Happy Endings and Happy New Year!

HappyNewYear.inddMost of us like to make sense of our lives by explaining them in terms of stories.

On the last day of the year, we often sum up what has happened during the past year. We are happy to think of the New Year as a new beginning, perhaps the beginning of a new story that will be better than any we’ve yet created—or so we resolve!

A couple of days ago I read a post by one of my favourite bloggers that posed questions about “feel good” versus “literary” writing. She claims, “A lot of high-quality literary pieces I read these days are very depressing,” and asks, “Is there some deadlock between literary merit and hope that they have to be inversely proportional in books nowadays?”

I was driven to comment on her post as it contained many thought-provoking ideas. Ironically, she included a wonderful little feel-good story of her own, and I highly recommend you read her post.

Like many other readers who commented on bottledworder’s post, I don’t think that good literature (either past or current) is mostly depressing.

Good literature reflects the full range of human experience. Maybe the current fashion in literary writing is to write cynically, but most people will always want a message of hope, even if they don’t prefer the sheer escapism of genre fiction.

I, like many people, get more satisfaction out of reading “literature”—meaning books that have complicated, in-depth characters caught in real-life situations—than “escapist” books. To me, there is comfort in knowing that moral uncertainty, emotional anguish, and terrible bad luck or circumstances are parts of the human condition that are shared by everyone.

Literature can’t help but have darkness because the human reality is that we are all destined to die. Not only are the ways most of us get there pretty grim, but fewer people today have the solace of believing in life after death. Good literature helps us face darker realities because it does offer hope. It usually affirms the incredible resilience and strength of human beings by showing us that the joy and richness of life can be experienced even in the most unlikely situations. But it doesn’t evade the suffering, struggling, and doubts that accompany our journeys.

Bottledworder writes that she wonders whether such things as “unequivocally happy endings…are incompatible with the tenets of good writing of the current literary canon.” Well, Margaret Atwood wrote a short story called “Happy Endings” in 1983 (published in Good Bones and Simple Murders). It was a fun little exercise but its point was brutal: the only authentic ending is “John and Mary die.” So writers can create a happy ending simply by cutting off their story before that point.

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Another thought I had after reading bottledworder’s post is that though much of contemporary literature may be cynical, the exact opposite is true about what is demanded by social media. I feel pressured to conform to the relentless cheerfulness of the Facebook world. Don’t get me wrong; I like to be inspired and to look at cute puppy/kitten photos as much as the next person. But I feel constricted: there are times I want to vent cynical or venomous thoughts on Facebook and I know I mustn’t!

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Also, in case anyone thinks I’m a literary snob, I’ll report that I just finished reading (in two days!) an excellent escapist novel called A History of Pleasure, by Richard Mason. The writing is top quality, but the book (starring a good-looking character named Piet Barol who takes full advantage of his attractiveness to both men and women) is unabashedly escapist. It would make good reading for a day (perhaps New Year’s Day?) when you don’t want to read anything too troubling or demanding.

Beauty, just like literature, can be stark.

Beauty, just like literature, can be stark.

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A writing persona named Marilyn

I sometimes write using a pen name of Marilyn, and some of my stories feature a character named Marilyn who is a fantasy version of myself. I think of her as my twin. She is someone whom I could have been, but am not. She writes about things that I’m not brave enough to publish using my “real” identity.

I’ve always liked the name Marilyn, and mostly that’s because I had an English teacher at Donview Junior High School named Marilyn McNeill.

cover of a grade nine story

One of my grade nine writing assignments for Mrs. McNeill

Mrs. McNeill must have been in her early thirties when I knew her. She dressed simply, usually in plain skirts and blouses that often appeared a little rumpled, but to me she was attractive and sexy, the kind of woman I wanted to grow up to be. She still appeared girlish, with her beautiful thick blonde hair usually tied carelessly in a ponytail at the back of her neck.

Mrs. McNeill was youthful, but underneath her quiet voice was a steely quality. She was an ideal teacher for confused, hormone-driven junior high school students because she simultaneously cared deeply about us, yet would tolerate no nonsense. She was one of those rare teachers who preferred to treat 12- to 15-year-olds as adults; those of us who rose to this challenge gained enormously from the respect she showed us and the academic demands she made upon us.

As for the others—well, I remember a day when one girl wandered into class a few minutes late, bringing with her the unmistakeable aroma of marijuana. Mrs. McNeill turned to her, and said very quietly, in a voice that could have frozen a hot toddy in hell: “Don’t you dare ever enter this classroom again reeking the way you reek.”

Mrs. McNeill was an excellent English teacher, and as an aspiring writer I was lucky to have her, but her writing advice was not the most important influence she had on me.

To me, it was more significant that she was a role model. She was an unusual teacher in that she sometimes shared little snippets of her personal life with us. She’d refer to funny things her husband Richard had said or done. These were only the briefest of comments, yet they offered me a glimpse into what a happy marriage could be like, a marriage less traditional than my parents’, where my father worked an office job and my mother was a stay-at-home mom for three kids. I thought Mrs. McNeill was very special for sharing more of herself than what she knew about English grammar or literature. It meant her relationship with us went beyond our teacher-student roles to include elements of trust and friendship.

Mrs. McNeill did one unforgettable thing for me that went far beyond any helpful criticism or words of praise she gave me on my writing assignments.

In grade nine, I was in the school play (Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit), where I played the part of the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati. One day, in preparation for a dress rehearsal, Mrs. McNeill was helping our Theatre Arts teacher by doing our makeup. When it was my turn, as she applied mascara to my eyes, she said, “You have such beautiful deep-set green eyes!”

Few compliments I’ve ever received in my life have meant that much to me.

I know Mrs. McNeill didn’t make that remark without thinking. She understood how much her words would mean to the tiny, skinny girl who had to wear glasses all the time and hated them. She knew that a compliment that would boost my confidence about my femininity would help me far more than any number of A-pluses she could give me on English assignments.

Teacher's comments on a writing assignment.

Mrs. McNeill’s concluding comments about my “novel”. One sentence she liked was, “The thoughts wound ceaselessly around inside of me, coming faster and faster and faster as if they were crushing me out, a whirling windmill spinning to eternity inside of me.”

A writer’s solitude: Kafka’s words

The following paragraph was quoted in Susan Cain’s recently published book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that
case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess;
that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when
involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which,
therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind… That is
why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be
enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.

—Franz Kafka (1883–1924)

Photo of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet is a wonderful and reassuring book for those of us who are happiest when we have plenty of time for reading, writing, and reflection. Cain presents the latest research in the fields of neurobiology and psychology as she discusses why the ways in which  introverts think and work are just as essential to modern society as the heavily-promoted outgoing, action-based styles of extroverts.

This book will give people confidence to choose a career that will help them achieve their potential and find happiness and fulfillment. Other readers may re-evaluate their choices and make life-changing decisions.