The Very Human Need for Experience

Good and Evil

Good and Evil


I wanted to shelter my son from the world. I prayed away my foul mouth, hid my tears and played happy family with gusto. I wanted his world to be flowery, fun and fantastically clean. I didn’t tell him about my childhood unless I was telling a funny anecdote about a pet or a friend. I socialized him, took art classes with him and enrolled him in a co-op preschool where I could play perfect with other perfect mothers. Right out of preschool we enrolled in a perfect private school where I was sure he would bloom into the perfect prep school boy. In my search for perfection I lost something integrally important to the development of a well-rounded human. That important missing element was a well-developed sense of reality.

As time passed I began to see the holes in the world I’d worked so hard to create. I wasn’t being myself, my friends were drearily superficial and my son was unhappy in his school. Desperate for answers I turned to a book I stole from my high school, an ancient, dog eared copy of Herman Hesse’s, Siddhartha. I love this book for so many reasons. Like many other great inspirational books I can just open it to any page and find a piece of wisdom that will help me with whatever it is I’m facing. That day I opened the book at the beginning. I read of Siddhartha’s mother, her love for her child and her tragic early death. I read about the prophesy, proclaiming Siddhartha to be the greatest teacher of the age. Then I read his father’s reaction to this prophesy. Having just lost his wife and then faced with the loss of his son to a religious life, Siddhartha’s father created a perfect world in which pain, suffering and old age had no place. He imprisoned Siddhartha in a false utopia and robbed him of reality in order to keep him safe. How did Siddhartha react? He ran away in search of answers to the questions his father could neither pose nor answer.

Child in the Garden of Good and Evil

Child in the Garden of Good and Evil

Setting down the book I began to see the holes I’d identified in my parenting open into rather worrying chasms. I remembered the perfect children I’d known growing up, the ones who’d summered at the country club, vacationed in the tropics with their perfect families only to go slumming as drug using collage kids. I started remembering other sheltered kids who’d gone wild with sex and drugs the moment they’d found freedom from the suffocating control of their perfect worlds. Slowly I began to think that maybe by keeping our children in ignorance of pain and suffering we create a vacuum in their experience which will only propel them into a deeper need to experience the very things we try to protect them from. We cannot limit our children’s experience on this earth by sheltering them from a world they will someday have to live in.

So what is a frightened conscientious parent to do? I still only have a vague idea. In my heart I think a parent’s job is to guide a child through the world but not to shelter them from it. I feel that we must discuss even the small details of their day and how their different interactions made them feel. Most importantly we must validate their emotions with empathy, compassion and a willingness to hear while we admit our own feelings, failings and frustrations within the discourse. In other words it is very important that our children see us as loving, fallible humans whom they can trust with their secrets. We live in a tumultuous world of opposites. As much as we hate to admit it good lives in balance with evil and both must be experienced in order to be understood. We cannot end suffering any more then Siddhartha the Buddha did because suffering is a necessary part of experience and experience is the only true teacher. No matter how hard we try, we cannot recreate heaven on earth because that isn’t why we’re here.

Making Peace with Experience

Making Peace with Experience

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A Wealth of Choices

I own the choices I’ve made; the dark ones, the wicked ones, the wrong ones and right ones. No one said do this and forced me into it. I walked, eyes open, into my life choosing the safest path again and again until I came to this place of quiet repose. I have a house I love. It’s too big but I like the way the sun pours in. I have a husband who adores me. He works a lot but the money is good. I have a child I love. He’s loud and noisy but he makes me laugh. I have a cat to snuggle. He’s big and beautiful and keeps me company.

It’s easy to look back on the choices I’ve made and think: If only I’d stayed in school I could have had a career. If I’d stayed in that city I might have learned independence. If I’d traveled when I was younger maybe my life would feel bigger. It’s easy to let go of free choice and blame others for the twists and turns our lives have taken. It’s also easy to settle into a rut and let the dust settle.

My life is now half-lived. A wealth of choice lies before me, waiting to be made. I’ve lived hard and I’ve lived easy. I’ve basked in the sunlight and labored in the rain. I could close my eyes right now and fade into duty, schedule and the comforting rhythm of time or I could make a choice to change this happy groove into something even greater; life can be too soft, too smooth and too insufferably sweet. Sometimes it’s good to let the rain in. Sometimes it’s good to turn the world on its ear. Sometimes you need to step on a cold sharp rock just so you can remember to be grateful for warm plush carpet and the comforts of home.

