A Longing Heart)
My latest short story is centered on a young woman, Freida, who has just broken up with her lover, Lukas. Freida returns home to try and forget Lukas, but rather than being distracted by her family and festivities, at every turn she finds something else that reminds her of Lukas.
A race of horses brings to her mind the way that Lukas strains himself to try and provide for his future. A sight of drunken men playing foolish games reminds her how much more substance she had seen in her life with Lukas. A pastry that puffs apart when she takes a bite makes her fear that she, too, will fade into obscurity.
This notion of a break-up being followed by countless reminders of the former lover is nothing new in literature. Just watch any romantic comedy, fast-forward to the break-up segment, and you’ll see the main character sadly walking by all the places they shared with the lost love, complete with happier times being shown in flashback.
But books and movies did not invent this phenomenon of encountering constant reminders of one’s loss. Rather, authors have chosen to write these scenes because they happen to us in real life, too.
Whenever we suffer a loss, either by breakup, or by moving to another city, or by having a loved one pass away, we seem to see memories of that thing in all the world around us. The trauma of loss has an effect of splintering, like cracks through broken glass, reaching out to fragment parts of life that seem entirely disconnected. Indeed, in the days and weeks immediately following a tragedy, it seems as if everything somehow ties back to that loss. And then, even after all the initial waves of trauma have passed, for years afterward a random event will suddenly take us back to the original moment, even though we haven’t thought about it for months and months.
Web of Life)
Experiences like these can be depressing, but they also reveal a secret beauty to the world. Similarities and patterns suggest that somehow everything is connected, that ties run from loved ones to everyday things, that events are not random, that there is a reason and a purpose to it all, even if we don’t know exactly what those are.
And the discovery of connections like these is the lifeblood of creativity. One of the chief reasons why we even write stories is to draw parallels that have never been drawn before. It isn’t just a war movie, it’s the story of a person’s struggle with their own self. It isn’t just a western, it’s an analysis of the father figures in the author’s life. It isn’t just a fairy tale, it is processing one’s loss of innocence.
Take for example the 2013 film Gravity. This movie, on the surface, appears to be about an astronaut, Ryan Stone, who is trying to return to earth after her shuttle and crew are destroyed by a debris storm. Over time we come to learn Ryan’s backstory, though, and how her being on this mission has been part of her effort to run away from the grief of her daughter’s death. Her journey to get back to earth now becomes a metaphor for letting go of grief and despair, and becoming willing to fully live again. Constantly throughout the film we see little details that remind us of this connection, such as when she rests in a fetal pose, reminiscent of an infant in a womb.
But the connections of this movie continue into real life as well. Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity’s director and co-writer, has explained in interviews that the film’s theme of life after loss was inspired by his own adversity, which he had been going through at the time.
The Creator’s Opportunity)
I am not sure which personal adversities Alfonso Cuarón was referring to, but it seems safe to say they would have looked very different from Ryan Stone dodging bits of shrapnel hurtling around the earth at thousands of miles per hour. The wonder of writing, though, is that we are able to take our personal experiences and project them out into whatever fantastic setting we desire. It’s entirely possible to take an unrelatable setting, such as a world of magic and wizards, but then embody it with relatable human experiences, such as being a young boy trying to fit in at school.
A story becomes a thesis, a way to process an event and to make some commentary on it. In fact, it’s the most wonderful type of thesis to write, because we don’t have to include statistical data or references. We get to make it all up! It is a structure where we control all the voices and arguments, and we get to intentionally craft them into the exact message that we want.
In Gravity all the universe seems to stand in opposition to Ryan Stone, but she still finds a way through because Alfonso Cuarón wanted her to. He wanted his film to have a message that yes, life can go on, even after great adversity, and so he exercised his creator’s freedom to make everything work out just that way.
You’ll Be Sorry!)
In fact, not only can a writer make the argument that they want in their story, but they can live out their own power fantasies as well. Think of the perfect put-down for that coworker but the moment to use it is already past? Many the author has lived out that dream in their stories instead.
Now, writing a story to fulfill a power fantasy probably isn’t the most mature thing to do, but it does have the benefit of exciting readers who have long fantasized about the very same things. Awkward and painful situations are shared and relatable, we each have had our fair share of them, and a story that turns that experience on its head can be a cathartic release.
Which, frankly, is one of the motivations at the heart of my current story The Late Letter. In some ways, this story is nothing more than an indulgent fantasy on the theme of “they’ll be sorry!” As in, the phrase that every unfairly punished boy or girl declares when stumping off to their room. Every boyfriend or girlfriend whose love was left unrequited knows this feeling, too. So does every man or woman whose sage advice was not heeded.
They didn’t treat me right and when they finally realize how wrong they’ve been I’ll already be gone. Then they’ll be sorry!
Which, again, perhaps isn’t the most mature notion to write into a story, but at least I have the honesty to admit that I’m doing it, right?