Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hurts So Good?

In my teens and early 20s, the stories I wrote were even more melodramatic than I was. Infidelity, drug problems, and dreadful parenting were commonplace among my characters. I hadn’t experienced many of the circumstances I wrote about, and therefore wasn’t able to comprehend the potential impact these experiences might have on a real human being. Like small children who overload on sugar cereal because their taste buds aren’t developed enough to appreciate subtlety or nuance, I gorged on tragedy and distress. I couldn’t get enough.

Suffer for my art, suffer!

Suffer for my art, suffer!

As writers, we know intuitively that we must experience life to write about it. Travel to foreign lands. Taste unusual foods. Fall in love. Have our hearts broken. But how far must we go to tap into our creative voices? The once enchanting notion of the writer as alcoholic genius living a glamorous yet lonely existence due to his or her internal demons has, for the most part, evolved to the point where we accept that one can be a talented and productive writer without dying alone in a dark room above the bar in a seedy Paris neighborhood. We’ve come a long way, Baby.

However, the fact remains: to write about joy, fear, pain, or sadness, we must experience all of it. Repeatedly. But just how much suffering must we endure for the sake of our art? And how much suffering must we inflict upon our characters for the sake of the story?

Dare we ponder what difficult experience Brett Easton Ellis was working through when he wrote this?

Dare we ponder what difficult experiences Brett Easton Ellis was working through when he wrote this classic?

Writers – and other artists – often seek emotional solace in their work. If a painful experience can be redeemed in the form of a compelling character or storyline, it wasn’t all for naught; something of greater value came from that suffering. I have found this to be true in my own life. My current novel-in-progress was born during a difficult emotional time. I pored all of my sadness and anxiety into creating others who shared my pain and helped to carry the burden of my distress. And I am prouder of this novel than anything I have written to date. Would I elect to go back and experience that difficult period all over again? Of course not. But neither would I erase it from my life. From my pain came something beautiful.

But what about these characters we burden? While conflict is an essential ingredient to any story, we writers mustn’t become complacent to the suffering our characters experience at our hands. For instance, we mustn’t assign someone as “broken-hearted” as indifferently as we assign him brown hair or a love of sushi. Broken-hearted is not an attribute, but an all-encompassing state of being: heart, mind, body. It should never be taken lightly.

Admittedly, heartbreak has been on my mind lately. As I write this post, I am smack dab at the center of the sadness, disappointment, and sense of loss that go with it. One of the most important relationships of my life has very recently come to an end, or at least an end to this phase of it. I wouldn’t wish this kind of grief on anyone, yet I compel my characters to experience even worse. The difference, however, between my 16-year-old writer self and my 41-year-old writer self is that I understand much better now the repercussions of my deeds. I can much better distinguish between the subtle flavors and textures that make up an emotion, that drive us to action or reaction.

So. How much suffering must we endure for the sake of our art? And how much suffering must we inflict upon our characters for the sake of the story?

My personal rule of thumb: Suffer only as much as necessary to experience a full life. Make your characters suffer only enough to let them be who they are.

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Small Legends, Part Two

Due to popular demand — literally tens of people requesting more more more of my novel-in-progress — I have decided to post another excerpt. (We writers must delude ourselves a little to maintain the will to go on. Please indulge me.) While this is the second excerpt that I’ve posted, it is actually the very first chapter of the book. Personally, I dig a story that kicks off with a little foreshadowing of what is to come. I hope you do too.

Chapter One

I was thirteen when my mother found a condom in my room. I expected her to yell or cry or possibly threaten to send me to an all girls’ school. I was wrong.

It was 1969, two years after the Summer of Love, and I hadn’t so much as kissed a boy yet, let alone seriously contemplated having sex. My friend Jessica had smuggled the condom in question out of her parent’s medicine cabinet while they were out one night and had left her in charge of her little brother. Jessica made a habit of rifling through her parent’s belongings whenever she was forced to babysit. Whether she was taking advantage of the opportunity to snoop or seeking a small bit of revenge for having been forced into this unwelcome position of responsibility, I do not know. What I do know is that Jessica’s parents seemed to have an endless supply of interesting objects stashed away throughout their house. Sexy books with curse words in them and drawings of naked people, sometimes even three or four people together. Little tins of marijuana and packs of rolling papers. A metal clip adorned with unnaturally purple feathers that Jessica and I used to take turns wearing in our hair. Jessica was careful to put these little gems back where she had found them so as to conceal her knowledge of their secret unsavory ways, but she hadn’t been able to resist stealing one of the condoms. She brought it over to my house the next day, hurried me into my bedroom and shut the door behind her. She held out her hand to reveal the small square foil package. “Look what I found,” she said, revealing her crooked front teeth in a wide grin. “Do you want to open it?”

Of course I wanted to open it. Or at least I wanted Jessica to open it. And quickly, before my mom or one of my sisters came barging in on us. I was required to knock before entering their bedrooms, but somehow this rule didn’t work both ways. I had taken to changing my clothes in the bathroom from the moment I noticed that my breasts were starting to come in. The bathroom door was the only one in the house with a lock.

“Open it,” I nodded and then said, “Wait!” I grabbed my garbage can and placed it between us on the floor. Jessica looked confused. “I don’t know, in case it leaks or something.”

