The first story in my collection of stories is about a sixties housewife who loses her mind and chases a swarm of bees through a cornfield. In another story, a twelve-year-old boy--a misfit among middle-class middle-schoolers--is hit by a bus. A pregnant teenager is abandoned along the highway in a snowstorm. A tender young mother is electrocuted in her own basement.
Just after the book's publication, I was interviewed by a newspaper guy who observed, "You seem like a cheerful person in real life, but your stories are so dark." Though this wasn't really a question, it seemed like something I needed to respond to. I was at a loss. I'd never thought about it in those terms. I didn't think my work was particularly dark, though, of course it was, it is. And I have never considered myself to be all that cheerful. I mean, there are things I enjoy, things I get excited about--such as a person who has read my book and now wants to ask me questions about it. Even kind of dumb questions like, what gives? Why do you--such an ordinary-mommyish-teacherly sort of person--write such morbid stuff?
I'll take a stab at explaining myself here. When I first started writing fiction, I believed everything profound and interesting and artistic and true had to be full of despair and angst. I couldn't muster up an ounce of joy that didn't feel contrived. I think maybe I've seen too many very special episodes of Little House on a Prairie and, worse: Full House. I want grit, edginess: I want beauty in sadness. I want the stark, perfect ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I want that moment at the end of War of the Roses where Kathleen Turner's character uses her last bit of strength to push her husband's hand off her shoulder.
But now, I'm starting in on a new draft of a novel I've written about a dying factory town's last hurrah. Not the most heartening subject, but I do mean to include a bit of hope in the story, and now my editor is very wisely calling for a little more joy. This is not the biggest change she's asking for, but it might be the hardest for me to carry out. I've grown up enough now--as a person, as a writer--to see that my inability to make a happy moment feel complete and organic is a failing as a writer. It's a matter of deepening the emotional tenor. And, I think it will serve the book well: weaving in few instances of carefully crafted happiness will (hopefully) make the story more authentic, not less.
I'm up for this task. I can buckle down and get happy. I want to chronicle it here, in my comfy little blog. I will begin like I begin any huge writing task: I will look to Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard. Richard Yates. Elizabeth Strout. I will even call on Cormac McCarthy, who wrote my very favorite desperately bleak novel.
I will begin tomorrow. Seven days of joy for the first week of June. Watch for it here. And, please, please, do for me that thing every writer needs from time to time--cheer me on. Console me and inspire me with times you've seen it done--joy as a believable, non-hokey emotion in film, literature, or real life. Show me such a thing is possible.