Writing Spaces #4: Three Act Mountain Structure

This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.

I am writing on a plane, JetBlue airlines to be exact, on my way to Denver, where I have decided to move on a whim. My cat is my carry-on and he is in crisis. I’ve “sedated” him, but he is nine pounds of anxiety and spite, and through sheer force of will, he is still awake. 


It feels like either the beginning of a story (remember, there are only two types of stories, someone takes a trip or someone goes home) or the end, where, if this were a rom com or a coming of age story, the protagonist shoves herself in the back of a taxi cab and says to the driver, “take me home” and the driver is supposed to telepathically know where the protagonist lives as she looks longingly out the window. 


My cat screams again from his carrier at my feet. I am not in a movie. I put my jean jacket over his carrier. “Shhh,” I say, “it’s night time now, go to sleep.” 


Next to me is a man from Kazakhstan. He speaks Kazakh, Russian, German, and a little English, he tells me. He learns that I have a cat (from me telling him, and also the screaming) and shows me pictures of his own cat back home. He is going to Denver to visit an old friend. “I like the mountains,” he says. 


I smile. “Me too.” The man from Kazakhstan does not know that I am moving to Denver on a whim, nor does he know that my idea of “on a whim” involves several carefully thought out reasons. One of those reasons being that I like the mountains, and boy, does Colorado have mountains. 


JetBlue in all of its glory has in-flight movies. I am no fun, so I start watching a series of short documentaries called Future Forward, which detail the effects of climate change on various aspects of our planet, our Mother Setting, if you will. One in particular is about farmers and how heavy rains, brought in by climate change, erode levels of topsoil. “Nothing in this life is permanent,” one farmer says, “people think the soil will remain but it won’t.”


We are taking off, wheels up, and just like that I am no longer on New York soil. 


During the flight, I trade quips with the Kazakhstani and help him procure Cheez-Its from a flight attendant. I also pretend not to notice him watching the documentary with me over my shoulder, since, cruelly and ironically, every movie he has attempted to watch does not come with subtitles. 


As we approach southwestern and rocky mountain soil (Colorado is a cusp state and I will die on this high altitude hill) and look out the window, there are the perfect outlines of crops: in circles, in squares, in faded and dark greens, in all terra cotta colors. Each line is perfect. These perfect lines exist in graphs and grids, and are broken up by mountain ranges, where the lines are curved and jagged and bleed rainwater. 


It is interesting to me that a man-made setting is always drawn at perfect angles and is always unmoving and unadaptable. New York and its metal skyscrapers and its concrete sidewalks are like this. 


And the Mother Setting we have been given is perceptibly flawed and irregular, but bendable and buildable and adaptable. 


There is something intermediary about farming, if done correctly. As we slice through the earth, it is as if we are saying “watch me cut you up and force us both to grow.” 


Writing is like this. Some writers make an outline, they craft a sleek metal skyscraper and they build it exactly as they envisioned and it is sometimes perfect and it is sometimes empty. 


Some writers simply open a word document and let the rivers flow freely. 


Some writers plot out their ideas and ask the earth and the air “this is what I want, are you able to give it to me?” And if the setting and its players say “no,” the writer kills its darlings, rotates its plot, and starts again. 


I decided to move to Colorado because I wanted to be more bendable and buildable and adaptable. I have never done anything in my life just because I “felt like it.” Despite, or because of, where I am from, I am an outliner. I always watched the mountains, but I never listened when they spoke. 


I have only been to Denver once before, when my mom and I drove through Colorado on a college tour. Boulder was my favorite, but I was staunchly against the student loans necessary to afford tuition at the time. But now, the plane has landed, and I am walking down the aisle into Denver Airport. 


“Goodbye, cat,” says a flight attendant.


My cat screams in response. 


I run what feels like the ten mile trip to baggage claim. After several minutes, the Kazakhstani joins me, slightly out of breath. “This airport is very big. Perhaps I should have stayed in New York.”


“Yes there is a lot of walking involved,” I say. “Perhaps too much.”


When the bags come around the carousel, my bag has split open and all of my words have spilled out. My cowboy boots, my trusty left-handed scissors that my grandfather bought for me when I was twelve, my cat’s essential possessions, a pot, a knife, something I’ve crocheted, cotton hand towels, and a giant roll of packing tape, among other things, as though my brain retroactively knew what was going to happen. That all of my odds and ends would spill out onto the carousel and say, “look at me, look at me!” 


The Kazakhstani (I am ashamed to say we never learned each other’s names) gracefully grabs my bag while I grab the left-handed scissors as they float by. He bids me farewell as I duct tape my life choices shut and grab a Lyft. 


My Lyft driver’s name is Todd and he has a tan and a ponytail and has just gotten back from camping in Twin Lakes. He plays bass in a moderately successful rock band, but writes his own music, blues and jazz and funk, on the side. 


“You have your main gig, and then on the side you do what you really want to do,” Todd says (all writers nod furiously at this). 


I ask Todd more about himself and how he got to writing blues, jazz, and funk. I learn that, like my own father, his family was originally from Missouri. He also lived in Atlanta for a period of time, but he’s been here for 11 years, and his daughter goes to Boulder. “It’s insanely expensive,” he says.


As I look out the window, the view looks the same as when I rode through Colorado with my mother. I picture Todd’s daughter and myself as versions of each other. Who might I have been if my Missouran father wrote blues and jazz music instead of historical fiction and grant proposals? 


What if I had originally chosen (or been able to afford) Boulder? 


What would that plot line have looked like? Had I studied English and creative writing in a college town known for its high rate of folks with bachelor’s degrees, not car accidents and fentanyl overdoses? 


What if I had walked up the first mountain and let the river take me into the second act? 


Am I about to enter the second act? The Rockies loom to my right in response. I guess you could say I chose Denver because of the setting, and I knew the plot would follow, a three act mountain structure. This time I would listen. 


I point to the mountains and smile. Todd asks if I’ve ever been skiing. 


“You learn to ski and all of a sudden you’re lifted to the top of a mountain,” he says. “I’m not good at it, but I can get down the mountain.”


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