Five years ago on Halloween, one of my dogs (who, for people who know me, we treat as our surrogate children) was playing in our backyard when she suddenly started to get sick. If you own dogs, you know that stomach issues are not that uncommon, so we weren’t that worried. I took her to our local vet and asked for them to keep her overnight and give her lots of fluids.
An hour later they called and told us she’d suffered heart failure. Luckily, they were able to revive her, and we rushed her to Kansas City so the emergency unit could watch her overnight. Unfortunately, the next morning she passed away from unknown causes. We have no idea what happened. She was three years old, and perfectly healthy.
National Novel Writer’s Month didn’t start for me on November 1st that year. I think I actually started writing on…the fourth? Maybe the fifth. And for the remainder of the month, every word I typed was infused with the emotions of my traumatic event. Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. My main character was wracked by guilt and the need to lash out at…something. Anything. Just like me.
It made for great writing. Channeling that energy led to one of the strongest manuscripts I’ve ever written. I wouldn’t wish that kind of tragedy on anyone, but it informed my writing that year in a very powerful way. I’ve always felt that sad writers are better writers than happy ones. Unfortunate truth to that, I think. When life is good, it’s much harder for me to write the tough scenes: I always tell people to push their characters down the stairs, but boy, that’s a dark place that’s difficult for me to visit sometimes.
Would I like to write like that all the time? Yup! Am I seeking out misery and despair around every corner? Uh…no. What am I, stupid?
Life’s good to me. I’ve got a great job, great wife, great dogs, great house. In the past year I visited France, Peru, and Ecuador. I got to visit Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands, and hike Quandary Peak with one of my dogs. I have nothing to complain about.
But happy life does not equal a happy writing career.
When life’s good, I really struggle to take my own advice: “When in doubt, throw your protagonist down the stairs.” Uh…nah. Things are good! I’ll take the elevator! Thanks, though!
Without personal tragedy, I struggle to provide adequate conflict and heartache in my stories. I’m aware of the issue, but it’s not something easily remedied. I’m not willing to torture myself in order to inform my writing. Ain’t gonna happen.
However, this year promises another sad note. Yay! (?) My spouse will be living in Washington D.C. for almost eleven months working for the Securities & Exchange Commission. We’ll both travel back and forth often, but it’s still going to be a long, lonely year. And already, my outline for this year’s story deals with long distance relationships, communicating and connecting across vast gulfs of space and time. I didn’t plan on that type of story, but clearly my subconscious mind has an agenda, and I know better than to argue.
So, embrace life’s tough moments and allow them to inform my writing. Silver lining and all that rot. We’ll see if it pans out. I’ll let you know in December.