A Real Tear-Jerker

Yesterday I came to the end of the first draft of a novel. And I cried.

You might think I was crying just because I was overcome by the realization that I’d managed to get to the end. After all, this is something I’ve been working on, in one form or another, for the last five years or so (albeit with time off to write another novel in the middle). You might think that, after all the permutations and false starts I’ve been through with this project, they were tears of joy.

But you would be wrong. In fact, I was blubbering like a baby over what I was actually writing—the final scene between my two main characters, who have been sworn enemies throughout the course of the book and are at last discovering that in fact they have some things in common, over which they can bond.

Stated baldly like that, it doesn’t sound like anything that would inspire tears, let alone enough tears to require two tissues (and a trip in search of a whole new tissue box, since I’d been down to the last tissue in the box on my desk). In fact, stated like that, I realize that that’s basically what’s happened at the end of the two other novels I’ve written. And I cried while I was writing those endings too.

But I didn’t expect to cry while writing this one. All along, I’ve been plagued by doubts about this story—or perhaps I should say more doubts than usual—wondering if I’ve been on the right track, questioning whether I shouldn’t just throw in the towel and move on to something else, possibly something that doesn’t involve writing novels. Let’s just say there have been moments of discouragement.

And much of that discouragement has arisen from my doubts about the two main characters: Were they believable? Were they too stereotypical? Were they two-dimensional? Were they just ridiculous? There were times when it seemed that no matter what I did I couldn’t get them to take wing, that I was lugging them around the story like a couple of sacks of potatoes.

But something happened when I was writing the last chapter. Maybe it was just the knowledge that I was on the home stretch, but I couldn’t make myself stop writing, with the result that I finally ended up eating lunch at about 3:30. And the writing did take off, the characters did come alive, so alive that I felt I was right there with them, in a book-filled room in a house at the corner of Hanover and German Streets in Baltimore on a cold January afternoon in 1808—in their heads, inside their skins, feeling all the wrenching emotions that were coursing through them.

This is the mysterious magic of writing, when you sit in front of your computer (or, in the old days, in front of your typewriter or your quill pen or whatever) and with nothing more than your brain and your fingers, you conjure up a whole world that you believe in. Not only are you seeing, smelling, and touching things that aren’t there, you’re feeling emotions that you’ve conjured out of thin air. In a way, it’s a socially acceptable form of insanity.

But it’s also a way of forming connections to people who may be very different from ourselves, and not just because they’re fictional. In the case of the novel I’m working on now, the main characters (one of whom is based on a real person) are ensconced in a world that no longer exists, the world of 200 years ago. In other cases, like that of the contemporary novel I wrote, it may be that their personalities and outlooks on life are just different from my own. But when I write their dialogue and enter into their heads, I feel a direct and gut-level connection to that essential human part of them that exists in me as well. (In fact, come to think of it, it’s more or less what happens to my characters—people viewing each other as alien but coming to realize they actually have something in common—at the ends of each of my novels.)

It isn’t just when you’re writing novels that this weird and magical thing happens. It can happen when you’re reading them too—think about the times reading a novel has made you laugh or (possibly more often) cry. Scientists have actually demonstrated that when you read about things, you’re also experiencing them, in a way. When you read the word “cinnamon,” for example, not only does the part of your brain associated with reading light up, but so does the part of your brain associating with smelling things. And there’s evidence that when we read stories, we’re also using the brain networks that help us navigate real-life interactions. In other words, we think of the characters we’re reading about as though they were real.

You might think you wouldn’t need fiction in order to do that, and maybe sometimes you don’t. After all, why not learn to empathize and deal with people by reading about real people? But it seems to me there’s a barrier inherent in writing about real people that dissolves in the realm of fiction. There’s no way to get inside the skin of someone real—even in a memoir, given that there are all sorts of possibly unconscious defenses and things that get thrown up when we write about ourselves—the way you can with a person who’s a creature of someone’s imagination.

Of course, just because I’ve convinced myself that my characters are real doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to convince anyone else. I’m keenly aware that I have a long way to go, and possibly many drafts, before I end up with a successful novel—if I ever do. But the fact that I’ve at least convinced myself of the reality of my characters gives my some hope that—as the real-life model for one of my minor characters said about himself 200 years ago—“I shall not have labored in vain; I shall not have … often wasted the midnight lamp fruitlessly, nor sacrificed the best worldly prospects for an imaginary good; although deferred, I shall be in the end gratified by a sure reward.”

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