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Literary Betrayal

There is no rule which states that a novel or short story should end happily. Many of the greatest literary works left their audience in despair with their closing sentence. Life is a story and often times that story is so rooted in pain that a happy ending is not an option.

I recently read a trilogy so steeped in tragedy that by the end of book three I felt emotionally gutted. I’ll let you guess the name of this trilogy. What troubled me most about this trilogy was not its despair based premise or continual sacrifice of innocence and decency but the shock and awe tactics used by the author in order to maintain the high octane pace the writer had naturally achieved in the first book. This blatant use of shock brought forth the question: “What does a writer owe her audience?”

We as readers depend on authors to see main characters through to their natural end. If a well-developed character should happen to die that death should be noted not disregarded as if it were only the death of inconsequential extra. The blatant brushing aside of a beloved characters life is cold and cruel because it destroys the readers faith and trust in the writer. A well-developed sympathetic character who is killed without the necessary pause for grief and reflection leaves the reader feeling injured and betrayed. At no point should shock value replace the need for plot and character development.

Perhaps it is our lack of attention span which has led so many popular writers to gut their audience and tear away the fabric of the plot in order to keep modern readers reading. Nevertheless, a compelling book should have strong well defined characters, a sweeping plot with many twists and turns as well as description and flow. Characters should not act, “out of character,” and plot should not be sacrificed in order to build a path from one disturbing scene to the next. We as writers owe it to our readers to take them on a journey. The journey may be harrowing, grief filled and agonizing but it is the duty of the writer not to victimize her reader with one shock after another just to keep them hooked. As your guide we writers may lead you to the edge of the chasms of emotion but we should never toss you over indiscriminately just to see you fall.

Characters that Live and Breathe

How do you write a Character that lives and breathes? Study, listen and feel. With these three directives you can create a character just as alive and glorious as any composed by the greats. As I’ve stated earlier, my characters come to me, usually at night darn them, as a feeling etched in shadow, a grief, a loss, a short-lived joy or the fear of lack. This I build into a life by listening to the feelings around them, by seeing their color as it were in order to create a shape, a body to house them in. That is part of the feeling, the listening is more to do with taking in every element of the world around you, other people’s stories, movies, books, histories and compiling a mental map of the worlds you want to explore be it Imperial Russia or the 50’s in L.A.; be in it and with it, travel if you can to get a sense of the place. Writing is often about putting your own experiences on paper seen through the eyes of someone else. So in a haphazard and erratic way I think I’ve covered the feeling and listening part, now for a more in-depth view of study.

Become a lover of words, not the words that get you from one side of the page to the other but the words that describe a tulip opening to the sun in five hundred words or more, don’t be a miser with words, squander them across the page, use twenty when you could have used five. You can edit them out later. I say this because we have lost so much of the art of writing in our modern brevity, you have the right to write and not be brief: expound, describe your imagery and bring vibrancy to your scenery. Listen to the classics read unabridged and dramatized as you move through your day. Study Jane Eyre not for the plot but for the phrase. The opening scene when she talks of cold walks, Chilblains and frost is enough to make my toes curl and the more I listen to it the more I fall in love with the magic of this style of writing. Decide who your writing is most similar to and study them. Study and perfect your style by reading, listening and write, every day, day in, day out. Words are alive so use them.

Where to Begin

One of the questions I’m often asked about writing is where do you begin? The truth is that I have no set method I just begin. Generally I toss my first six pages and then re-write the following six at least twenty times until they no longer resemble themselves in the least. I begin with a feeling which progresses to an emotion and then forms into a character with set feelings and perspectives. I learn from this imagined person what it is like to be them, to feel so deeply about certain issues and situations and before I know it they are telling me their story.

I recently wrote a book about a girl named Coco. She came to me as a slightly anorexic fashion student with long black hair, luminous honey brown eyes and the saddest expression you could imagine. She haunted me. I felt this deep sense of longing and loss when I thought about her and every night when I woke for my usual 3:20 a.m. mental download she was there, feeling lonely, cold and very much alone. The more I thought with her the more her story formed around her, soon an apartment came to light, then a housekeeper and then her entire life opened like a flower blooming before me. I felt my way to Coco as she felt her way to me and the result was the novel Magdalena’s Shadow which is with my editor at this moment. The point of all this rambling is that it doesn’t matter what you begin with, what matters is that you begin.

Listen to people, read about them, and talk to them. Your next door neighbor has a story that would knock your socks off and so does the crazy dog lady who walks your street each morning. Listen, be present, be compassionate towards every life you meet and let the stories come.