When Thanksgiving rolls around, we’re reminded to be grateful for all the joys in our lives. We list the things we’re grateful for, such as family, friends, health, career, home, and so forth. But then I got to thinking about the things I usually leave off my list—things that have happened over the years that have been painful. It’s hard to be grateful for a heart broken by young love. It’s hard to be grateful for losing a friend over a misunderstanding. It’s hard to be grateful for the death of a loved one, especially when that loved one is still young and vibrant. It’s hard to be grateful for seeing your child suffer. It’s hard to be grateful for tough times that force sacrifice and create fear.
And yet, it is usually the unpleasant items on our lists that forge us into the human beings we are and that make us better people—and better writers. It’s hard to understand the depth of love, anger, fear, shame, frustration, embarrassment, and desperation unless we’ve experienced it. It’s hard to create characters who experience strong emotions and go through difficult times unless we’ve been there ourselves. It’s hard to have empathy for others—both human and imaginary—unless we’ve felt the burn of shame, the ache of loss, the frustration of a bad break.
My father once stated that he was happy he’d been able to serve in World War II. Expecting a patriotic lecture, I asked him why. He said he’d never been out of our little Podunk town in West Virginia—never traveled, never seen any of the world. Being assigned to the Army Air Division (which later became the Air Force), he traveled to Florida and Indiana before being sent to Europe, where he saw much of France, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Philippines. He met many interesting people and witnessed history in the making. Even though he suffered horrific things that he was never able to speak about, and even though he lost his hearing from a too-close blast that should have killed him, he was grateful for the experience that allowed him to grow as a person.
So, this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the tough times I’ve been through. No, I’m not courting more calamity and I don’t want to relive unpleasant experiences. There are many I’d definitely rather undo than still live with the consequences. Yet, these are the experiences that have formed me into the person I’ve become and that have set me free to breathe life and truth into my characters.
I challenge writers this Thanksgiving season to make your own list of misadventures, heartbreaks, and calamities. What did you learn from each experience? How can they help you better understand your characters? How can you use what you’ve learned to shape your characters?
Be grateful for each day, whether good or bad.