Once again I’ve fallen behind with posting, but my father’s passing this summer does provide a compelling excuse. Memorial Day weekend I was on the cusp of starting my next manuscript and anticipating a writer’s police academy (#WPA2016). By June, I found myself signing a release for emergency brain surgery to save my dad’s life. To make the situation more surreal, he’d developed one of the few medical conditions I know something about, courtesy of my third manuscript—a subdural hematoma.
While the imminent danger was averted, no hope or prayers could revitalize my father’s mental functioning. His body shut down. And while he’d like to think he went out with a bang on the Fourth of July, the spectacle proved memorable but difficult to witness.
As a writer I try to remember that we always feel more than one emotion. It behooves me when writing a scene to describe a character’s lesser emotion (frustration over inability to climb a tree) rather than the obvious one (terror of the bear eager to maul her) to increase tension. But despite all my years of living in the real and fictional world, I wasn’t prepared for feeling like a lost child when my father died.
As in, you’re four and you turn around in the grocery store and your parent has vanished.
My kids are teenagers. I’ve been married for twenty years. But like some of my characters in early drafts, I shied away from an emotion I couldn’t believe I was experiencing. Sure I had to confront the sadness, the dread of making arrangements, the anger, the shock. But the more I avoided that nagging, disquieting “lost” feeling, the worse my alienation became.
Suddenly I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. Why did I choose to be at home with my kids versus attending grad school? (For starters, I’m a military spouse and there were no online degree programs back then.) Why was I still trying to make it as a traditionally published author when I had just received one more agent’s “I love you’re writing, you’re very talented, but this just isn’t right for me” send off? (Because my fictional friends won’t let me quit.) And why, why was I spending what seemed like every waking moment to plan a memorial service for someone who couldn’t be bothered to plan for his death and died a staunch chauvinist (classic ’40’s upbringing???).
The answer lay in the truth. Because even though I wasn’t four, I am my father’s child. And I was lost.
That. That right there. That out-of-left-field emotion is where the story really lives. For me and for my characters.
A person who curses their scaling abilities when mama bear is foaming at the mouth is very different from the one who blesses their training bestowed by their cat burglar mother. And a daughter who’s willing to accept the “man is brain, woman the decoration” mentality is a 180 from most women, including myself. But that didn’t change the fact I loved my dad.
To rediscover myself, I had to confront the discomfort. I had to go to the writer’s conference unprepared and aim fake guns at creepy actors wanting to kill me. I sat in a hostage “scenario” reminding myself I loved writing about a female FBI agent even though all I could think about were the recent victims of real terrorist attacks. I kept telling myself the memorial service was the right thing to do to honor my father despite his unsavory opinion of me.
Letting go of my dad became a revitalization of myself. It showed me once again that all your emotions count, especially when you can’t make sense of them. It is within that confusion I shape an unforgettable character from a toss away caricature. It is when I grow the most as a writer—learning the unexpected aspects of my characters (so they can outrun the bear), and by doing so, learning about myself.