As children, we are taught that summer is composed of the laziest months of the year. Hot and sticky, filled with sunny days and sweet treats. Maybe by now you have trained yourself out of this kind of thinking, and maybe you have not.
Each year I find myself falling back into old patterns; the summer is for pleasure, I think to myself. And then I decide to write a new novel.
I have written several summer novels. Some have been revised and rewritten several times, while others have been consigned to the trunk, because they were truly, truly awful. I just started this year’s summer novel, and as always, I have high hopes for what it will be.
Starting a new story always brings me joy. It is exciting to think about what this story can be, and to feel the emotional power of this story moving beneath my skin. (Stories are always the most powerful when they take root in the mind.) But I also know that I will have low points as I write: some days will be harder than others, some characters will not go easily onto the page, some sentences will simply refuse to be written. I will finish this draft and confront the task of revision, which reveals more flaws than I could have dreamed possible.
In the end I will have to fight with this story, and balance both the joy of telling and the pain of writing, in order to be the best writer I can.
Listening to a writer’s panel a few days ago, one of the questions was about the role of joy in storytelling. The question took me by surprise. In response, the authors said: It is essential to have joy in any story. There is so much pain in life, and as writers we think that pain makes a story ‘good’. But without moments of joy, that pain had no meaning. Write about joy every day, just a little bit. Sadness comes with beauty, like sunlight following the storm.
As I write this essay, a late-afternoon thunderstorm is sweeping through my area. It is a powerful one, with blustery winds and sharp cracks of thunder. I am sitting beside the window and watching as it blows through, sending down torrents of water that will surely overflow some of my planters and may blow over the little umbrella I keep outside to shade my back porch. In the morning, I may find that my garden has been flooded, or a branch has fallen on top of my car. There may be any number of small tragedies following this storm. If they come, I will deal with them.
But it is also equally likely that there will be moments of beauty. The storm will bring cool air, a balm following the heavy heat of the day. My garden will be watered and the plants will be happy, reaching sprightly leaves toward the sun, glistening green and silver with water droplets. The branches that will have fallen will all be the dead ones, the detritus of the world fallen to make room for the new. There may even be a rainbow, and the skies will definitely be blue.
As we move into the hot summer months, we know there will be many moments of joy and pain. Some will be small and personal, and others will be large enough to affect the whole world. The storms will come, and we will shelter from them. We will find beauty and joy all around us, because that is how the world works. There is great pain, and there is great beauty. Laughter and tears walk hand in hand.
As I work on a new novel this summer, with new characters and problems of their own, I have to work to remember this lesson about joy. My character is currently a very sad one, who has lost so much. In that, I feel a deep kinship with her. I, and all of us, can connect with moments of pain. (It is the greatest part of empathy.) And yet, as I write her pain, I also have to write her joy. What are the things that make her smile, and that lift the burden of sadness from her heart? When are the moments when she feels proud and accomplished, or simply stops to notice the beauty in the world around her?
To give a character only moments of sadness and conflict may give them a dramatic plot, but it gives them nothing else. They will never truly be human if they do not have joy.
This is a lesson that I would also like to take for myself—do not cling to your pain, and forget to see the moments of joy. No matter how strange and terrible life is, no matter how it challenges you, you must always look to find joy. It is what will make you human, and it is what makes stories worth telling.