|Posted by Matt Posner on December 3, 2013 at 6:00 PM|
No Tears in the Writer
I have a friend—let's call him Ben—who is 6'3” and has been a rugged outdoorsman all his life. He is an Eagle Scout, survived the Navy, has hiked the Appalachian Trail, is an expert marksman, and can out-hike, out-bike, and out-survive guys half his age. We've been friends since high school and he is highly supportive of my writing. He has also told me, with a little bit of chagrin, that parts of my stories often bring him to tears. This amazes, and pleases, me.
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” These are words I believe with all my heart and have learned to appreciate anew with every book I write.
A few years ago, as I was working on my novel Each Angel Burns, I knew I had a good thing going. The characters were strong, the story flowed, the dialog was working. The only problem was I wasn't quite sure how it was all going to come together. It is the story of three people in their fifties—a priest, his best friend who is a carpenter, and a woman who loves both of them. I was coming to the climax of the story and I will never forget this. It was early on a Sunday morning and I had just written a very painful and difficult scene and wasn't sure what to do next when, all of a sudden, it came to me. The realization of what happened at the climax stunned me—I had no idea where it came from. It was a moment that I, as a writer, will never forget. Surprises like that are as astonishing as they are rare.
Emotions—tears—are a little more frequent as I write. Sometimes when I am working on something and I have to stop to wipe away tears and blow my nose I think, “This is ridiculous. You're being a sentimental fool.” Then I remind myself of what Frost said.
Writing my most recent novel, The Christmas Daughter, was like that for me. Naturally a book with a Christmas theme is more inclined to provoke nostalgia and emotions. Because this story is one of my Marienstadt series—a collection of stories based on my Pennsylvania Dutch hometown—it is even more evocative. But I persisted. The story, in a nutshell, is about a man named Boone Wilde who has basically been a bad boy all his life. He was a biker, a roadie for rock bands, and a cowboy in Kentucky and Montana. He has also avoided much in the way of responsibility most of his life. Now closing in on forty, he returns to Marienstadt to help his mother decide what to do with the family business after his father's death. Boone starts to build a new life for himself when he gets a shock. An old girlfriend, who is dying, calls him and informs him he is the father of a 12-year-old girl—a girl who is about to be motherless.When Boone travels to another state to meet them he finds a woman he once loved in her final hours, and a small, malnourished, neglected girl who has no sense of self-worth and is afraid of everything. Big, tough-guy Boone has to learn to be a father to this frightened child.
I have to tell you, the writing was rough going for awhile. My emotions were so torn—for Boone, for his daughter Charity, even for Luna, her irresponsible and self-destructive mother. There were times when I thought I wouldn't be able to finish the story. I had to write the ending about halfway through, just to give me something to work toward. There is one part, where Boone begins to fear that, no matter what he does, his daughter might be too damaged to ever feel trust and love, that nearly did me in. But I pushed through.
So I finished it and polished it up and, when it was ready, I sent the manuscript to Ben as I always do. Half a day later I got an email from him and he wrote, “It's terrific but talk about waterworks! I'm glad no customers came in while I was reading.” I knew it was worth all the tissues I went through. I knew that Robert Frost was right.