maneuver again and again, as many times as we can stand the thrill. Or, alternately, we can choose not to. But we’re in control; we are the deciders.
And because we are the deciders, we have decided that it would be fitting to publish another story from Atticus Books author and Atticus Review Mixed Media Editor Matt Mullins, whose collection, Three Ways of the Saw, debuts February 29th (bring your wallets to AWP, you guys). “I Am and Always Will Be”—a refreshingly candid story that hits close to home for me—appears in the collection, and was the inspiration for the theme this week.
Jarred McGinnis is another Atticus Review veteran. You may remember “FDR On Overcoming Adversity” from our maiden issue last May. I read it and I was instantly smitten. Now he’s back with “Answers To the Name Lucky,” another amusing flash with spirited characters—one of whom makes a conscious decision how to think of himself, despite external forces that might fairly challenge his self-assessment. Like “FDR,” this story has a wheelchair. Unlike “FDR,” the starring character is not a presidential erection, but a papal pube.
Poetry editor Michael Meyerhofer told Roberto Garcia that “Coward” was one of the best poems he’s read in ages. It packs that big of a punch. The poem deftly depicts the unfolding of a sudden choice, the circumstances of a moment of truth.
I hope to see some of you cool cats at AWP after a smooth landing. May your only tough decisions be which karaoke night to attend, and which books to buy at the fair. I realize it’s hard to rock to Mike + The Mechanics, but anyhow, rock on, be cool, be safe. Put in your earbuds and buckle yourself in. I’ll see you in Chicago.
Photo Source: Techerator
© 2012 Katrina Gray. All rights reserved.