I spent some time tonight working on a new short story. It’s hard going, not because the words are not coming–they are, and fast–but because some stories are just hard to write. Stories that tackle uncomfortable or difficult subjects, especially when those subjects are part of our own personal history.
Writing from life can mean re-experiencing something you wish you could leave behind in the forgotten past, something you thought you had already buried. It can mean coming to terms with the fact that an event from your past, perhaps even just a few unforgettable moments from your childhood, shaped you in ways you didn’t realize until you started getting it all out on paper.
It can mean pain.
And sometimes, writers stop there. They lay out their painful experiences, looking for some sort of catharsis, perhaps, or a bit of sympathy, and then leave it there in all its depressing fullness.
What do you do with that as a reader? What can you do with it? Honestly, beyond trying to sympathize with a writer, there’s not a lot you can do with it. You close the book and move on to the next one.
It seems to me that the really good, memorable stories we read are the ones that honestly point out pain and then point us toward beauty. They expose a negative, maybe let us stew in it a bit, and some may even appear to leave us there, but at some point they offer at least a glimmer of hope or at the very least a lesson, an admonition not to go down that same bad road that a character did, showing us the points at which we can choose a better path.
I have read a number of stories that wallow in sorrow and angst, giving no hint of redemption. I’ve read a number that really only present the reader with fake problems encountered by characters that are less than authentic. But between the bitter and the saccharine are the stories that stick–the bittersweet ones.
Certainly there are readers for any type of story that can be written–even the Pollyanna, the pouting, or the painful–but I’m comfortable making a value judgment here. Depressing stories that revel in the moribund and never climb up out of the mire of despair are, in my mind, self-indulgent in precisely the same way as that girl you knew in high school who cultivated imagined personal tragedies to get attention.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually do like depressing stories provided I get a little comic relief and even the faintest glimmer of hope. I think some of our more authentic expressions of deeply felt human emotions come through tragedy. But at the end of the day I have a cautiously positive view of the world–not because I think the best of people, but because my worldview is formed by my religious belief. I believe God works out all things to bring glory to himself and that I’m part of that plan. It helps me put things into an eternal perspective. We all have our lens, and that’s mine.
So even as I write through the parts of my own personal history that seem ugly and unfair, I look for the glint of good that must lie within them. The negative events of our lives are rich deposits of literary iron to be mined, the tough, blackish parts that hold within them the conflict we need in order to make our stories interesting. But don’t miss the thin veins of gold or silver running through them because you’re so focused on the negative.
It’s the dark parts of our lives that make those bits of beauty shine so brightly.
It’s the winter that makes the spring such a miracle.