Sunday, June 8, 2014

“Hope is the Thing with Feathers”

Emily Dickinson wasn’t the happiest of individuals: she loathed conformity, suffered various physical difficulties, endured unrequited love, and felt every emotion acutely. Yet if one side of her impassioned reactions was “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me,” then the other was belief in how high human consciousness could soar.  For humans, even a plane ride is an act of faith, a belief that we can escape our earthbound nature.

Whether you’re passionate about God and identity, as Dickinson was, or about travel, love, or politics, it’s easy to get darkly bitter about what someone isn’t providing, how it isn’t fair, will never improve, and so on. It takes guts and at least a few feathers to make a song when things look hopeless. Yet is there anything better an artist can give?

Pete Seeger died not long ago, and if ever there lived a person who could fly and make everyone else believe they also could, he was such a man. He was also a man who despised injustice and devoted his life (and income) to defeating it. He grinned and joked and stood tall and sang no matter how much indignation he experienced. You can, too. You should, too.

Pete Seeger’s recipe works well for novels: stand up for justice, tell the truth, maintain your sense of humor, and never lose hope. Since its inception, storytelling has used plot to impart moral lessons, bond tribes, dispense culture, and inspire hope. If, arguably, storytelling makes us human, perhaps storytelling matters because it’s our best hope for hope.

Storytelling promises catharsis. Since Aristotle, we’ve become more flexible about lauding royalty and upholding constraints like the plot completing in one place during one twenty-four hour period. Our emotions, though? Those haven’t changed much.

If we’ve been rooting for someone, whether real or fictional, and this individual fails the ultimate test, yet learns from it, well, we learn too. We only suffer vicariously. But what we learn from the suffering that we experienced on the page—that belongs to us as much as the protagonist. 

How do you make that happen?

~ Afflict your protagonist with a universal dilemma—one everyone can relate to.
~ Root the trouble not in fate but in one individual, one individual’s mistakes.
~ Don’t let the angst or gore overshadow the emotions and their “lessons.”
(That keeps us reading/watching “Game of Thrones.”)
~ Provide hope—like the boy who’ll live to tell the story of Camelot.

Tip: Go ahead and be as dark as you like. But offer at least a small ray of light by the end.

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