As you sat at the table counting and sharing your blessings last week, I’ll venture there was an entire subset of “blessings” that you skirted past. Because, frankly, to say them aloud would ruin everyone’s appetite. Now that your feast is digested, I’m going to suggest you seek the truth in the following statement:
We writers should be grateful for every painful event that ever challenged us.
Why would we want to be grateful for accidents, assaults, roadblocks, and acts of omission? It’s a fair question. If it were up to me, the world would never know one more case of despair that resulted in a mass shooting or suicide. We would never again have to hear the rallying cry, #metoo. We’d be able to keep everyone employed so that no one would go hungry or have to live out of their cars or suffer due to lack of healthcare.
But all of us are graduates of the school of hard knocks, and we didn’t get to design the classroom. Writers, in particular, are sensitive to the injuries we’ve sustained. They made us feel utterly powerless. Why should we feel grateful?
Because these intense pressures inspired us to arise to the hard work of writing stories that matter. We understand that such challenges served as the grit that, with additional layers of perspective, become the pearl that is our unique voice.
I’ll admit that there are certain trials that are exceedingly hard to be grateful for. But what’s the alternative? We can’t change the past. Murdering our transgressors isn’t a particularly life-affirming option. We could rail against humanity till the end of our days, but how will that give us meaningful lives, let alone one single moment of peace or joy? Rising above our torment by being grateful for the lessons it confers makes a story worth telling, whether you funnel that wisdom into fiction or memoir. The courageous determination to create a life worth living inspires readers.
Gratitude signals that we have moved beyond the outrage we once felt. Inciting outrage in our reader isn’t a bad thing—it shows that the pressures on our characters are acute—but I know from experience that outrage is not the place from which you can write your best novel. An early reader of my debut told me my character was too angry, and suggested I imbue her with some of the strength that allowed me to get beyond my first husband’s suicide. Clearly I wasn’t yet quite as healed as this reader made me out to be! But her feedback gave me a useful benchmark: I knew that my characterization of Penelope Sparrow would be complete once her actions exuded an admirable strength. In many ways, Penelope and I healed together. By freeing me from anger, gratitude allowed me to enter the perspectives of my characters in a way that resulted in a more nuanced—and ultimately more powerful—tale.
Gratitude for our life’s journey is a choice. It is not easy work. No one wants a seed of discord to be placed in her hand, and no one would blame you for casting yours onto the pavement and letting it bounce away. But if instead you planted that seed of discord in your fertile mind, let your spirit rain down upon it, and crack it open, you will watch it grow into a story whose testament to the human spirit will shine through your unique perspective. You might be writing fiction, but the hard-won truths you share will have your readers shuddering with recognition. Its impact will be profound.
Not yet ready to embrace gratitude? Maybe you have to back up a few steps, and first acknowledge that these episodes actually injured you. Then you’ll need to accept that with work, and time, you have the power to make these events into a meaningful part of your life’s journey. Acceptance allows you to let go of your anger so you can embrace the gratitude that will help you move on.
Fierce gratitude can transform your life and your writing. Try it. The world needs more people who will take on this important work.
Have you used a trial from your own life to inform something in your fiction? It may not be direct—more than my experience as a dancer, it was my miscarriages that informed my sense of Penelope Sparrow’s disappointment that her body stood out as different from others in the dance world. We won’t compare our trials—a broken fingernail can be disastrous for a hand model raising a child on her own—but let’s paint a mural of gratitude by showing how we’ve used our trials to drive our fiction.
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
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Love this post, Kathryn. Reminds me of the Stephen King quote, “A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
I'm old enough that I see the blessing in every hard place I've survived. I've used them all in my books - like you, not directly, but someone who knows me well can pick the threads out of the woven blanket of my past.
Thanks for reminding me.
Laura, if you can say you are grateful, then most of us should be able to come to this. It puts liquid strength in your bones and makes you equal to the storytelling. Sending much love and admiration your way!
The trials from my own life's past, I am leaving to another to use in fiction; however you are entirely correct that embracing forgiveness, and later gratitude, is a transforming, healing experience. Those hurts and trials mold us, for better or ill, depending on our reaction to them. Does anyone choose to become embittered? Likely not, but that is what happens if the injured person cannot find her or his way to gratitude. Isn't that a definition of grace?
A lovely thought, Ann. Joan Borysenko wrote that once a woman's testosterone starts to rise in menopause, one of two things will happen: the woman who embraces forgiveness and gratitude will grow strong in herself and give generously to help others, while the one who cannot will grow strong in her bitterness. I've known both, so I reached as far as I could toward the first.
Kathryn, what a wonderful post. It's true that I've used my past painful events in my writing, most recently the death of my mother. The pain was poured into a scene where a woman mourns her lost child. The words flew to the page -- not my usual "frozen" style. Your post has inspired me to see that pain in a different way. It enhanced a critical scene and helped me to put words to my feelings. For this, I'm grateful.
By the way, I love this from your post: "But all of us are graduates of the school of hard knocks, and we didn’t get to design the classroom." I would add that we didn't get to design the syllabus either!
