Sad Beginnings, or Why I'm an Angsty Writer
Yes, that's me, the little girl dragging the big ol' teddy bear. Or lion. Whatever the heck it is. I mean, it's not actually me. I'm fifty-six and stopped carrying stuffed animals around when I was eleven, which was probably a little late. Don't get me wrong, I still have my stuffed animals, or at least my forty-six-year-old Kermit the Frog that's so old its plastic eyeballs have yellowed. Yes, folks. My Kermit has jaundice.
Still, sometimes I feel that on the inside, I'm that little girl staring at the ground dragging her best friend behind her. I have been and probably always will have a little hole inside that can't be filled. Friends, loved ones, students...no matter how close I get to the people in my life, there is always a feeling inside that I'm alone. Why is that? When did it happen? Was it the moment I got out of the smashed station wagon at seven and saw my grandmother on the ground, lifeless and covered in blood? Was it the moment I discovered that my first girlfriend of several years had cheated on me with multiple people, destroying my ideals of a perfect relationship? First divorce? Second? Why am I such an emotional wreck on the inside? (WRITER falls to knees, weeping and shaking his fist at the heavens. "Why God, WHY?!!" Fade to Black.)
Knowing this about myself, what transpired at my dining room table last week shouldn't have come as a surprise. I was reading the prologue to my new novel to my son and my nephew. I thought, "Hey, the prologue involves pre-teens. They are pre-teens. Hence, they might be interested. My wife listened in as well. When I finished, she said, "Why is your beginning so depressing?" I was taken aback at first. I mean, it's a work-in-progress, first draft, and...what the hell? Where's the support?!! Then I got to thinking...that's how I started my first novel too. A fire. A man loses his family and his heart. The rest of the book is about him trying to find it again. It's a theme I write about constantly. Why? Why do I force my protagonists into some crappy situation from which they have to extract themselves? Do I need to cause my fictional characters pain to assuage my own? And why are chicken and waffles such a damned good breakfast option?
Then I happened on a thought that made me feel better--better about my work, better about my character's plights, and better about my own life. The reason I write my protagonists into corners is to give them the opportunity to get out of them. Life isn't a walk in the park. They have to fight themselves and their circumstances to rise above their pain. I mean, my characters could start happy, but then where would they go? More happy? We'd just hate them for it. Most of us don't look at really happy people and think, "Wow, their happiness just makes me happy." We think, "I wish I were that happy," as if happiness were a concrete thing you could buy and put on a shelf. No, happiness is something you find inside yourself. It has nothing to do with money or success or love. It's the feeling of contentment that allows you to close your eyes and sleep peacefully at night and get up in the morning with optimism to greet the new day.
How does this make me feel better about my own life? I think it's obvious, but I'll explain anyway. If these fictional characters can pick themselves up from the lowest points imaginable and find a way to move on, then why can't I? If they can suffer through pain and depression and anger and loneliness, I can too. Ultimately, in even my darkest work, there is at least a semblance of a happy ending. I can see it for my characters, the moments when they begin to smile again, when their hearts don't feel as heavy. I can see those moments on my computer screen, and here's the cool thing. My screen is reflective, just like yours. Like all of our screens. In the background, reflected behind those moments of resolution, absolution, and relief, I see myself. I'm mirrored behind my work, always. So there's a chance for me after all, and guess what? If there's a chance for me, there's a chance for you. If you're struggling, know that you've been written into a corner. You can find a way out, maybe with the help of a friend or family member, your God, whether it's mine or someone else's, or just by finding the strength inside yourself.
Struggle. Fight. Overcome. If we can write it, we can live it. Like the Muppets sang at the end of their first film, "Life is a movie, write your own ending."