During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, imagining the future seemed downright scary, if not impossible.
The undeniable uncertainty of the virus, along with the chaotic state of our society, seemed to demand we move toward the One Day At At Time, philosophy.
Planners and long-range thinkers surrendered. Those who had always tended to lived within the NOW, were more prepared to ride the anxious wave of uncertainty.
Imagining a future safe hug from a distant loved one,
or a trip abroad,
or the sweet kiss of a grandchild,
was about as much forward thinking as many of us could handle.
Enough hope to light our way.
But thanks to a medical miracle, the world began opening up, albeit amidst continued divide and tragedy.
A new kind of normal in which to navigate.
Some of us began to hope. To plan. To move forward.
Are you making travel plans? Saving for retirement? Revisiting your New Year’s goals? Starting a creative project? Moving? Switching careers? Filing for divorce?
As we sort through the wreckage, many of us are re-evaluating our pre-pandemic life. Now seems like a ripe time for life renovation, no matter the losses. Even small repairs can reap enormous benefits.
The uncertainty has always been there, just easier for us to deny. Worrying about the future isn’t helpful but planning, even if it’s just day-by-day, can get you there eventually.
This is how I feel about my novel-in-progress. I’m getting closer each day. But if I think too far ahead, I begin to imagine all the potential obstacles, the chance for failure.
To temper the overwhelm that comes from looking too far forward, I recall E. L. Doctorow’s quote:
Pretty good life advice for us all at the present moment.
This is a compliment any fiction writer would love to hear.
To craft memorable stories, the writer needs to enter the mind and heart of her characters and then bring them to life on the page.
How do you do this?
You can find excellent guide books on this fascinating topic. For starters, I’l offer key traits a writer should cultivate when trying to get into someone else’s head.
Notice how this list applies to our real life relationships?
Imagine how such skills and practice could shape our present day divisions.
While one can never truly know another, the quest to do so—and to be seen ourselves—drives us.
Sometimes to love and madness.
Try putting yourself in my shoes, for a change.
You just don’t understand.
Are you crazy?
She can read my mind.
He really gets me.
It’s easier to write characters with a similar perspective, background, and age as yourself. But to stick with that limits the scope of your creative work. Plus, it’s boring!
Writers who wrote outside their own boundaries brought us great literature from Henry James to Agatha Christie. Men transporting themselves into a woman’s head and vice versa.
Nabokov wrote Lolita in the voice and mind of a murderous pedophile.
The best-selling novel, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, (Mark Haddon) is narrated by an autistic teen.
Let’s consider age.
In Room, Emma Donoghue narrates the book through the eyes of a 5 year old boy being held captive in a small room along with his mother.
J.D. Salinger’s inner 17-year-old, Holden Caulfield, catapulted Catcher in the Rye to classic fame.
My middle-school students were always shocked to learn that cult fav, The Outsiders, narrated by a 16 year old boy, was penned by a teen-aged girl.
Beloved children’s author, Judy Blume, now age 83, attributed the success of her children’s books to her ability to access her inner child. “I’m still like an 11 or 12 year old inside,” she told an interviewer.
How about writing in an age you have yet to be ?
Marilynne Robinson’s, Pulitzer-Prize winningGileadis a diary from a 76 year old preacher to his young son.
I’ve written stories from the perspective of a confused middle-aged man, a 25 year old exotic dancer, and a 9 year old fire starter. My current project features an almost 12 year old roller coaster enthusiast. To capture her essence, I read childhood diaries, studied old photos, and visualized my 6th grade self.
But it’s the spirit of a 15 year old girl that comes most naturally. Perhaps because 15 was a pivotal year in my life. I also work with teenagers, so I get to know them up close.
My recently published short story, “My Father’sMessiah”, is about a 15 year old orthodox Jewish girl who worries her widowed father may be losing his mind.
I am honored to be awarded the First Prize in the Katherine Paterson Award for Young Adult Literature. Thank you to Hunger MountainJournal and Vermont College of the Fine Arts.
It begins like this:
Every school morning, my father wakes me the same way: he yanks open my blinds, slaps his hands together, and says, “Boker tov, beautiful daughter. Time to rise and serve your Creator.”
Once upon a time, I didn’t need wake-up calls. I bounced out of bed as if each day delivered a surprise package. When I was five, I might have found my father’s routine cute, but now my fifteen-year-old brain barely registers Abba’s words. Instead, I hold onto my last dream before it morphs to reality.
