Be Fearless By Patricia Kay
“You can’t be afraid to deal with your demons. You’ve got to go there to be able to write.” — Lucinda Williams
Most writers have heard the oft-quoted line from Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES about writing being a matter of just opening a vein and bleeding all over the page. I firmly believe that. You’ve got to open yourself up and let yourself go. You’ve got to fearlessly explore your own emotions and experiences to be able to tell your story honestly.
Sometimes people are afraid to dig too deep. To let themselves imagine how they would feel if, in the middle of the night, a police officer knocked on their door and told them their child had committed suicide. Or how they’d feel if their parents were suddenly killed in an automobile accident. Or how they’d feel if they caught their husband in bed with their best friend. Or how they’d feel if they were only given six months to live.
Sometimes they are afraid because they’re superstitious and they don’t want to tempt fate. But more often, they’re afraid to tap into those emotions because the emotions themselves are too frightening. But if we are to be honest writers, if we’re to pass on anything of value, we must dig deep. We must experience those emotions ourselves. We must put ourselves in the place of our characters and let them rip. Sure, it hurts. But if you’re not fearless, if you won’t open that vein, you have no business calling yourself a writer.
What I strive to do with every book I write is make my readers feel something deeply. I want them to sigh and laugh and cry. Especially cry. I come from the old school. I think a good cry is cathartic.
I’ve had students say, “But how can I feel what she’s feeling? I’ve never lost a child.” And my answer is: you don’t have to have experienced the situation. You only have to feel empathy and understanding. You have to be able to imagine how your character feels. Frankly, if you can’t imagine his or her feelings, I don’t know how you can imagine yourself a writer at all. You don’t seriously think James Patterson, for example, has killed dozens of people in the way he describes in his books, do you? Of course, he hasn’t. But he can imagine what it would feel like to be a murderer or the victim of a murderer or the parents of the victim. And you don’t think Nora Roberts has fallen in love hundreds of times with hundreds of different men, do you? Of course, she hasn’t. But she can remember what falling in love felt like and she can imagine what her heroines are thinking and feeling.
I’ve never had a child switched at birth, yet my RITA nominated book, THE WRONG CHILD (Berkley, 12/00), dealt with this subject and all its myriad emotions. Here is the scene where my heroine sees her birth daughter for the first time:
If she hadn’t been sitting down, Abbie was sure she would have fallen down. She turned slowly as Logan’s daughter, accompanied by a striking blonde, entered the room.
“Well,” said the blonde, “I wondered whose car that was out front.” She gave Abbie a sharp look.
But Abbie had eyes for no one but the child. She gripped the arms of her chair as her heart galloped like a wild thing. It was unbelievable. Seeing Erin O’Connell’s photograph had not prepared Abbie for seeing the girl in the flesh, especially since, in the photograph, Erin had only been seven years old. Looking at the child now was like looking at a photo of Abbie herself when she was young. Erin had the same coltish figure, the same pale hair, the same light blue eyes, the same shy expression.
Mine, Abbie thought, dazed. My baby.
“Erin, Elizabeth, I’d like you to meet Mrs. Bernard.” Logan turned to Abbie and smiled. “Abbie, this is my daughter Erin and my sister-in-law, Elizabeth Chamberlain.”
Afterwards, Abbie was never sure what she said. She vaguely remembered getting up and shaking the sister-in-law’s hand, but all else was a blur. The only person in the room who interested her was Erin. My baby, she kept thinking. This is my baby. Her insides were trembling with an emotion that was so much stronger, so much more intense than she had expected.
“Hello,” Erin said, giving Abbie a shy smile.
When she imitated her aunt by holding out her right hand, Abbie’s heart felt as if someone were squeezing it. And when her own hand closed around Erin’s, Abbie had to fight against the tears that clogged her throat. Somehow she found the strength to answer in a voice that didn’t shake. “Hello, Erin. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Mrs. Bernard is doing a story on the hospital where you were born, Erin,” Logan explained.
How could he stand there, smiling and relaxed, and not see what Abbie saw?
“Why are you doing this story?” the sister-in-law said. Her gray eyes swept over Abbie.
Abbie knew Elizabeth Chamberlain was taking her measure. By the frosty assessment, she would be a much harsher judge than Logan had been. Abbie had better sound authentic and confident if she didn’t want to make the woman suspicious. “It’s an article for Lone Star Monthly. I’ve done a couple of things for them in the past.”
“And when, exactly, will this article be published?” The sister-in-law continued to study Abbie carefully.
