I received an email from a former student on Saturday. It was a surprise in more than one way. While I teach fifty new students per semester, only one or two per year will contact me after the class is over, usually to request a letter of recommendation. This student took my class almost a decade ago, and he had a different request.
“Is there a way for me to read your Say Quick novel?” he asked. “Your short descriptions sprinkled throughout various blog posts leave me with the impression of a work built around belief in light during our darkest moments,” and he went on to explain how the current situation with covid-19 has made that a pressing need in his life.
That last part wasn’t a surprise. Yesterday The New York Times published a historic front page listing 1,000 names and ages of the nearly 100,000 U.S. deaths so far. Finding light in these darkest moments is a pressing need for all of us right now.
What surprised me is that he had read this blog (people do?) and concluded something I have written/am writing could apply right now. It also surprised me that he had zeroed in so exactly on what my book is about when for years I couldn’t have zeroed in on it myself. And it surprised me to realize anyone was wondering about the status of my story when I would have assumed such updates to be irrelevant compared to that grim front page.
His email changed my perspective. It made me remember what hope fiction can offer.
I combed back through my blog posts, sure I must have mentioned something about my current trajectory. But nope. Radio silence. Sorry, everyone.
I finished a young-adult novel that took me ten years to write/revise. I thought it was ready to publish. I got stalled an extra year trying to write a kick-ass query letter. That part you know if you’ve read my semi-annual posts over the past few years.
And then my gut sabotaged it all. (Sometimes I would like to take out a restraining order against it, except that its suggestions almost always—infuriatingly—end it being right.) If I were to personify my gut, it would stand there like a caricature of a stuffy know-it-all who coughs into its fist before dropping a flat-voiced truth bomb I do not want to hear. And repeating it ad nauseam until I finally listen. It said, “Ahem. Your story should be for adults.”
Insert long exasperated cry for help.
For those who aren’t familiar with the differences between YA and adult novels, this might seem like no big deal. In some cases, maybe. But my gut had very demanding demands:
- subjecting myself to months of brain-overload research in physics and history and other insanely complex subjects
- “firing” my close-limited narrator (who only let readers experience what the viewpoint character experiences) and “hiring” a distant omniscient one (who explains far more to readers than the characters understand)
- restructuring the story line to include episodes in the lives of adjacent adult characters, including a brand-new character: a ghost who killed himself in 1953 after returning home from the “conflict” in Korea (as if I didn’t have enough characters and viewpoints to begin with??)
- rewriting the entire novel word by word (or “bird by bird,” for Anne Lamott fans) from page one
Why in the name of all that is holy and sane would I do such a thing?
In order to find light in the darkness.
As a young-adult novel, the story barely skimmed the surface of what it means to grow up, because seventeen-year-olds, even very smart ones, can’t be expected to understand the scope of life.
Now? Here’s a small taste of my new adult first chapter, where the omniscient narrator (who supposedly does understand the scope of life—I hired a good one) tells readers some of the ghost’s background, appropriate for sharing today, on a day set aside for remembering those killed in war:
Movie-theater footage of the forties, with brave Americans slinging rifles over their shoulders to right the wrongs of the world, had convinced Gene to enlist as a hero at eighteen. The draft would have claimed him six months later anyway. He’d been born with historical bad timing. They gave him grenades to throw instead of pinecones. His machine gun—on orders sanctioned by President Truman—decimated a civilian population. Ten percent of the country annihilated. Per capita, Korea had been the worst war of the century, but no one knew unless you were on the ground, defending yourself against enemies who hid among refugees, forcing you to fire into swarms of innocent people until the cries of the children stopped.
No belt or newsreel had prepared him for that; no justice scale could right it. Not even the bullet he’d swallowed from his own .45 on Armistice Day 1953, one year before it became Veterans Day, honoring heroes who face horrors no one wants to acknowledge.
He was just a kid, scripted into a forgotten war he couldn’t forget.
Every time I reread what I wrote there, I want to cry. It’s real—even though it’s also fiction. And it’s what my gut has been pulling me toward all along: make it darker, make it real, face the horrors, show the worst.
Because the contrast of darkness makes light that much brighter.
Throughout this pandemic, especially here in Utah where we also had an earthquake literally shake us up the first week of quarantine, I’ve watched how my kids have suddenly had to cope with serious things. Hundreds of thousands of people can die of random diseases that emerge out of the blue. School and sports and dance and hanging out with friends (sources of stability and human interaction and joy) can be taken away overnight. The ground under your feet can knock you down when you least expect it. My seven-year-old started asking, “How many ways are there to die?” This is what it means to grow up: to gradually become more and more aware of the countless awful possibilities of life.