So true Lorraine, good addition! I love that you were able to track the genesis of the lost child scene to your feelings about the loss of your mother. The way our "from-life" feelings manifest in our manuscripts are often obtuse, yet resonate with true power. Good on you for "going there."
Very powerful & true, Kathryn. For me, I find that many of my books have plot lines involving divorce, blended families, and coping with the loss of family members, since those have been life-changing events for me. I always hope that, by normalizing these traumas somewhat, others will feel better able to cope and keep moving forward. I also find that the painful events in my life have also inspired me to write with a lot of humor--one of my best coping tools.
I was just on the phone talking to another writer about this very thing, Holly. I think women's fiction is so powerful in the way we can show that none of us gets a pass if we want to learn and grow, but that our afflictions are no reason to lose hope for tomorrow. And good for you with the humor! I once heard an agent say if you can make me laugh, I can sell your book!
I'm still a work in progress with this forgiveness and gratitude thing, and suppose I always will be. I definitely don't want to be a bitter old lady who agonizes over past events. Thanks for this gentle, positive reminder.
I so get it, Debbie. It's hard to be grateful for formative experiences you didn't get to choose. If only Grandma could have pulled us onto her lap and handed down wisdom without us having to learn the hard way! I fear that I've often gravitated toward the hard way. Maybe I was self-selecting as a novelist. It's a worthy goal to embrace gratitude, though, so hang in there!
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm grateful for being the fattest and skinniest kid in my class. Those experiences COMPLETELY informed two of the lead characters in my WIP: Penny and Frankie. I’ve been both of those characters. It’s a Goldilocks kind of thing. In elementary school, I was Penny. Too heavy. Too slow. Bullied. Last to be picked for a team, and that was understandable. Now. Not then.
During the summer of seventh grade, I became Frankie. Too thin. Bullied. Still last to be picked for a team, but for another set of reasons. It looked as if I’d break, like the see-through unicorn in "The Glass Menagerie."
So, who’s “just right” in the story? Before reading my book, people might think Marilyn Monroe was. But I’m pretty sure she wasn’t.
During my life, I’ve worn JCPenney’s “Husky Pants” as a kid and skin-tight Angel’s Flight polyester disco pants in my twenties. And daddy jeans too.
What’s important to realize is that no matter what size I was, I was me. And had I not looked in the mirror over the years and seen the reflection of different versions of me, I don’t think I could’ve told Penny’s and Frankie’s story very well.
Christopher you are right—being on both sides of this is powerful stuff. I love the contentious issue of body image, which is also at the heart of my debut novel. Our painful experiences give us sensitivities that allow a fuller exploration of such themes, and I'm glad you were able to bring that to Penny (my character was a Penny too!) and Frankie's story.
My novel The Winter Loon is the fictionalized version of what I would have wished for my mother's life. She lived in an era when being lesbian entailed fear, doubt and danger. A person even suspected of being homosexual could be declared mentally ill and hospitalized, lose their employment and even the custody of their children. I am grateful to have been able to write a story with a positive message of family, community and the healing power of love. We can't lose track of how the past impacts our present, and how when we embrace and understand the past and how people coped, we can continue to move forward individually and as a society.
That's lovely, Lori! So much important truth in what you write here that it could also read as an op-ed (really restraining myself here). What our government can't seem to solve, our stories can address—and can change hearts, one reader at a time. Good for you for taking on this important work.
Ah, Lori. Revisionist fiction is wonderful. It helps you, and it's such a tribute to the one you're writing about (whether anyone else knows it or not). Hugs, you brave woman.
I think this is what's meant with write what you know. Certainly not that we know all the plots, settings, or characters we concoct, but having gone through our own share of suffering, we can write that experience into a novel. And you're so right: Without hardship, what stories would we have to tell that inspire the human spirit? that draw readers in? that connect us?
Wonderful insight, Kathryn. Thank you!
Emotionally speaking, you may be right Julie about the write what you know. Certainly our own experience inspires our stories and makes them ring true.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that the way to happiness is through loving kindness and compassion. Without suffering in the world, there would be no need for kindness and compassion—for others...or for ourselves. Thank you for another thoughtful post, Kathryn.
So true, Fae. It’s part of the human condition, and striving to make things better gives our lives focus. Our woes never feel good while we’re going through them, but the key to unlocking the wisdom we can get from them seems to first demand our gratitude.
This post is so fantastic, Kathryn. Particularly this line: " We understand that such challenges served as the grit that, with additional layers of perspective, become the pearl that is our unique voice."
So, so true. Would my writing be the same if I weren't the child of a bloody divorce? If I hadn't almost died in 2005? What about the crappy boyfriends, the infertility, and the narcissistic parent? My writing would be completely different. Those experiences were ALL important grist for the mill, and I'm grateful for them.
I don't think I'll ever be grateful for losing my mama so young, but I'm incredibly thankful that I had her in the first place. 🙂
Thanks for adding the pearl of your perspective here, Jenny. Our pasts are both minefields and treasure troves, aren’t they?
Truly. I've always believed that writers are "made" by their life. And that they are given the lives they are strong enough to bear, and to communicate through story to others.