Several weeks ago, we took the family up to visit my mom, to help her clear out the old house. As we were throwing away my father’s seemingly lifelong accumulation of magazines (among which we did find some vintage Playboys which, sadly, were not as groovy as we’d hoped upon flipping through them), I started to ruminate on how many stories were in those old National Geographics, Air and Spaces, and even the Playboys, and how many unknown moments had been spent reading them. And here we were, just throwing them into a dumpster like so much trash. So it was during a rest break that I asked my husband:
“Do you think it’s foolish of me to keep things like my stories, when I’m the only one who cherishes them? I mean, nobody’s going to care about them when I’m dead.”
He replied, “Well, since you’ll be dead, you won’t care, either.” That didn’t help my mood any, until he added, “But, they bring you joy here, now, while you work on them and when they’re finished. And, everybody needs that joy in their lives. That’s what art is for: to make people feel things. Even if you’re the only person your work affects, they still give you something greater than the mundane in your life.” He patted my knee and smiled, and pushed himself up again as he added something else: “Besides, most artists don’t get recognized until after they’re dead, so, if that happens, at least you’re in good company.”
“Thanks,” I said, half-snarling at him. But, he was right, in articulating a perspective I’ve often had of my own work: that I need to love my stories. Because nobody else will, but, more than that, because those stories are a source of such great joy for me. Without them, even with so many blessings I already have, my life wouldn’t feel half so full of beauty.
Pictured above is a 2″ binder holding my printed collection of “Finding Mister Wright” short stories, 21 in all. Each red sheet indicates where a new story starts; my (fuzzy) thumb is added here for size reference. Now, my favorite authors of late have been crime novelists Craig Johnson, Henning Mankell, and not at all least or last, the gifted Ross Macdonald (whose graceful and insightful flair for repeatable descriptions I’ve tried and failed on more than one occasion to emulate in my own fiction), because I believe wholeheartedly in reading other – better – authors not only to enjoy a ripping story but also to make me a better writer in return. But, there are days when I like to go back and read the stories I’ve made, too. To see how far I’ve come, and to remember what conflicts and passions pushed me to write each one, yes…but also because I just plain love those characters. I love finding their stories with them; I love giving them lives that are beautiful and sad and worth every fighting moment. It’s exciting and fulfilling to look at those stories and know I made these. They may have started in my head as floating words, phrases, and ideas, but I made them stories. Nobody could have done that for those characters except me.
Someday, when I’m dead, someone will just throw my stories into a dumpster. I won’t care then. But for today, these stories give me joy. They make me feel greater than the mundane. And shouldn’t that make them worth it?
We all have stories we’ve read that we love. What are the stories you’ve written that you love?
I’m currently away from the Internet, celebrating Thanksgiving with family, the best way to celebrate any holiday. Those good feelings prompted me to compose the following free-write in my “Finding Mister Wright” universe:
“Thanks and Giving” [PDF opens in new window]
~9600 words / 38 pages DS
This one concerns family, of course, and cooking, just like I promised. It’s long, so I don’t expect anyone at all to read it. But it was a story of Rob and his mother that had been nagging at me for a while to be written, so I answered the only way I knew how, to write it. Paige is here, and Daniel, too, as well as a few new faces. Some of them are even new to Rob and the rest! There are real if subtle conflicts here between mother and son, father and daughter, brother and sister, that I’ve experienced in one way or another across my many years. As always, the stories help me understand those experiences a little bit better, but hopefully if you read this one, you’ll get some enjoyment out of it, too.
Happy families to you all!
I think about death a lot. Not mine, so much, because there’s little point in that. I try to eat well, exercise, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. Beyond that, we’re all basically at the mercy of fate, and stressing over when my time will be up won’t change the ticking of the clock. I still think about it a lot, though.
I think a lot about love, too. The love between a parent and a child, between siblings, between lovers lucky enough to find each other in a great big world full of so many different individuals. How love can divide but also unite. How its grace can fill our lives with happiness, from the most mundane interactions to the most life-changing.
I also think about love and death together. How one can make the other sweet or terrifying, and how that can go either way, for both. Because I think so much and so often about death and love, they come up again and again in my writing. Sometimes, their place is blatant in a story, sometimes not. I think the former applies to my latest “Finding Mister Wright” short:
Another “Finding Mister Wright” story
(PDF will open in a new window; ~2800 words/9 pages DS)
I can’t always explain why I write the stories I do, but this one – looking at aging, love, and death – came to me as I spied a “Frozen”-themed birthday cake in a bakery window and thought about the kids who won’t have another birthday, this year.
I don’t apologize for where this story goes, for the love or the death, because I like to think both make us stronger, in their own ways and eventually. Whether you read the story or not, and whether you agree with me or not, keep in mind the significance of love and death in your own lives, both the fantastic ones you put to the page and the true one you build around you.
