Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Surviving the Holidays Through Writing

It’s not that I dread the holidays, not completely. I’m fresh off a weekend of merry-making with the hubs and progeny. Cutting down ye olde tree, decorating while Brenda Lee rocks out in the background, baking gingerbread, for Cripes’ sake! Clearly, I am not a person who poo-poos Christmas.

The part of the holidays that make me breathe into a paper bag is the part where I get thrown into a roomful of people so different from me in so many ways that I may as well be speaking Urdu. My family. And I’m not adopted. I once thought, maybe, but we look so darn much alike.

Today, I’m sharing ways to survive these family get-togethers without large quantities of your mom’s secret stash of amaretto. All those angry feelings bubbling up at the dinner table? Those might go into a journal, if you keep that type of thing. I’m not so much a diary-writer anymore, but I am an idea-gatherer. I’m a fan of the freewrite. I do this on my computer (because my handwriting is atrocious, and I sometimes can’t read it). If something happens to me that I can connect to something else, bigger than me, I might have an essay on my hands. And so I write those thoughts down.

The notes might be raw and hurtful and contain multiple expletives. Now, we don’t show these notes to anyone, right my dearies? No, we do not. That would be the equivalent of drunk dialing, and it is bad. We simply sit on the notes until the moment passes, days or weeks, or a decade, later, then we take a look and see if there’s anything worth writing about more formally. If not, there’s a little thing called the “Delete” key.

But, there’s something even better to do with difficult people. Make them into fictional characters. Just be sure they are different enough that no one will recognize them. If you’re writing about a man, take a tip from Anne Lamott in her fabulous book, “Bird by Bird,” and give him a “teenie little penis” so he won’t ever sue you.

I digress. The point I really want to make is that it’s incredibly hard to see things from another person’s point-of-view. For me, this becomes especially obvious this time of year. It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis, as a person. But as a person who is also a writer, I’m not half bad at it, and getting better. The first novel I wrote is about a woman who, when I started the project, seemed to have very little in common with me, but, through the years of crafting her story, I can tell you I understand her. I love her even, though she and I don’t agree on many things.

I’ve lived in her skin. I have found more similarities between us than differences. I have to. For a character to be successful (and not just the stage-hogging protagonists, but every minor character as well), she or he must be well-rounded. That’s a big old writing workshop term, but it’s true. No cardboard characters, please. They must be complicated. My character changes her mind about certain things that she never thought she’d change her mind about. She refuses to budge on others. She is…human.


And in creating her, I’ve found myself opening my mind to opinions like hers. I don’t need to adopt those opinions, but I recognize that characters, as well as flesh-and-blood people, arrive at their personal beliefs through such very twisted paths.

What a gift, writing. Though it hasn’t brought me fame or fortune, what a gift to sit down and create a world and populate it, to live as another person for a portion of the day. Real people will always be harder to understand, but writers are lucky because when things get to be too much to bear at the big family get-together, we can always retreat to the guest room and dive into another universe. The trick is, to not remain a hermit (I know, this from someone who writes in a closet…) but to exit that room more open to understanding the real people around you.

 

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