What I Needed to Learn about Being Honest in My Writing
When I was a younger writer, just starting to figure out what my vision of the world was and how to translate that onto the page—heck, it was a revelation to me to know that short stories and novels, and later for me, essays and memoirs, reflected the way a writer saw the world and his or her place in it; I thought I was just making stuff up!—I had to remember how much I loved this life even at the hard times. I had to remember that in the midst of darkness and pain, there was still beauty and joy.
I mention this in case it proves useful to other young writers. I had a tendency, when I was starting out, to focus almost singularly on the trouble my characters created for themselves. No, wait, that’s wrong. I wasn’t at the point yet where I understood that characters should create their own troubles; I was still in that phase of imagining that everyone’s troubles were someone else’s fault, or else the result of arbitrary circumstances that caused people to suffer. That said, I kept my eyes solely on the darkness in the world. My work, as a result, was oppressive and overly serious and also false.
I had to learn that the world didn’t work that way. I had to make some adjustments to my vision in the nonfictional world, the real world that I occupied, before I could more accurately replicate that world in a piece of fiction. The truth is beauty and joy are all around us.
In my latest novel, Late One Night, I inhabit the consciousness of a man whose own choices have led to a tragedy that irreversibly affects his family. His wife and three of their children die in a house trailer fire, and, when the fire turns out to be the result of arson, and when the small town gossip points to him as a suspect, he finds himself in a custody battle for his surviving children. The truth of what happened “late one night” when the trailer caught on fire isn’t as simple as gossip would have everyone believe. Still the consequences of that gossip, not to mention the heartbreaking sorrow of those deaths, are real and threatening.
When I was a young writer, I would have been tempted to wallow in that sorrow—to keep my focus only on how bleak and sad these characters’ lives were, but, as I’ve said, that would be a lie to the readers. It would be a lie because it would omit the texture of the world. It would leave out the poignancy and tension that exists when you place the ugly and the beautiful, the sorrow and the joy, next to each other.
So when the husband in the novel has temporary custody of his daughters, they momentarily break from sorrow the way children can. A silly word causes them to laugh, if only for a while. One of the girls performs in a school play. Another weaves a friendship bracelet. Even the most stubborn of them has things in her life that please her. This isn’t to say that the deaths are ever far from anyone’s consciousness, but to say that their grief is even more profound and deeply felt because the truth is sometimes we forget, if only for an instant, that we’re grieving. Toward the end of the novel, the girls are sleeping while their father speaks to the woman he now lives with:
His voice was soft, but in their rooms, Angel and Hannah and Sarah and Emma almost came up from sleep. He never spoke loudly enough to completely rouse them, but the murmur of his voice was something they felt just at the edge of waking. In that twilight, they listened long enough to know they were hearing their father, a fact that brought them comfort as they sank back into sleep on this cold winter night.
That’s a passage I probably couldn’t have written when I was a much younger writer. I would have written a passage about their grief and sorrow instead. I had to live a little longer, suffer a little more, to be able to contextualize that suffering, to be able to hold opposing emotions together, to know that as much as the world hurts us, as much as we hurt ourselves, we still have the joy within the sorrow, the light within the dark. It took time for me to open my vision to a wider angle, to take in the world’s contradictions, and to be honest in my work.
“There is beauty in the world. More than any of us can fathom. We must never forget that.”–Ron Rash in The World Made Straight
Something I discovered many years ago is that the writer must love all his characters to make them real. They can be losers, cheaters, evil-doers of the worst sort, but they are all children of God.
Bill, that’s a great quote from Ron. I always think in terms of not having to love every one of my characters, but absolutely having to have empathy for them and to understand how they came to be who they are. Thanks so much for the comment!