On a Mother’s Birthday, a Writer Loves the World
Today is my mother’s birthday. She’d be 101 years-old. She was a soft-spoken woman who put others before herself. Some may have thought her meek, but she had a fierce strength inside her that allowed her to endure the twists and turns her life took. She was a woman who knew how to endure, a woman of duty, but I hope she also knew how to thrive. I hope she had a million small graces that made her love her life.
I remember how she sat on the edge of my bed, nights when I had trouble falling asleep, and told me to count my blessings, to remind myself of everything that was good. She was a woman of great compassion and faith, and there’s something in that forgiveness and belief that moves through the writer I’ve become.
A writer loves the world with all of his or her heart even while trying to make sense of its injustices, injuries, and conundrums. Why else do writers labor with words if not because we love the world around us? We hope for better, we mourn when the world and its people disappoint us. We believe in happiness and perfection even when we know that the former is inconsistent and the latter is impossible.
I’m always a bit taken aback whenever readers of my books start talking about how much they didn’t like one of my characters. As far as I can tell, these readers are reacting to the imperfect nature of folks—to the stumbles and mistakes we all make along the way. It’s not my job to judge my characters. It’s my job to give them free will, to watch them get themselves into trouble, and to see what they’ll do to try to redeem themselves. It’s my job to understand the sources of my characters’ behaviors. I don’t have to like what they do. I just have to know what leads them down certain paths. In the process, I challenge myself to find some degree of empathy for them, no matter how much I dislike the choices that they make.
Everyone’s life is imperfect. Our characters’ lives are, too. We should resist passing judgment on them, understanding, as we must, that we don’t start our lives making mistakes. We start out in innocence. It’s impossible to stay there, though. Things happen. Sometimes we find ourselves past the point where we can return. We all know that, which should make us more tolerant rather than less. I rarely heard my mother say a bad word about anyone. She was too busy believing in love.
I have just finished reading your memoir From Our House for the third time. I find it
written with great tenderness and love for both your parents. It astonishes me with its graceful prose, its evocative scenes, its easygoing but compelling narrative force, its poignant story of your family. It’s written with such compassion, Lee. I think your parents would admire it. I can see your determined father and your sensitive mother not just in its genesis but in its expression.
Thank you, Richard. I felt like I’ve been balanced on the thin line between my father’s anger and my mother’s compassion my entire life. The writing of FROM OUR HOUSE released a lot of that anger, and now, for the most part, I believe I’m more of my mother’s disposition with just enough of my father’s fire to call upon when I need it.
I have been wrestling with this very question because of select reader reactions to one of my character’s less-than-desirable pedigree, the attendant awkwardness of setting in motion things I would never do as a human that just come out in print. Thank you for your thoughts, about this. I suspect that well-placed misogyny, emotional and sexual violence has a life in “good” writing. At the same time, I am of the understanding that to make it work, it is necessary to do a lot of homework, and to be discreet in its execution.
Ben, I always think the ugliness in a character’s life should come from a particular source that the reader sees dramatized on the page, and we should never forget to balance that ugliness with something quite the opposite, thereby creating a fully rounded character.