I will never forget the fiction writing workshop I took in undergrad. I remember the first story I turned in was called “soporific” by the instructor. I had to look it up. It means “inducing sleep.” Um.
OK, so it was about two sisters at bedtime in their grandmother’s house. But I didn’t take it as a good sign. Enter piece #2, a fictionalized version of my boyfriend trying to teach me to drive a stick-shift car. I hoped maybe the non-fiction foundation would make it more interesting. “There’s not enough conflict here,” said pretty much everyone in the workshop. And on, and on.
In my mid-twenties, I worked with an Episcopal priest who was only a few months older than I was. She asked me once, “What do you think of when I say the word conflict?” And without thinking, I cringed. She shook her head. “OK, there. That’s the problem. Conflict can be good. It can teach you. Why do you avoid it?”
“Because it sucks?” I answered.
My fiction doesn’t have enough conflict, because I don’t want anything bad happening to my characters. Truth is, I don’t want anything bad to happen to me, either. But the “bad” stuff that happens to us is the meat and potatoes of life. I don’t want to tempt fate, here, but I know it to be true. When my mom died, I didn’t want to keep living in a world that didn’t have her in it. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to work. When I did go to work, I didn’t want to do anything. What was the point? But my dad, and my meditation teacher, and my coworkers, and my friends, at different times and in different ways, kicked me in the ass and got me moving again. I had an hour-long commute, and I cried through every minute of it. I lived alone with a cat in a townhouse, and I cried a lot there, too. And I took my little red wagon of grief wherever I went.
But I went. I’ve said this before, but it’s still a great idea. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger, it just doesn’t kill you. And you have to believe, or at least hope, that that is enough. And I kept moving, kept going, dragged myself out of bed day after day. And eventually, I did feel stronger. Because there wasn’t anything that could happen at work, for instance, that was harder than what I’d already been through. I joined a public speaking group at work, and I was never nervous about getting up in front of people and talking, because hell, what could they do to me? I took a graduate English class at George Mason because, well hell, what could happen? The worst had already happened, and here I was.
At one point when I was still unable to leave my house, my meditation teacher said to me, “If you saw someone who had been beaten to a pulp lying on the floor, you wouldn’t blame them one bit if they just kept lying there, would you?” No, of course not. “But,” she said, “What would you think — what would you feel — if that person got up?” And my brain went back to the opening sequence from the movie The Matrix, when Trinity is running from the bad guys and tumbles down a flight of stairs and is lying there, looking up, and says, “Get up, Trinity. Get up, Trinity. Get. Up.” — I knew she was talking to me.
It turns out, I come by this aversion to conflict honestly. I learned it at home. When my dad died, my dear friend Cindy rescued a manuscript of a short story he had written decades ago, when I was only eleven or twelve. I only just read it a few weeks ago. It’s not a great story. It could be the outline of a much longer and more interesting work. But reading it gave me a great insight into my relationship with my dad, and how alike we really were. Like in most of my fiction, his characters were likeable, the dialog was interesting, but nothing happens. I mean, stuff happens. But there’s no conflict, no difficulty that the main character has to face, no growth, no change in him. Aha. I see a pattern here.
My dad and I did the same thing with each other my whole life. We tried so hard to protect each other (and ourselves) from conflict that we never grew past a superficial understanding of each other. We knew some things — favorite foods and movies, sense of humor, etc. But we never got underneath that, because we didn’t let ourselves engage in real, healthy conflict. Oh, we fought. We definitely fought. But it wasn’t like a real battle, more like two walls banging into each other. Somehow, miraculously, maybe because of Mom’s death, or maybe because of all the help I got afterward, but eventually, I learned about conflict. I’d say conflict is one of the better aspects of my marriage with Brian. We argue, yes, but we really engage, and nine times out of ten, we learn something we didn’t know about each other — or ourselves. We resolve the conflict and actually grow as a partnership. I love that about us. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t convenient. It’s hard work.
So now I need to create a story with a hero who suffers, and I’m balking. I still don’t want anything to happen to this guy. I like him. But I also want him to grow. I want him to change. I want him to learn something about himself and human nature that he didn’t know before. And it occurs to me that I know the answer now to my meditation teacher’s question from years ago. What would I feel if someone bloodied and beaten, lying on the floor, showed the gumption to finally get up? Hope.