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.
* * * * *
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.