Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing Authentically from This Thing Called Life

I thoroughly enjoyed Latayne's post on Monday about what makes fiction authentic. Our readers added their wisdom and craft to the conversation:

Megan found that a contrived character with a designated "job" killed the authenticity of a story she was reading. Marian blamed "whitewashed and superficial characters." Vonda wants to see characters that "grow and struggle and learn and fail in their faith." Henrietta mentioned pacing in relationship to a character's arc of change.

See a pattern here? We want to meet real people in our stories. I know that's a contradiction, but it's true. Latayne traveled thousands of miles--many of them on foot!--on her adventure where she encountered the power of authenticity. I'm going through quite a different journey, one that demonstrates what it means to allow characters to live and change and walk through turbulent waters.

My mother has cancer for the 7th time, the third diagnosis this year. One week earlier, her oncologist had wished her well. Now, she has brain cancer, a two-inch tumor just above her right eye. This thing is more than a lesion, it's changing the way my mom thinks and acts, pressing against brain tissue and causing swelling. Thinking back, she's manifested personality symptoms for over a year, but the changes were gradual, and who sees their aging mother's personality bloom and thinks tumor? I wasn't supposed to, was I? And then, just over a week ago, she couldn't speak when she experienced the least amount of emotion. Nothing. Nada. No words. Her speech has improved with steroids to reduce the swelling, but she still gets her words mixed up. She called me a fallen angel at the doctor today. I sure hope..

Anyway, this is all very disconcerting. My mom was the first measure of consistency in my life--the thump, thump, thump of her heart as I squirmed in her womb. Later, in her daffodil-yellow kitchen, I put my ear to her heart each morning, drank in the scent of her sleep, coffee, and cigarettes--believing this was my normal, my eternity, my heaven of comfort and goodness. I could also count on her not to like my storytelling. For that, I tasted soap, lots of it, less as I got better at turning a tale.

From grade school to college, I woke each morning to find a partially completed dress hanging in the doorway to Mom's bedroom. She'd been up since four--pinning, cutting, stitching. The thrum of her sewing machine was my waking-up music. The work of her hands, pure magic. As an adult, I saw my mom more realistically. Good grief, did she have to be the center of attention, always? Could she, please, let one thought go unsaid? But always the willingness to jump in and help, always approval and pride at my accomplishments, always love, love, love.

Now, she looks at me with palms upturned, unable to tell me that she's enjoying her salad. Now, she has shrunken back to the border of our family. Now, she is very afraid, because she's hearing over and over for the first time that she has a brain tumor that needs to be excised.

Life is hard. We live in a fallen place that only echoes the Father's pleasure, but it's only an echo. This is a theological truth that's gotten very personal with my mom's illnesses. I'm doing what Vonda likes to see characters do in books--I'm struggling, learning, and failing in my faith, only to be buoyed by the Word, my faith family, and the Spirit, and then I fall on my face again. I am wrestling with God! It's dramatic, sweaty stuff. It's deep living and unexpected grace. What's up isn't so clearly up and down has its hidden delights. To portray life any other way in my stories would be disingenuous.

Will this journey change my writing?

I sure hope so.

Will my readers recognize themselves in the struggles of my characters?

Why else would I write?

Will my readers leave my story world with a sense of hope and redemption?

Call me a Naugahyde writer if they don't.

If we're going to walk in the shadow of death (debt, depression, betrayal, disease, loss), let's come back from the experience with a deeper understanding of redemption and grace...and use this knowledge in our writing. It can be scary, but we can do it.

How has your real life changed the way you write?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Absolutely, my real like has tinted my writing (I hope in a more realistic, but redemptive way).

Patti, my heart is with you on this. It's so close to my heart. When my older sister was 18 she was diagnosed w/ an inoperable brain tumor. Doctors gave her six months to five years tops. She turned 40 a few months ago. Her behavior and quality of life is greatly impacted by the tumor (resting in a similar place to where your mom’s is). It’s made so much of life very in your face and real for me. But I pray I use it in my writing as I also pray my understanding of hope shows up.