How has love or death affected your stories?
Before I get into this post, I need to take a second to apologize to those bloggers whom I follow. I’ve got a backlog of your updates sitting in my inbox, pestering for my attention, but I want to be able to approach your shared words with a clear headspace, and I haven’t had that, in recent days. I promise, I’m getting there, but it may take me a few extra days, yet.
I try to keep this blog to talking about my writing, as that’s been its purpose since its inception. But, sometimes, life intrudes into my work in confounding ways.
I spent the last few days visiting my family in upstate New York, where I grew up.
“La Grammaire” (1892) Paul Sérusier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I don’t hold many feelings of nostalgia for the place itself, perhaps because I haven’t lived “at home” since I went away to university. But, the people still hold significance to me. Understandably so, as they’re my closest relatives. I visit perhaps once or twice a year, and that’s been enough for me, in the past. But, lately, I’ve really come to notice and realize how…well…old my parents are getting.
My mother and father were not typically young parents. My husband’s parents, for example, were married at not much past twenty, and had him when they were still in college. My parents were in their thirties when they had my sister and me. In the pre-Millennial generations, that was old.
Deep down, I’ve always had a concept of mortality. But, faced specifically with my parents‘ mortality has been scary. Especially when discussing wills, deeds, insurance financials, and what happens if one of them “goes” before the other.
Over this last visit, both my mother and father approached the subject rationally with me, and I tried to do the same. Maybe it’s a kind of emotional denial on my part, but I kept thinking, “How would [character X] deal with this situation?” It’s timely and fitting, right now, as I do have a story where this subject – that of a parent’s death – is an integral plot point. It doesn’t really make the issue any easier, though. It just gives me a safe sense of distance.
“Death of Barbara Radziwiłł (detail)” by Józef Simmler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve written about death in my stories before. I don’t like treating it lightly, because even the most insignificant of deaths – relatively speaking, that is – has an impact on somebody, in fiction just as in real life.
Hmm. Reading over that last sentence just now, I can’t help but think I’m still a bit in denial about the whole process.
Part of the scariness of the prospect is that I’ve always been close to my parents, even though I’ve lived far away. I may not speak to them every week, but I certainly think of them that often, or more. To consider life without them is unsettling. Realistic, and likely unavoidable, but discomfiting nonetheless. Without them, I’d be an orphan.
That sounds silly for an adult woman. The word “orphan” has a connotation of a sooty-faced, Victorian-era street urchin, or a child sitting alone by a window, waiting for a nice couple to come along to adopt them. But, it’s true. Not that I’d be alone if my parents passed away. I have a family of my own, and a sister, cousins, aunts and uncles…. They’re not the same, though.
I’ve always known one of the principle building blocks of good fiction is conflict. It creates tension, builds character. I strive for realistic conflict in my stories. In my life, though? I could do with a little bit less of the stuff.
I’ll try to return this blog to its regularly scheduled programming by next update. Til then, bear with me, okay?
I hadn’t meant to kill her.
I certainly didn’t start out the day planning for it to happen. I didn’t even know it was happening, until I looked at what I’d wrought, and realized she was dead.
Somewhere deep down, though, I knew: it had to happen. I’d been waiting for it to happen.
That knowledge didn’t make it any easier to do. It didn’t make the squeeze of the trigger any less jerky, or the thunder of the shot any less loud. Or the pain I felt watching the once-bright light in her eyes go out any less acute.
One moment, she was there: fighting, struggling, strong. And the next, she simply…wasn’t. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t anything. She was just gone, like she’d never existed in the first.
I cried when I killed her. I honestly and truly did.
Sitting back, I had to stop. Everything. And let her have that one moment of my reflection. Because I hadn’t given her the chance to have anything else. Not the happiness she’d sought, or the love she’d desired. Not even the fleeting freedom for which she’d run and fought so hard.
I’d never killed anyone before. Not anyone who’d mattered. Flitting bystanders with no histories, random casualties of war: they didn’t make a difference. They had no stories.
This one, though. She’d had a story. A story I’d cut short, for a split-second of excitement. For the sake of mere plot.
“Acceptable losses,” I called her, the next day, after I’d had the time to reflect. A phrase to describe her and her ilk, the ones I’d left soulless and smoking along the way. Because in love and war, sacrifices must be made.
I knew it was for the best. I knew it had to be done.
But, I’d still cried.
I’ve been thinking about this topic ever since a recent blog post about what heroes can do, by Vanessa-Jane Chapman.
I’ve always thought death in stories should be warranted. Many of them are. They’re often valuable for completion of a story. But, when it came time to do the deed, myself, with one of my own…it got to me.
Let your story go where it needs to go, even if it’s someplace terrible. You may end up stronger for it. Or, you may end up realizing you’re not as nice a person as you’d always thought you were.
Death in your stories: how do you react?