“Why on earth would it leak?” Jessica asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. She carefully pulled back the foil and peeled a thin strip down along the edge. I felt suddenly nervous then, and wanted to reach out and grab her hand to stop her from pulling out the contents of that little square. I felt as if what I was about to see would somehow change the course of my life. I would no longer be a kid. I would suddenly have to grow up and think about things like whether or not boys liked me or if they wanted to have sex with me, or if I was going to get pregnant and have to spend the rest of my life living with my parents like my cousin Nancy, who no one ever mentioned by name anymore. I wanted to reach out and grab the foil wrapper from Jessica’s curious hands and throw it out the window and as far away from us as possible. In that way, I could save us both a lot of trouble.

But I didn’t want to actually touch the thing, so I just stood there, frozen in place with little pricks of sweat popping up on my upper lip, my stomach acid churning, and watched as Jessica pulled out the milky-colored, semi-transparent disc. She turned it over in her hands, poking an investigative finger into the center of the ring. Then she pushed her finger firmly into the little tip in the center and began to unroll the ring. “See, this is where the man’s, you know…penis goes.” She continued to unroll the ring until the condom reached its full length, perhaps five or six inches. I started to relax. After all, it was just a piece of rubber stretched over my friend’s finger, like a doctor’s glove, except with just one thick finger. It wasn’t so scary, now that I had seen it. Jessica pointed at the little tip. “And this is where his, you know…baby stuff goes.”

“Baby stuff?” I squeaked, covering my mouth to stifle a giggle.

Jessica ignored me and instead wiggled her finger around inside of the condom. “Of course, the man’s penis would be much bigger than my finger. I mean, it has to be big enough for the condom to stay on anyway.”

A thought struck me. “What if it’s not?” I asked, slightly distressed.

“What if it’s not what?”

“What if a man’s…penis isn’t big enough? What if he puts it on and then it falls off when he’s, you know, inside?”

Jessica shrugged. “I guess that the woman better make sure she only has sex with men who have big enough penises.”

For nearly an hour, we’d passed the condom back and forth between us, taking turns stretching it over a variety of pens and pencils, a ruler, a pencil sharpener, the little porcelain dancing lady figurines that I’d reluctantly inherited from my great grandmother, but I had to draw the line when Jessica reached for my hair comb. “Gross! I have to put that thing in my hair.”

“And one day, you’re going to have this,” she held up the now misshapen condom, “in between your legs.”

When we grew tired of the condom, I attempted to roll it back into its little ring but quickly gave up and stashed it under my mattress for safe keeping with a plan to smuggle it out of the house and into our neighbor’s trash can after dark. And then I forgot all about it.

It was a Friday afternoon and I had just arrived home from school. I ran upstairs to throw my backpack in my room before I went back out to the park, where Jessica and I would sit on the swings for hours and talk about the other kids in our class and who we liked and who we didn’t. My mother’s back was turned to me when I walked in the room, and I barely registered the heap of dirty sheets on the floor. She always seemed to be laundering something since my dad had bought the new washing machine for her. “I’m going to meet Jessica at the park, back before dinner,” I said quickly, wriggling out of my backpack and dropping it at the foot of my stripped bed. When my mother turned to face me, she was holding up the limp, misshapen condom by two fingers, as if it was a snotty tissue carelessly tossed on the floor. My stomach turned and what seemed like all of the blood in my whole body flooded into my face, my cheeks burning with mortification. I braced myself for the oncoming storm and tried to think of what I could possibly say to diffuse this situation, but my mind went blank. Empty. Overtaken by fear. I just stood there, willing myself not to throw up.

My mother looked at me without expression and said, “Smart girl. You get pregnant and you can kiss the rest of your life goodbye. Just like your cousin.” And she went out of the room and straight to the kitchen, where she made herself a Manhattan.

It wasn’t the first time she’d expressed her frustrations with motherhood. As far back as I could remember, my mother had lamented what her life could have been if only she’d been born 20 years later, in my sisters’ and my generation. Sometimes after a drink or two, she’d launch into a monologue about how much her daughters took for granted and how they didn’t appreciate the opportunities that were afforded to them now that women were (almost) equal to men in the eyes of the law. More than once she’d brought my eldest sister Katie to tears by emphatically stating that if she, my mother, had it to do over again, she would go to college or travel to a foreign country or both instead of marrying our father right out of high school. She would never have had three babies by the age of 28. My father, my sister Margaret and I had learned long before to tune her out. But Katie had always been a crier.

While I’d heard my mother express these regrets many times during my short 13 years of life, that day as she stood before me in my bedroom holding out the clearly abused condom and her only reaction was to essentially tell me to keep up the good work, something clicked in me. Something changed in the way I felt about my mother. Mothers were supposed to be upset when they found condoms in their 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom. And they were also supposed to tell their kids how great they were and how happy they were to have them, and how much they loved them. Everyone knew that.

That was the day when it really hit me that she, the one and only mother I would ever have, was a bad mother. And I swore that when I grew up and one day got married and had a little girl of my own, I would never tell her how much better life would be if she hadn’t come along. I would love her. I would treasure her. I would be the best mother of all.

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