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)