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The Material of Life

Photobucket [1]There are so many of us in the world. I sometimes think about this as a plane flies over neighborhoods in some city I have not yet met. There are those tidy streets, the trees, the circle where children play, where teenagers fall in love. There is the mall, the swimming pool, the neighborhood grocery store. I peer out the window thinking of the kitchens and dishes, the rituals of dinner (what dinners do they eat?) in that house and that one and that one, of the people who ride their bikes there. By way of positive thinking, I try to imagine copies of my books on nightstands, borrowed from the library, bought from a store, reading it for the book club that meets in that house by the park or for the recipes or because she is divorced and trying to get through it however she can.

These imaginings are my way of grappling with the staggering number of us that there are in the world. Each of us unique, rare, incredible. There used to be a feature on one of the Sunday news programs wherein a man would throw a dart at a town, travel there, and pick a name out of the phone book, and then find out what that person’s story was. He always found a story. (Every single week, I said to whoever might be listening, “that would be such a fantastic job!”)

Because the news comes at us with such ferocity and in such massive quantities, we all have to draw away from that vastness, keep the greatest tragedies at arm’s length. As writers, however, our job is to dive in and gather them up, to notice—without initial judgment—what people do. How they behave. What narrative their lives take over time. From those gleanings, we gather our fiction.

It’s been a terrible news week here in the US. We are all probably half insane with the buildup to the election, and maybe that’s why it has been such a violent week. A Little Rock newswoman, young and beautiful and charming, beaten to death in her own house, and no apparent motive. The murders of Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother, and nephew. Horrific crimes, both of them.

But the one that caught me was one about five high school cheerleaders going home from a football game who died in a “fiery car crash.” They always say it like that, “fiery car crash.” The other news stories are terrible in their own way, but as a mother, that particular disaster, of teenagers getting into some terrible accident, was my absolute nightmare. Yours might be something else—my mother fretted obsessively over leukemia because she knew someone who lost a daughter to it.

A year or so after my youngest graduated from high school, there was one of those horrific crashes in our neighborhood. The teens went to school with my son, and the accident itself was on my walking circuit, so I had to change my route for awhile to steer clear of the giant altar that grew there.

As we all know, writers can be a bit too empathetic. The accident bothered me. Haunted me. Followed me around. My imagination took the reported details and resurrected them in terrible exactness. I woke up in the middle of the night going over and over it in my mind. The thing that really stuck with me was that there were five teens in the car, and one survived. Heaven only knows how.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her. What would it be like to be her, the sole survivor of such a cataclysmic event? How does it shape your life?

Thus was Elena, the protagonist from The Lost Recipe for Happiness, born. It is twenty years later, and she has a scar that loops down her back like snake. And thus I had a chance to explore those compelling questions. How does your life change? Do you live twice as hard? Shy away from it? What baggage do you carry? How long does it take to grieve?

And: is it ever possible to be genuinely happy again after some violent thing shatters your life?

When I first realized that I was actually going to use that inciting incident, I wondered if it was ghoulish. But all of life is material, all of the stories we encounter are part of the fabric of our world. We choose the ones that present the questions we want to grapple with. I’m always choosing material, life tales, that explore how people triumph over the very dark things that can sometimes happen to us.

The alchemy is in turning the dark to light. The Lost Recipe for Happiness is not at all dreary or dark. It’s lush and juicy, full of light and food and second chances. By giving myself permission to explore the grisly, the mournful, the despair, it was possible to journey toward joy.

Do you think about all those lives out there? Or does it make you feel overwhelmed? What kind of stories do you choose out of the billions there are in the world?

PS The cover, as you see, was completely redesigned! So goes publishing.

About Barbara O'Neal [2]

Barbara O'Neal [3] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [4], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [5].