Thursday, March 6, 2014

You have to be there

I was giggling at my computer this afternoon. Real throat chuckles with a couple of good snorts thrown in.
My husband, sitting out of sight, could hear me.
“What is it?” he asked.
I tried, between breathless guffaws to describe the video clip I’d just watched.
“…And then he kind of let go of the ball and the whole thing went into the ceiling… ha ha ha!” Tears of laughter ran down my face, but my husband seemed unmoved.
“Huh,” he said. “Guess you had to be there.”
I didn’t answer him. Actually, I couldn’t. By this time I had slid off my chair and was writhing on the floor. (Yes, I’m committed to my humour. When something’s really funny and I’m with other people I have to leave the room or risk embarrassing myself by being unable to control my giggle reactions.)
Finally, my husband walked over. I scrolled back up to the top of the list of ’37 Fails’ so that he could see the whole collection of clips. By number two he was laughing. By 15 he was snorting. When the guy finally threw the bowling ball into the ceiling he yelled with delight.
It turned out he was right. You definitely had to be there.

* * *

At the close of the day I’m usually in the kitchen with my mind on pasta or chicken or whatever-the-heck-I’m-going-to-feed-the-kids-today. One night last week my eight year old son came running through the back door, beaming with excitement.
“Mum, mum!” he said. “Come and look at this! You have to!”
“What is it?” I said, half-heartedly, checking the boil of the pot on the stove.
“It’s a sunset!” he said. “It’s amazing.”
“Lovely!” I said. My enthusiasm was minimal. I mean, I’ve seen lots of sunsets. “That sounds great.”
“No! You have to come and see it!”
He dragged me outside, reluctant, apron-clad and busy. But as soon as my eyes saw the palette of colour and light spread across the sky, I was uplifted, enriched and overjoyed. There were no words for the enveloping beauty my son had taken me to be part of that evening.

* * *

Here’s the point. You’ve got to be there.
To be overtaken by the joke and laugh until you’ve nearly wet your pants, you’ve got to see the clip, sit in the audience, be in the room. It’s not the same to try to picture what someone’s relaying to you. It doesn’t allow you to wince or cringe at the really bad bits or read that double-meaning typo again and again, giggling more each time.
To be moved and transformed by a sunset, you have to put your apron aside, walk out the door and lift up your eyes. It’s not the same to imagine a sunset in your head. It doesn’t bring with it the sparkle of the light or the gentle fatigue of the evening breeze.
You have to be there.
But what happens when you flip this around?
I’ll be honest. I don’t like hard things. If I could organise my own life, I wouldn’t choose a year of being bullied at boarding school as an eleven year old. I wouldn’t choose 30 years of constant grief and goodbyes. I wouldn’t choose to parent a child with a disability who for 6 years only communicated via impressive meltdowns.
I’d prefer an easy existence. Most of us would, I’m sure.
However, I’m also pretty convinced that most of us would prefer books that include some challenges. Where’s the learning, the suspense, the thrill or the adventure in a story where the main character has no issues, and an idyllic childhood, perfect friends, a snug, middle-class home and a lucrative career to boot? Yeah. Boring.
To be a good, even a great writer, you’ve got to create challenges for your characters.
It’s pretty hard for me to create a scene where my character is suffering intense embarrassment if I’ve never been embarrassed. It’s difficult to write about bullying if I’ve never been bullied. It’s impossible to write the deep, dark nights of the soul if I’ve never had to claw my way out of depression.
To write well, I’ve got to have been there. Or at least close to there.

* * *

God’s a writer.
And here’s the question. Is it fair for us to expect him, the master author, to create boring stories for our lives?
Yes, I’ve whinged (often and long) about the challenges in my life. I’ve been cranky, bitter and self-pitying about them. I’ve desired other things and looked enviously at other people’s apparently happier lives, thinking that I’ve probably missed out and that (my personal favourite) It’s Not Fair.
Clearly a change of perspective is needed. If you ‘have to be there’ to understand it, and if you have to understand it to write it, I’m a pretty fortunate woman.
Because I’ve been there.


Cecily Paterson is the author of the award-winning memoir Love Tears & Autism. She now writes teen fiction for girls.