“And who knows?” my father booms. “Today might be the day the Messiah comes!”
What were you doing when the world turned upside down?
For me that was Friday, March 13th 2020.
Like toppling dominoes, one cancellation piled atop another. Our public school went remote. Our synagogue cancelled Sabbath services. Our town library closed. My gym and dance studio closed. An up-coming business trip was cancelled. My private students cancelled their lessons. My daughter came home from college (thinking it would be a few weeks).
Oh, and my son’s engagement party was planned for that weekend.
I’m glad I didn’t know how long the doom would last. How many lives would be lost.
There is hope now. But our world is different. You are different. Hopefully, you’ve gained some things amidst all the losses.
I learned the primacy of relationships over work and ambition.
I learned that absence makes the heart grow fonder and stronger.
I learned how much I miss my grandchildren.
I learned that children are better mask-adapters than adults.
I learned it’s okay to sit in the car and cry.
I learned to surrender to uncertainty.
I learned to expect plans to change.
I learned how to teach lessons over Zoom.
I learned we can build bridges with words.
I learned words I wish I didn’t have to utter: lockdown, social-distancing, aerosols, quarantine, asymptomatic, fomites, super-spreader…
I learned that family members can hold vastly different beliefs from me.
I learned that when things are looking really bad, look toward the heavens.
I learned just how wise my young adult children have become.
He was a quiet boy with dark hair and thick, black-framed glasses who spent more time reading than chasing girls on the playground.
I was one of those popular girls with a new boyfriend each week.
This quiet boy and I inhabited different planets, sharing a sixth grade teacher but not much more. Until our class Valentine’s Day party.
While the midwest winter frosted our classroom windows, the air inside heated up with preteen energy. The main party event was exchanging store-bought Valentine cards (following the required “one for everybody” rule.) We achieved this with efficiency by depositing our 25 valentines in personalized shoeboxes sitting on each kid’s desk.
The best valentines went to the cool kids. If you really liked someone, you’d write a special message inside, or maybe decorate the envelope. If you were lucky, an admirer attached a few NECCO Sweetheart candies imprinted with sayings like Hot Grl, Call Me, or XOXO.
In the midst of the party, I stood chatting with two other girls in my solar system when the quiet boy stealthily entered our domain.
“Excuse me, Evelyn?”
I turned to look at the questioner.
Poker faced, the quiet boy blinked a few times. Then, like a magician, he pulled from behind his back a large, heart shaped box adorned with lace and roses.
“This is for you. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
I remember utter shock. Then…delight.
My girlfriends’ jaws dropped. I’m pretty sure the rest of the room quieted, too.
For the first time, I noticed the boy’s smile. Then he returned to his desk.
When I got home that day, I showed my mother the red satin candy box, a first of its kind for me.
“Wow, he must sure like you,” she said.
“But he’s never said a word to me!”
This was the first of many lessons I needed to learn about love. And boys.
His name was Michael.
For the next two weeks, I relished those delectable chocolates, allowing myself a single one each day.
Then came an invitation to visit Michael’s house. I accepted.
He seemed to have planned out the afternoon which began with him making me a vanilla milkshake. I don’t think I’d ever had a boy prepare food for me. I sat on the bar stool as he garnished the drink with whipped cream and sprinkles.
He then played us a Bill Cosby record. Michael laughed at the stand-up routine. I didn’t know who Bill Cosby was, nor did I fully get his jokes. After that, Michael asked me things about myself. What did I like to do? To read? We talked for a while. Then, would I like play Stratego or chess?
This boy was twelve going on twenty.
I can’t remember if I shared his romantic feelings. Certainly it felt nothing like the intense crushes I’d experienced before. Perhaps we held hands at some point.
I don’t remember much happening between us at school. Maybe it was summer when we went to the movies (his nice mom sitting a few rows behind us).
Another time we went bowling. Of course he had his own bowling ball. I could barely lift the thing. He taught me how to keep score. Afterwards, he bought me Cracker Jacks and a Coke. While we snacked, Michael told me he especially loved my smile and long shiny hair. I felt both embarrassed and flattered.
I moved away at the end of the summer and never saw Michael again. But I held on to that empty red box for a long time.
And, every February since then, when the stores fill with heart-shaped candy boxes, I’m reminded of that brave boy who made the first move toward a girl from another planet.
Postscript: Decades later, Michael tracked me down online.