Lucky Me

“You’re so lucky,” she said. Outside, the rain beaded like quicksilver on the blooming hedge of hydrangea. Inside, a pot of steel-cut oats burped from its perch in the yellow Aga.

 

“Lucky?” I echoed. We’d met the day before. I knew about her as much as she did about me: we were writers, living on opposite ends of North America, seeking solace and inspiration on a wind-tossed island in the Atlantic. “How am I lucky?”

 

“To have had such an easy life, to have things work out so you can write and publish your first novel before you’re twenty-five? That’s lucky.”

 

Fortunately, I’d already swallowed my mouthful of toast. Otherwise I may not be writing to you now, a couple of months after this amazing assessment of my life.

 

“How old do you think I am?” I asked.

 

“You couldn’t be more than twenty-three.”

 

We were sitting closely enough at the small table for her to see the June light dancing with the silver in my hair and pleating the fine lines around my eyes, to see the tendons underneath the dry, spotted-brown backs of my hands shifting like ropes as I gripped a coffee mug. Surely, jet lag had done me no favors.

 

Flattered? No. I felt dismissed. An adulthood—all the heartbreak and blessings; hard work and sacrifice; the careers, the moves, the losses, the triumphs, twenty-three years of marriage—denied by someone who would have been a high school senior to my freshman. This woman had created an entire story about me, had appropriated my history for her fiction, and then thought to recount her version back to me as if it were fact.

 

You always think of the perfect thing to say in the hours, days, weeks, after someone blows your mind. I still haven’t. What I did say was this, “I began writing when I was forty-one. I’ll be halfway to forty-seven when my first novel launches next year.” Breakfast continued in silence.

 

Being on the engineered side of someone else’s story startled me into reflecting on my own behavior: how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? Not the stories I put on the page, where they should be, but of the flesh-and-blood characters in my life? How often have I not asked, not listened, but jumped right into assumption, motivated by envy or impatience, by detriment of unrecognized privileged or sheer mental laziness?

DSC_0499
Seeing through the mist: early morning, Sancerre ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

As writers, we assume that we are keen observers of the human condition. Perhaps we turn to the page because it’s an outlet for the overflow of all that we take in and churn over, trying to sort out and make meaning of the unknowable. It’s our job to witness the world and then to bear witness in our essays and poems, our stories, our streams of thought. We don’t always write what we know; more often we write what we observe, how it makes us feel, and through our imaginations we construct plots to hold all the seeing and feeling together.

 

I begin work my novels by learning about the characters. Sometimes I have the thread of an idea floating, untethered, but I let it drift and spend the early period of discovery—before I begin writing a single word of story—crafting the personalities, goals, and motivations of the people with whom I’ll be spending the next months. I ask dozens of questions and as I determine the answers, themes coalesce and a plot etches a distant outline, like the silhouette of a mountain range emerging from the mist.

 

“The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.” Lidia Yuknavitch

 

We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected. This applies not only to our fictional narratives, but to our real world encounters, as well. And what’s required of the writer is required of any human being: we must set our personal narratives aside—our histories, assumptions, envies, fears, rules—and invite in others’ realities.

 

The key to creating empathetic characters is to work them through the questions we raise as we write; the key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.

To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work. Mary Oliver

All good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. George Saunders

18 thoughts on “Lucky Me

  1. ”The key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.” This sentence spoke to me. My household is full of problem solvers and scientists. We tend to jump in with solutions. I have had to learn to listen without the necessity of instantly recommending action. This has been hard for me. It helps to listen while doing some task: picking berries, grooming a horse, weeding. The task keeps the action oriented part of my mind occupied and allows me to hear the words that are said.
    Thank you for your writing on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melissa, thank you! I’ve been participating in a seminar on understanding racism and that urge to “fix” things is something we’ve talked a lot about- we’re a fixing society and it’s hard to set that aside to explore what the problems really are-before generating solutions. Funny what you say about keeping hands busy to leave the mind open- I’ve been listening to a lot of the coursework (interviews, TED talks etc) in the evening, while coloring in my “adult” coloring book. The repetitive motion allows my mind to focus on and absorb the words I’m hearing.

      Like

  2. Julie, beautiful, thought-provoking post. I was just thinking about this the other day, when someone said to me, “Wow, you are one “lucky” lady.” I felt my entire body tighten—this woman knew nothing about me and as you said, had created her own story about who I was. And your question— how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? is significant beyond measure for our work as writers and compassionate humans. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been reading some of my old diaries and it’s been quite revelatory about the stories I’ve told myself about me! When confronted with the past as it appeared to me in the moment of living it, I realise the narratives I have since constructed to make it more appealing/less painful.
    Also, I consider myself a very empathetic person, but actually, I struggle to write empathetic characters.
    A very fascinating subject.
    But, really, Julie, come on. Being mistaken for 23? That is bloody wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are a braver soul than I. I shudder to think what lurks in my old journals!!
      When you say you struggle to write empathetic characters, do you mean characters your readers can feel some empathy for, or characters whose own worldview contains at least some measure of empathy? The debate over “likeable” characters fascinates me. But likeable and empathetic aren’t the same thing, IMHO.

      LOL. “Mistake” is the operative word here. 😉

      Like

      1. You’re absolutely right. There is a clear distinction between likeable and empathetic. I try very hard to enable the reader to empathise with my characters, if not to like them. I suppose,as you say, it’s a part of making a character seem real.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. “’The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.’” and “We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected.” Interesting and ironically this is something that I have to wrestle with all the time.

    Another thing that her comments touch is how we should deal with the differences between people and cultures. But until we (royal we) can step back and survey the environment and the people in the environment we will never appreciate the story we are participating in.

    Like

    1. We are seeing this clash of culture and understanding in vivid relief – the second comment- continuation of thought is mine – reflecting on what I have been learning in a seminar on racism I’ve been participating in, as well as the current furor over immigration in this country and our non-response to the crisis in Syria. We’re so often motivated by fear-the fear that our privileges will be taken away-that we pull ourselves in, like children in a sandbox, unable, unwilling to listen, to share. It’s work we all must do, isn’t it. Thank you, Les!

      Like

  5. I have some sympathy with the “she” in your article because I too was very surprised when you told me your age. “Never!” I thought. But the mature quality of your writing then reveals a more accurate picture. Lovely piece. Enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a fascinating and thought provoking post. I hadn’t really thought of characterisation like this before and your context sums it up to a T. If nothing else, it sounds like you should be jumping for joy at the fact you look less than half your age!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Yeah, no. I don’t look 23. 🙂 But what does “age” look like and how quickly do we jump to conclusions based on our assumptions? Even if I were 23, she’d concluded that my life had been “easy” and “lucky” because I’d achieved something that perhaps she also desired. It’s definitely made me check my ego when I see others’ success and assume they’ve had some way paved smooth for them. A moment to learn from!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I am currently reading and enjoying ‘Still Writing’ by Dani Shapiro, a book I know you too have loved. Your essay here would nestle in nicely between the pages of Shapiro’s book. Perhaps a piece to be re-published in the future when you come to edit your own set of personal essays (which you will!) Beautiful writing as always.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.