“I’m not sure. No . . . no publication date has been set.” Abbie could have kicked herself for stammering. She avoided Elizabeth Chamberlain’s too-shrewd gaze.
“How was the shopping trip?” Logan said.
Now Erin lost her shyness. Animatedly, she began to tell her father everywhere they’d gone and everything they’d bought. “Sit down, Dad. I’ll show you.”
“Whoa.” He laughed affectionately. “We’ve got company right now. Why don’t we finish up with Mrs. Bernard and let her get on her way, then you can show me, okay?”
They all sat down—Abbie in her chair, Logan in his, Elizabeth Chamberlain in another between them. Erin perched on the arm of her father’s chair. He smiled up at her and put his arm around her. It was obvious to anyone observing that father and daughter were very close.
But he’s not her father, and she’s not his daughter. His real daughter isn’t blond, and she isn’t shy. His real daughter is vivacious and bubbly and, except for the color of her eyes, looks exactly like him. In fact, Kendall looked so much like Logan and Patrick that no one, looking at them would—
Oh, my God. Kendall has a brother!
The realization was like a blow to the chest. Abbie guessed she’d been so rattled when she first entered Logan O’Connell’s home and so focused on Erin, that she hadn’t been able to think in terms of Kendall. But now she did, and her thoughts overwhelmed her.
How? How can this terrible thing have happened to us? That sweet child sitting there is my daughter. A daughter I’ve never held. Never kissed. And Kendall . . . my darling Kendall . . . who so desperately wants a father and a family . . . .
For a moment, Abbie was afraid she was going to become hysterical. She felt completely unhinged. This horrible situation couldn’t be real. She couldn’t be sitting there in the presence of her flesh and blood child, acting as if nothing was wrong, that this was just a normal day and an ordinary interview for a magazine article.
Both Erin and Logan were looking at her expectantly. Abbie was afraid to look at Elizabeth. She was afraid the woman would see right through her and know immediately that something was very wrong.
Abbie knew she had to get out of there. Now. Even though she wanted so badly to talk to the child. But that wasn’t going to be possible. As it was, she had to hold onto the arms of the chair to keep her hands from shaking uncontrollably. No, she couldn’t stay. She had to get out of there. Otherwise, she might break down and say or do something crazy.
Drawing on reserves of strength she hadn’t known she possessed, she managed to say, “Logan,” in a more or less normal voice. “I-I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to stay. I really appreciate your talking to me, and . . . and Erin, it was so nice to meet you, but I, well, I’m not feeling well.”
Swallowing against the lump in her throat, she picked up her briefcase and stood. Her legs felt unsteady, and she prayed they would carry her to the door. Just let me get outside. Please, God, just let me get outside without falling apart.
Logan, watching her, frowned. Concern clouded his eyes. “Is there anything we can get you?”
“No, no,” she said, battling the panic that was growing more uncontrollable by the second. “I’ll be fine. I’m just a little hypoglycemic.”
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right? You’re welcome to stay until you’re feeling better.”
The sister-in-law had risen, too. “Logan, if she wants to leave . . . . ”
“I’ll be okay, really,” Abbie said. “I-I just need to get some air. I’ll be fine.”
He looked as if he were about to protest again, but Abbie forestalled him by walking toward the door. After a moment’s hesitation, he joined her, saying, “I’ll see you out.”
Abbie avoided his eyes and managed to hold herself together until she reached the safety of her car. Even then, she knew she had to continue to hold on, because out of the corner of her eye she could see Logan O’Connell standing and watching her from the open doorway. Her hand shook as she fumbled in her briefcase. Finally she found her keys. It took her three tries to get the proper key inserted in the ignition, and then she very nearly flooded the car before she got it started. Raising her hand in farewell, she pulled out of the drive.
Hold on. Hold on.
It was agonizing seconds before she turned the corner and was finally out of sight of the house. Shaking violently, she veered over to the curb and cut the ignition. Sobs tore through her, and she laid her head against her arms on the steering wheel and let them come.
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I hope this scene has shown you that you don’t have to actually experience certain emotions to be able to write about them. All you have to do is put yourself in the place of the character and imagine how you’d feel if you were where she is. That’s what I did with Abbie, and I hope I succeeded in making you feel what Abbie is feeling.
Gordon Lish tells us that [good storytelling] is not about what happens to people on the page, it’s about what happens to the reader in his heart and mind. If you don’t feel anything when you read, why bother reading at all?
So, go ahead. Open that vein. Be fearless. It’ll pay off in the end.