(Oh, and if you’d like to see what the giggles were about, go here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/alanwhite/37-people-who-failed-so-spectacularly-they-almost-won)

25 comments:

  1. Thanks for that challenging blog, Cecily Anne. It was good for me in quite a few ways and certainly as a writer.

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  2. Hi Cecily,
    Wow, you are a person who actually ROFLs. I know several people who type it on their status, but don't literally do it. Good for you.
    I love to think of an 8yo boy being impressed enough by a beautiful sunset to call his mum. Good for him too.
    Your point in this post is very true. As authors, we plan all sorts of tension and issues for our characters, yet gripe when it seems God allows similar things to happen in our stories. It probably does help character development for fictional characters and real life people alike.

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    1. Yeees. Slightly embarrassing to also be able to make myself get an asthma attack simply by reading something from the internet...

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  3. Gutsy, real, AND convincing. Three essential elements for good writing. You blitzed it, Cecily!!

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  4. Wow, thanks everyone. And yes, Paula, my eight year old has a very good eye for beauty, in all areas of life. He's a pleasure to go on a walk with.

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  5. Thanks so much, Cecily, for this post--excellent in so many ways. Love your honest, insightful, original writer's voice that shines through here.

    For me, becoming an author later in life meant I could write much more authentically from a background of 'been there, experienced that', so I'm really grateful for those years when I did other things.

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    1. I knew that I couldn't write as a 20-something. Not even a 30-something, really. I've had to wait to understand a lot more about life and myself before I felt I could do a decent job.

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  6. Great read Cecily....brought a smile to my face!
    You have an appealing writing style, I feel like you are chatting with me :-)
    Totally agree with your comments. Thank you

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    1. Actually, that is pretty much how I sound in person. People often tell me that they can hear me speak in my writing. Which is kind of nice.

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  7. Great post Cecily. Yep - we have to be there don't we? I loved the point you made at the end that God doesn't create boring stories of our lives. Thanks for the reminder. And as Paula said I too was very impressed that an 8 year old could appreciate a sunset. Wow! :)

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    1. Thanks! He's a bit special, that eight year old. He knows the religion of practically every country in the world from reading through Windows on the World, and has an incredible fascination for other foreign places. I think he'll turn 18 and we won't see him for six years or so.

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  8. Thank you for a funny, beautiful and very moving post, Cecily. I'm sure the Lord will use your experiences to encourage folk who feel they are at the end of their tether.

    I am going to check out that link. I need a good laugh today.

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    1. Yes, it's funny. My ministry does seem to be to the ones who are at the ends of their tethers! It's amazing how long your tether can get though..

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  9. I just watched those clips Cecily. You're right. Some "laugh out loud" moments there. Though I do admire the guy who found that parking spot :) Great post too. I can certainly relate to that. There have been a number of things in my life that weren't fun to walk through, but I can see now that God is using them (and has used some of them in the past) and it does certainly make the writing more real. Thanks for the reminder and I pray He'll continue to bless your writing in unimaginable ways.

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    1. Thanks very much Nola, and for the opportunity to post.x

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  10. Thanks for a wonderful post Cecily. I love your story telling voice :) On Monday someone I knew asked me to meet her for prayer because of a difficult night & challenges she was facing - and as she shared, the fact that I had had some similar experiences & experienced God's grace in them - not only helped me understand what she was going through and therefor to really listen to her (rather than brush her off) - but also it was encouraging for her. I agree this is the same with our writing and love the way you remind us of this.

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  11. Yes. On so many levels, YES.

    Thank you for sharing from your heart; I needed this more than I can say.

    Blessings, to you and your family,

    Helen

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  12. Nice piece. Good food for thought.

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  13. Great writing style, Cecily, and a great perspective. Thanks for the post.

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  14. Thoroughly enjoyed your post Cecily. Thanks very much for sharing it. I agree with your thoughts about stepping into someone's shoes to understand where they are coming from especially when writing about it - whether fiction or fact. God showed me this principle when I was writing my first book through my mother. She said words to this effect - 'You have to walk a mile in their shoes to understand why they respond the way they do in any given situation.' Wise words as it turned out. It was a true story, told through the father's eyes, of the brutal stabbing murder of a young girl and the subsequent police investigation, court trials etc. I was struggling big time until I asked God to help me understand why the characters I was writing about did what they did or reacted in the way they did. I called it 'crawling around inside their heads.' And it worked.

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  15. Wow, what a different way to look at life. Definitely a challenge there.

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