I continue to pray for you and your mom.
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

This last March, I held my husband's grandmother's head as she passed away. The Holy Spirit gave me the strength to comfort her (the real Susie would have been FREAKING out). I'm still processing her death. Still feeling the loss. And a little bit traumatized, too.

I've had friends in the past tell me that being with someone as they die is a beautiful thing. My experience was anything but beautiful. It was awful. I know she was afraid and that made it worse.

I think that what changed me most was the fact that I don't know about her soul. I tried to talk to her. I prayed that she would accept Jesus. But I just don't know.

Anyway, yes, this changed my writing. I've found myself writing about death a lot. But this isn't a dark period in my writing life. It's a time for me to learn about death. To allow myself to admit that, no, death isn't natural. It's not what God intended. And, yes, we should be sad and mourn when someone dies. And I've learned the comfort of a Savior who experienced loss and wept for it, even though He fully knew what He would do.

Nicole said...

Loss impacts mortality and all that accompanies that uncontrollable existence. I've lost my mom to cancer at the young age of 62, my dad at 89, my brother just this year at 72. The only solace is, of all things (for me), that very lack of control. Our days are numbered. Period. We hold onto life because the Lord gave us that desire, but real life lies ahead. After death. Writing should reflect all reality.

I'm so sorry for your struggle, sorrow, pain in this, Patti. It's so hard. It just is. May the Spirit be your Comforter and Counselor and may you feel, tangible and distinct, His love and compassion for you and for your mother.

Patti Hill said...

Thank you,Wendy, and I'm praying for you and your sister.

I read this recently about character development in the 90-Day Novel: "Human beings act situationally, not characteristically." Nothing drives that quite home like an insult to the brain, but it's true of all of us. Life is not predictable, neither should our stories be. I like your phrase: In your face and real.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: My deepest sympathies. Not knowing IS a burden. But know that we are not judges. We're witnesses. And it sounds like you did that. You were with her for a reason. Always remember: God is able.

Nicole: The Spirit is very near--to you and me. Thanks.

The struggle between wanting to stay and longing to go is very much the human experience. Thanks for saying it so beautifully.

Glenda Parker Fiction Writer said...

I know how hard this time is for you. I lost my dad and then had to care for my mom. She had had symptoms of Alzheimer's but after my father's death she went down hill really fast. It's hard when they lose their abilities to communicate.
I just lost my 34 year old daughter in May. There is no way to go through that kind of pain and loss without it changing how you write. i will say a prayer for you and your family.
Glenda Parker

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I have been at deathbeds and lost significant people but I find the living much more of a challenge. Depression, debt and unfaithful love have instructed my story telling as well as the effort to stand up and be counted (the way I want to be counted, not how someone else would count me).

Bonnie Grove said...

Fiction is how a writer voices questions too big for one lifetime to solve.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

I write both fiction and non-fiction (I know, the gall!). What I'm finding is that it's harder to tell the truth in non-fiction. But in fiction, I can let my slip show under my skirt (that used to matter in the fashion world...still matters in relationships)and keep walking through life despite the gaping hole in my nylons through which my flesh bulges out (another ancient reference). Patti, already, your reflections on what you're experiencing, on the rock-strewn, quicksand-laced path you've been asked to walk has changed people's lives--ours. Thank you.

Teena Stewart said...

Thank you for sharing with such blatant honesty. I am a published non-fiction writer struggling to know if I should try writing fiction. Wrote one novel I never published. I have been through the death of a father too young from cancer and a sister who also died too young who had to have her tongue and larynx removed before it was all over. You can't go through such deep hurts and not have it effect your writing. Seems like God has been telling me lately that the next thing I write has to come from the deep places. Now I have to decide if it will be fiction or non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

Glenda, I too lost my 34 year old son, 4 years ago. And you're right, it most definitely has had an impact on my writing. The novel I just completed was very much about that loss, and was some of my most authentic writing.

Patti, this was a great post. You know how I'm praying for you mom.

joy said...

Actually I will not call myself a writer coz I just began writing blogs. But I love to write my life in my diary. I write m prayers and devotions too! And now I share my thoughts through my blog.I think that God is using me or my life to encourage others. And I'm happy to recieve inspirational thoughts from people like you. Thanks!