In a novel that spins off Peter Pan, I wanted to ask the crucial question: Can that seriousness be reversed? Can you witness the very worst possibilities, such as the Korean War, and find your way back to the lightness of childhood innocence? Is there a way to never grow up in the sense of not succumbing to the darkness? Is the only remedy to bury our heads in the sand, living in Never Never Land?
So I hit my characters with everything, hoping they’ll find a way to dig themselves out of the wreckage. That is the laboratory of fiction: the great experiment to uncover truth by testing the limits of experience. I don’t have answers yet, but I have a hypothesis. My characters are my lab rats. I give them the disease of serious things and try out potential cures. I study their reactions to see what works. Then I hit them again, harder, to make sure.
I began the adult draft in November. I now have five and a half chapters, twenty pages each. The full book should be fifteen chapters, if my outline works out. I’m 1/3 of the way there. I write slowly, carefully, combating grim realities with regular doses of—believe it or not—humor.
It’s not quite Taika Waititi’s brilliant Jojo Rabbit, but it walks a similar tightrope. Think how much we’ve leaned on the ironic comfort of memes during the pandemic—not so we can ignore the case counts and death counts but so we can inject even the smallness sense of lightness back into our lives to balance out the worst, just as Jojo Rabbit gives us a silly childlike view of WWII Germany without sparing us from its horrors.
And so, in addition to the passages about the Korean War, I also have passages like this:
The ghost huddling in the back attic hiccupped. Elaborate fusions of cobwebs and dust had laced right through him, but none of them moved, since the hiccup was more meta than physical. His diaphragm and epiglottis had disintegrated sixty years ago inside a grave two miles away. Notwithstanding that inconvenience, he hiccupped again. Loudly. Which made him start to sweat, though his glands were also long gone.
The reactions felt real because Eugene Cecil Tate didn’t know he was dead.
Hiccups work sort of like memes: they are a silly reminder that ordinary parts of life are strange and funny when you remember to see them that way. On top of that, a ghost with fake hiccups reminds us how much of “reality” is all in our minds—empowering us to choose how we see it.
We can choose to both cry and laugh. At my grandmother’s funeral a year ago, there were equal amounts of both because both were needed. Throughout the quarantine we’ve needed both as well. There is something healing about the combination of tears and laughter when they’re the purest kind—facing what’s real without pretense. There is something courageous and holy about it.
To quote Anne Lamott once again (because she’s also brilliant):
And I think perhaps it boils down to this:
My novel takes on the ambitious task of considering “all” the facts, from quantum physics to astrophysics, from wars to terrorism, from tragic possibilities to dazzling impossibilities. I want to zoom in and zoom out with the feel of showing the full scope of life. And in the end, I want my characters and my readers and myself to embrace it all.
I want to deliver a novel that fills that pressing need for finding light in dark times—even if, sadly, I still have 200 pages left to write.
In the mean time, email your old teachers, read Anne Lamott (any of her books, seriously), watch Jojo Rabbit, scroll through light-hearted memes, dig into cool science like that pupil-dilating article above, recite great poetry like Wendell Berry’s, pull your favorite fiction stories off your shelf to reread in a bubble bath lit by candles while sipping wine. Hold both ends of the paradox at once: “Expect the end of the world [and] laugh.”
[5/26/20 EDITED TO ADD:
I always wait to hit publish until my gut gives me the green light. I did so with this post yesterday, so why does something feel missing? Perhaps for this very purpose of coming back to add one final HUGE thought that was hiding between the lines.
The other day out in the garden, I began singing a song from my high school choir as I trimmed the dead lilac blooms. We sang it every year for graduation. It starts with the chorus, which goes like this:
We laugh, we cry, we live, we die, and when we're gone the world goes on. We love, we hate, we learn too late how small we are, how little we know.
Yesterday’s post focused on those first two lines, but the meatiness—the wake-up call—is in the third and fourth. As a teenager, I got teary-eyed every time we sang that part. I still do.
There are many kinds of laughter, some of them harsh and jarring and awful. The type of laughter I meant as the “pure” kind is the one that suddenly accepts those third and fourth lines, that suddenly acknowledges our own smallness and silliness, that suddenly gives up haughty pretense and the illusion of separateness and instead dissolves into the unity and connection of shared laughter.
To laugh or cry together as humans—even if you’re quarantined alone in your apartment—is an incredible thing. It bonds us in empathy—again, whether or not anyone else is with you.
Stories of all kinds (songs, emails/letters, memes, novels, poems, tweets, TV shows, movies, documentaries, news stories, stand-up comedy, dinner-table anecdotes, family fables, FB posts, etc) have that potential to connect us to our common humanity via empathy.
Empathy/love/unity/connection is the light in the darkness. Tears and laughter are the outward signs that it’s happening inside us.]