Lying Daughters and Bad Writers

“I’ll see you in two weeks,” I said to my dad. I was lying. Every summer I spent two weeks with my mom, and I packed as if this summer were no different than any other. I kissed him goodbye on the cheek pretending I didn’t know about the lawyers and the judge and the child protective services people who would soon surprise him.

running with Jill
running with Jill

When my mom asked me to come live her, she had nothing but lettuce and cheese in her refrigerator and Melba toast and coffee in the cabinet. In her bathroom, you could put your hand against a soft spot in the wall and sometimes feel a rat run by. “I’ll get a new place and a new job,” she said. “If you want.” I’d just finished my 6th grade year.

I thought about my step-mother. I thought about my dad. I thought about how I’d started having accidents on purpose–usually stumbling down stairs enough to scare myself but not quite get hurt. Self-preservation is a powerful thing. “Okay,” I said to my mom. “Sure.”

The day I was supposed to go home to Dad, Mom drove to a house I’d never seen before. A place where we couldn’t be found. The people there were nice, but when Mom had to call Dad and tell him she wasn’t bringing me back, I went alone outside. Appropriately enough one of those great Florida summer storms was coming. The dark clouds were huge and I could see the rain on the horizon. A Narnia-like lamppost stood near the edge of the yard and it made me feel better to sit next to it and pull up grass.

My mom had left my dad. My step-mother left him several times a year to run off with other men (though I didn’t know about those men yet). Now I was leaving, proving my step-mother right–I was selfish, ungrateful, and always putting myself first.

I’m mean to my characters too. They deserve better, but I’ll do what I’ve got to do to make the story. Just like I lied to my dad–see you in two weeks–and smiled, I’ll do my best to make a reader believe one thing, and then I’ll knowingly break their heart, which they should see coming if they’re paying attention. I do leave clues.

Like chronic headaches and chest pains and twisted ankles. Like refusing to hand over a key. But some readers will still be shocked–how can you do this? I don’t understand. Because self-preservation is strong. So is the desire for publication.

Pity the man with a writer for a daughter. Pity the reader who picks up the wrong book.

7 thoughts on “Lying Daughters and Bad Writers

  1. Best of all is the situation where a reader says how can you do this? I don’t understand now… but looking back, realizes that the clues and foreshadowings were in place all along, or backstory later provided. A character doesn’t even need to “deserve” bad fate because, of course, bad things do sometimes happen to good people. (I suspect many regular readers of “writing in the water” will recognize this experience in the story of the father whose daughter — just like every other woman — eventually leaves him.)

    Random thunderbolts of godawful things happening to characters really do warrant the “how can you do this?” response. But not if the groundwork is laid up front, and/or not if the godawful things come to make sense later.

    Er, I think. 🙂

  2. What has to be done isn’t always what’s nice or easy or pretty or happy. But it can be precisely what we need to do in order to be better, happier, more settled in our fates, more successful in life, and, oh yes, stronger.

    This is true in life and in fiction. It’s just what has to be, and even when it’s bad, I think it’s good.

  3. Man, I am so there. DoIng the hard thing at the expense of someone else’s desires and needs so that I, (and the writer who is me) can survive. Not sure I can do that in a novel, to my characters. But I will try.

  4. Pingback: Experienced Enough for This « writing in the water

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