Walking today, I noticed the bare stark trees, the low sun, barren gardens. It’s January and I guess I always feel this way after the holidays. But this year, maybe it’s a bit stronger because of the isolation we have all been feeling for so many months. I love the holidays but this year they were -- how can I say it -- empty? Drained of emotions? We chose to all celebrate separately because of COVID, meeting on Zoom to toast and gather – not the same as you all know. Now, this season with its cold starkness after the December holidays, makes me think of all the bittersweet moments that I’ve had, the ones that feed my writing. Many say that authors don’t or shouldn’t rely on personal experiences. If that’s so, what do we use to write those devastating scenes in our stories, the ones that are happy, overwhelmingly sad, or bittersweet.
Bittersweet… a single powerful word that says so much – “a combination of both bitter and sweet, or an emotional feeling that’s a mixture of both happy and sad.”
If you think about it, those bittersweet moments probably began when you were little – the first day of school as you watch your mother walk away. You‘re excited but frightened at the same time. You want her to stay, make it safe for you. She feels it even more than you do but you won’t know that until many years later. The death of a pet that you’ve had all your young life, your very first experience with death. High school graduation with everyone and everything you’re comfortable with being left behind. You’re excited to start college, but you dread making new friends, meeting new teachers and taking your studies to a whole new level – bittersweet. “First loves” – powerful. Some end because long distance relationships during college are hard to maintain. Others endure fractured throughout college like mine did… bittersweet. First jobs, more loves and broken engagements all contain bittersweet memories. Your wedding day when you’re father isn’t there to walk you down the aisle, so you choose to walk alone… bittersweet. The birth of a child when his father is away serving his country… bittersweet. I could go on and on but I think you know what I mean by now.
This sentence that I found somewhere, I can’t remember where, conveyed the message so well. “No longer filled with magic, the room would be haunted by bittersweet memories.” Not knowing the back story, we wonder what happy and sad things occurred in that room. I associate that line with my youth… the dining room in the home where I grew up, where we spent holiday dinners together, candles burning brightly on the table, the smell of roast turkey and fresh pies filling the house. And then, my father dies in that room. Bittersweet....
That’s an example of how one sentence can evoke powerful memories and why, when an author uses their personal experiences. it touches something in his or her readers. A reader once wrote to me that they had cried as they read about the death of Jamie’s parents in “She’s Not You.” He wanted to know how I could write such a painful powerful scene. I told him because I experienced it when I was young – the rage, anger and sorrow when my own father died. I knew exactly how Jamie felt. If you haven’t experienced it, how can you truthfully write about it? Sure you can put thoughts down on a page but they just lay there emotionless. They evoke nothing; they aren’t from the depth of you, from that sad or angry spot, that broken heart.
Another author said, “If you base your writings on your own experiences, you’ll be a one book author.” Well, I just had my fifth novel published, ‘Til Death Do We Part, and I’m working on two more. So I guess I’ve disproved that theory for myself at least.
So I wish you all a kinder, gentler 2021. Make it productive and “pick at those scabs” as the leader of writing group used to say… and so I do. And I have many….