And Happy Birthday, JoAn!
None of you know my sister-in-law, but go ahead and give a shout out— a big Happy Birthday, JoAn! It’ll make you feel good, and those good vibrations will echo in her heart.
I’m not the most consistent correspondent, but I always remember birthdays; the most important days in the year. A time to celebrate the magnificence of someone’s life. And now, I’m getting all choked up in that It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey kind of way, which is appropriate because JoAn introduced me to the film. It was the Christmas Eve after she married my brother. I was ten. I remember thinking, why haven’t I seen this movie before? It was unbelievable, since I’d been a classic movie slut since the age of five. I watched, fell in love, and ever since, It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the five films I watch every December.
Thinking about my sister-in-law got me thinking about Aunt Pearl. She was one of thirteen children— my mom’s family—and the only one everyone talked to. Pearl and JoAn were alike in that way. They didn’t carry or wave flags of surrender but in their presence, you always wanted to be a better person. They were and are open hearted listeners, never judging, never quick to offer advice, never sharing secrets. Trustworthy. Likable.
Likable— the topic is a popular blog post for writers. Fourteen pages of my google search used the word in the title. The repetition made the back of my throat cramp. If I was in a legitimate search for an explanation of how to write a likable character, I wouldn’t know where to begin. And if I were to read them all, my guess is I’d come away more confused, or numb from the repetition. I did read one article because it was written by Jennifer Weiner, who I was in awe of early in my journey. Weiner offers an insightful point of view on the trend of writing the flipside of likable, which rose up after the release of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud— a personal favorite of mine.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from this writing journey— reading about how to deal with an element of craft doesn’t guarantee the appearance of it on the page. At least not for me, at least not until 2020 turned my comprehension of craft inside out and upside down. At the top of this comprehension hit parade is the likability factor. A term that has never been used in the same breath with my protagonist. At one point, an agent referred to her as a dishrag. I broke apart, tears carving themselves into the lining of my stomach. An overreaction? Of course. But at the time, it was impossible not take it personally because even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was writing about me. I was writing about me, but not writing true— Why?
Jump back to My Dark and Stormy Journey to Gratitude. Ever since I shared the nugget of why I was drawn to take my life and how writing led me to embrace the joy of living, I’ve been overwhelmed with clarity about my inability to write a likable protagonist.
To begin, I was afraid to put those facts out into the world, which is odd since the memoir, I hope to finish, is ultimately about this turning point. But the gratitude post was pestering me and I had no choice other than to share. So, I did, and as soon as it hit the blogosphere, I realized how much I’d been stifling myself by not sharing it.
I never discussed my desire to kill myself in conversation or in writing because to do so would mean I’d have to feel all the emotions that led me to the decision; my fear was if I reconnected with them, I’d be drawn back to the same need to take action. Interesting how the need to survive kicks in before our desire to live. So, I stuffed those emotions away. Except, the truth is, I stuffed more than a few emotions. I’ve been stuffing emotions away my entire life. I was born exuberant, but it wasn’t an acceptable quality for the environment in which I was raised. Stifle, stifle, stifle leads to a lot of stuffing. I compensated for my emotional numbness by being…
Overly dramatic— but the drama was nothing more than a Sturm and Drang whirlwind. I blustered big time because I needed to vent. But whenever I was pushed to share what was going on inside of me, I’d shutdown and become icy cold— a behavior I hated in both my parents. If I hated it, why did I do it? Stifling was my comfort zone. It was painful, but not as painful as feeling the breadth of emotions that almost destroyed me. And that my dear friends, readers and voyeurs is why it was inevitable for me to write a novel with…
An Unlikable Protagonist— Poor Kaitlyn. That one agent called her a dishrag. I took offense, but now I see it was actually a compliment. My stuffed animals have more personality than Kaitlyn has had through the years. Readers didn’t connect with her because I wasn’t capable of letting the puss from her wounds ooze. I wasn’t capable because I wasn’t ready.
And now I am. Why? Because, like my hiring of a developmental editor, it’s the only thing I haven’t tried. If I don’t, this story will never let me go because— forgive my repetition— the Big Magic needs me to tell it. And if I ever want to write something else, and I do, then unplugging is the only way.
The process is unpleasant, lots of resistance going, but each day I plow through because Kaitlyn is no dishrag; she’s a survivor.