Today’s piece is written by Damon Lindelof, Co-Creator and Executive Producer of “Lost.”
I was listening to the news on NPR the other day and two things occurred to me. First, only assholes feel the constant need to tell you they listen to NPR (does anyone ever say, “So I was watching the CW last night…”?) and I guess that makes me an asshole. The second was that in the midst of listening to the story in question, I had finally figured out how to succinctly sum up why I write. It goes a little something like this —
There’s this ninety-year old woman named Rose who, after honking her horn repeatedly at the school bus idling in front of her, decides she has much more important things to do and guns her Honda Civic around the bus. Before she realizes that the bus was stopped for a very good reason indeed, Rose finds herself watching a freight train bear down on her and almost instantly, it smashes into the passenger side of the Civic and pushes it a good hundred feet before screeching to a stop. Forgoing all the gory details, Rose is pronounced dead at the local hospital and the attending doctor in the ER is tasked with notifying next of kin. Turns out Rose’s husband has been dead for decades, but she has a couple sons and a daughter. The doctor calls one of her sons and his wife answers the phone. The son isn’t home, but the wife offers to take a message. The notification ethics, however, forbid the hospital from telling anyone but next of kin about Rose’s death and so they ask when the son will be home so they can call back.
And the wife responds “He won’t be back for two months.” And the hospital says, “Well… do you have a number where we could reach him?” And the wife says no, she doesn’t. And why not?–
Because he’s in space.
As in outer space. As in orbit. As in one of a handful of human beings who have the unique distinction of not being on the fucking planet.
The son, Richard, is working on the International Space Station doing repair work. And as he floats in Zero-G, he is blissfully unaware that his ninety-year old mother has just been flattened by a train.
I shit you not. This really happened.
And what does this family’s personal tragedy have to do with why I write?
Because to me, this is an amazing story. And as soon as I hear it, my brain is already hammering out the scene where Rose’s other kids debate as to whether or not to even tell Richard. The daughter, Christine, insists on telling him that mom died peacefully in her sleep and holding the grisly truth for when he’s back on Earth. Richard’s brother Michael, however, demands they tell Richard all the gory details. Why? Because it was Richard’s fault she was still driving at ninety. Michael’s been trying to get her into assisted living for over five years now and if stupid fucking Richard had just fucking listened to him, she’d still be fucking alive!
Fortunately, I think, the decision is not up to Richard’s siblings. He is, after all, a member of the military, so this would be a NASA issue. And it turns out in their guidelines there’s this thing called the Dual Plume Protocol. The Dual Plume Protocol, or DPP, was officially incorporated into NASA’s Psychological Charter this year. Let me back up —
In September of 2001, the space station was manned by three people — an American and Two Russians. As they were orbiting over the Northeastern United States, the American called Mission Control to report that he could see (with his naked eye) two massive pillars of black smoke rising up through the atmosphere. When they answered back, explaining that the black smoke was all that remained of the Towers, the American took a long, sorrowful pause and responded – “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”
As a result of the DPP, NASA started actually asking the astronauts who are leaving the planet what their personal wishes are regarding notifications of earthbound tragedies. And this is like, a very detailed document because it covers everything from worldwide catastrophes (i.e. Katrina or a Tsunami) down to things that would only affect the astronaut him or herself (i.e. their mother’s Honda getting pulverized by a freight train) and it must be signed and notarized before launch. Why? Because the emotional state and focus of these guys is critical. They’re being sent up to perform missions on a space station and after spending millions to train them (Richard is one of three people alive who has the skill set to execute these specific repairs) it costs BILLIONS just to get them up there to perform them and the last thing NASA needs is for someone to go batshit with grief on the day they’re supposed to fix the thruster converter thigamajob.
So I’m sitting there thinking how Richard may have filled out his DPP Form…
And I realize there’s no such thing.
I made it up.
Yeah, I remember hearing about the astronauts on the space station having seen the carnage over Manhattan from orbit, but that’s got nothing to do with the story of Rose’s death. In fact, I don’t know how many kids she had or, for that matter, whether or not they can just send an email to Richard (can you get email in space?) and dispense with all the formality.
But where’s the drama in that?
So that’s why I write.
I write because I can’t help but make things up.
I write because I love to tell stories.
I write because my imagination compels me to do so.
I write because if I didn’t, I’d be branded a pathological liar.
Oh, and also because I’m still trying to make my dead father proud of me.
But that’s none of your goddamn business.
WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers. Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond. If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.