A few weeks after my first husband’s suicide, when I was able to think again, one thought pulled me forward through the difficult years of recovery to come: I was meant to write about this.
But how? Back in the late 90s, the memoir revolution had not yet gained purchase. People would read books about family suicides by Joan Rivers and Judy Collins, but who would care to read about a dance critic from Allentown, PA and her two sons? Memoir was out.
I considered self-help. I’d become a bit of an aficionada after all, gobbling up any book with clues to help me through and beyond, but lack of credentials and platform discouraged this route.
Journalism seemed an obvious choice, if somewhat of a genre hop. I’d already been a dance critic for fourteen years. Yet gathering facts and analyzing statistics, while a valuable exercise, did not promise what I was really seeking: a way to write a better story for my family.
When the need to express myself smacked against the cold hard wall of publishing pragmatism, I turned to fiction.
Creative writing is not an escape. It’s the opposite. Fiction demands that we dive headfirst into puddles of conflict others might choose to sidestep. It asks that we scratch and dig until we unearth emotional truths, and then find a way to convey them so that a reader we’ve never met can share the same journey.
With this challenge in mind, I want to share a few passages from novels whose authors’ mad skills rely on details, yes, but not facts. They are rooted in feelings. They made me pause to think, “Wow, that is so true.”
In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, two girls set out to find a neighbor who has gone missing. You have to love a writer who can help you see anew something as pervasive as heat.
There was nowhere to escape the heat. It was there every day when we woke, persistent and unbroken, and hanging in the air like an unfinished argument. It leaked people’s days onto pavements and patios and, no longer able to contain ourselves within brick and cement, we melted into the outside, bringing our lives along with us. Meals, conversations, arguments were all woken and untethered and allowed outdoors. Even the avenue itself had changed. Giant fissures opened on yellowed lawns and paths felt soft and unsteady. Things which had been solid and reliable were now pliant and uncertain. Nothing felt sure anymore. The bonds which held things together were destroyed by the temperature—this is what my father said—but it felt more sinister than that. It felt as though the whole avenue was shifting and stretching, and trying to escape itself.
With this excerpt from The Cottingley Secret, in which a woman and a girl, a century apart, try to cling to their belief in fairies, author Hazel Gaynor made me recognize exactly what it is like when you give in to the excitement of spilling a secret.
I felt my words seep into the walls of the bedroom and under the door. I felt them slip through the gaps in the window frame and wished I could take them back, because when Elsie went to work the next day, she would take the secret with her. It would leave 31 Main Street and travel to Bradford, where it would spread like a fever down the long line of girls who did the spotting work with her. It would be there at every mealtime, passing between us like salt and gravy. It was part of the house now, captured in the wind that whistles down the chimney and in the floorboards that creaked on the stairs.
In An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, a couple is torn apart when a man is wrongly accused of a crime. Their first letters to each other, after the husband is sent to prison, speak of love in different voices, but in ways that feel equally true. The first is written by the wife, the second by the husband.
Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.
This love letter thing is uphill for me. I have never seen one uless you count the third grade: Do you like me ___ yes ___ no. (Don’t answer that, ha!) A love letter is supposed to be like music or Shakespeare, but I don’t know anything about Shakespeare. But for real, I want to tell you what you mean to me, but it’s like trying to count the seconds of a day on your fingers and toes.
I could go on and on with the examples, of course. In fact, I’d love to. For me, such passages rise to our highest callings as fiction writers: to make stuff up so that we can find what feels really true.
I’d much rather hear more examples that have resonated with you. From your own writing or reading, what are some passages from novels that made you pause and think, “Wow, that is so true”? Has your writing led you toward any unexpected truths? Warring, impossible-to-reconcile truths? Drop them into the comments.
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