Lucy's elbow: Joni's writing parable du jour

Gary pried me loose from my desk for a few hours yesterday and took me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see Lucy's Legacy, an international exhibition organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Exhibition Coordinating Committee. After strolling through a beautiful but de rigueur display of artifacts and art, we stood mesmerized for a full hour in front of Lucy -- "stones, not bones," Gary reminded me -- the fossilized remains of a by-God upright walking, tool-whacking Australopithecus female, who lived approximately 3.8 million years ago.

As we scrutinized Lucy's bits and pieces, comparing the laid out real deal with the fully fleshed forensic model that surveys the crowd with a benignly wry expression, we listened to the story of how Lucy was found by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray in 1974 at a dig near Hadar. They'd gone out early that morning to map another spot and passed right by the place where she lay. They put in a long, hot day surveying for fossils, then headed back to their Land Rover. For reasons he doesn't remember, Johanson suggested an alternate route through the dry river bed on their return, and as they walked, he happened to glance back over his shoulder. His right shoulder, he specifies, because the moment suddenly became incredibly important.

In a fleeting glint of sunlight, he saw Lucy's elbow.

Instantly, he identified the right proximal ulna of a hominid. Then he saw an occipital bone, a femur, ribs, pelvis, the lower jaw. After two weeks of excavation, screening, and sorting, 40% of Lucy's skeleton had been recovered. One of the most significant anthropological discoveries in human history. And one of the most significant human history discoveries in anthropology.

At first blush, this might seem to be a parable about the treasures we pass by, but I choose to take it as a reminder of the precious discoveries that are waiting for us at any given moment. As writers (and undoubtedly this is true for editors and agents as well) we pass through the same dry river beds over and over. If we're trudging, tunnel-visioned toward the Land Rover -- fixed on writing to the market, getting the advance, making the deal, showing up on the lists -- we risk missing those small changes that can yield mind-blowing epiphanies. A little rain gully here, a shift of the wind there. Suddenly, a character reveals herself, first in puzzle pieces, then in full flesh and voice. Suddenly, a question is answered, a knot is untied, a story unfolds.

We are here for the words. What matters is our willingness to see them. Our expertise in identifying them. The enormous tenderness and time we take in excavating and piecing them together.


Great post, Joni. And very apropos during a week when I'm working at an archaeological pace because of the new discoveries I've made about my characters.

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