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The Secrets We Keep

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Let’s talk, just for a moment, about social media. I love Facebook and Instagram for the connection they provide, with people I see rarely and with people I see often. I love the unexpected laughs, the bits of beauty or joy, feeling a part of other’s people’s lives. But I am well aware of the gap between what I post about and the reality of my own life, and don’t envy anything I read or see (okay, maybe I get a little jealous sometimes of Paris pics—I’ve never been). Here’s what I post about: My vacations. Family milestones. My work. Small things that bring me joy. Here’s what I don’t post about: The times I’ve lost my temper and sworn at my kids. The times my kids have sworn at me. My back pain. How hard it is to care for my elderly mother. The years of my life I have wasted looking for my glasses. Sometimes I run into a friend I haven’t seen in months and he or she says to me, “Your life is so fun!” And I think, Are you kidding me? Sometimes I think about posting nothing but the truth for an entire month, but I don’t.

Instead, I write novels.

Writing fiction begins where social media ends—with the secrets and failures and mistakes and surprises we don’t share widely in public forums (at least, most of us don’t). This does NOT mean, thank you very much, that fiction is thinly veiled autobiography of our worst moments, although readers and friends and family members often seem to think so. What it means is that good fiction has the emotional truth of our worst moments, the embarrassing or disappointing or surprising impulses we wish we had been strong enough to suppress.

Last Thanksgiving, for example, I posted on Facebook several photos of our lovely and happy Thanksgiving dinner, a table filled with family and friends, the glow of candlelight, the perfect turkey (it was good), a few anecdotes about laughs we had shared. What I did not post about: The “Armageddon” a couple evenings earlier, during which some people who shall remain nameless drank too much, some cried, some threw up, some screamed and slammed doors, some argued bitterly, some cursed, and one even got temporarily lost, barefoot in the middle of the night. I won’t go into my own role in that evening’s series of disasters, other than to say that I said and did things I regret.

I have zero plans to ever write about that evening in my fiction. BUT I can, and will, use the emotions and errors in judgment and missed communications that were part of why that evening unfolded as it did. A million things led to our Thanksgiving Armageddon, a concatenation of things that had nothing, really, to do with the provocation at hand. I’d had a stressful autumn trying to care for people I loved deeply who were suffering deeply; those people weren’t even there that night, but the feelings and thoughts I’d been keeping inside for months were there, and they found their way to the surface. The other people involved had their own secrets and stories.

In writing fiction, I think hard about my characters’ secrets, about the stories they’re not posting on social media, as it were. Sometimes these secrets are a key part of the plot, as in J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions, which I’m reading now. Sometimes these secrets aren’t elemental to the plot, but they’re elemental to the character.  Sometimes I think about the kind of things my character might post to his or her Facebook page or Instagram, and I think how different those things might be from who the character is, what they really think and feel. I think about whether they’re keeping secrets from other people, or whether they’re keeping secrets from themselves by refusing to look at or acknowledge something that should be seen.

What secrets are your characters hiding? How will they come out?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.