The Rest is Silence: a meditation

Who’s there?” is the very first line of Hamlet and has the first line of anything managed quite as much? Putting aside all the arguments for and against Shakespeare,

Who’s there?

is both a beginning and an end. It’s a portent. It asks that those we are starting with come forward and suggests that we may not end with everyone present.

Also, right now, in the audience, all through our own hearts, who’s there?

Because, the question is for us, as well. Who is with us? Whose hand are we holding? Whose head is in our lap? Whose mouth working over our skin? Whose ghosts are at our shoulder?

Who’s there?

This is the place to start, how we have started our days as children in school, a roll call, which is actually an accounting of the stakes at hand.

Who is here, right now, as the action begins, as the day begins, as the night begins, as this love begins? At every turning point, every plot twist, every revelation, every confession, every secret, we must ask again, who’s there?

I mean, of course, death, and that an accounting of who is present is the suggestion that they may not always be. The stakes of love are, in fact, always death.

It’s been a difficult world to live in lately. Terrible losses of humanity in terrible ways. It’s news that sends us into the arms of those we love; it’s these kind of events that shut down cellular communication with those we love because the very first thoughts we have, when something unthinkable has happened—I must hear their voice. We’re familiar now, with this awful routine—the news, the hours of busy signals while we refresh our browsers until some virtual way station is set up.

Who’s there?

I have a post-it stuck where I write and it says, it is always loss. I wrote it as the answer to any question I might have as I make a story.  Even the joy is loss, because joy isn’t possible without sacrifice.

If loss is the answer, the most useful question after who’s there is what do you want? In fact, it is best if we simply start any paragraph we’re not sure of with I want, he wants, she wants, I wanted, he wanted, she wanted. Because if you start there, you will know what this character requires to make it through the next part of their life.

And you will also know what it is that will devastate them.

I want to hold you in my arms.

I want to kiss you.

I want to tell you about my day at the end of every one.

I want to take you into my bed, and make love to you.

I want to see the world with you.

I want to grow old with you.

I want you to understand me.

I want you to hear me.

The echo is both the loss of fulfillment and the loss implied in the sacrifice. To hold you, the world must have physical hold on you, there must be life and presence and a heart pumping blood. To hold someone also means you have been given trust and consent. The losses you accept when you claim “I want to hold you in my arms,” are nothing less than the loss of life, the losses of trust and permission. If you are to be fulfilled, you are also to accept inevitable loss. Even if you are able to hold onto trust, to love, none of us can hold onto life. What’s more, to have received a love in your arms, you have already made significant sacrifices that will become more significant over time. No one is exempt from grief, even if it comes late.

It is always loss.

So the writer must not only catalog, for her reader, what it is her character wants, but the losses inherent in these desires. Our readers do not want to guess what it is these losses are. We must grieve for these losses, we must recognize the potential depth and breadth of these losses, even if the character doesn’t, or cannot, or it isn’t a time in the character’s life where he or she has the perspective to grieve over what he or she has lost or will lose.

When we say, then, as readers that we want our love stories to have real stakes, we must understand that true stakes are not material, nor do they require explanation. When we say that we don’t feel a love story we are reading has true stakes, I believe what we mean is that the writer did not explicitly state the ordinary stakes of love—which is something we need reminding of, is something we need to hear in repetition. He loves her, and he will lose her. If not now, inevitably. She loves him, and she will lose him, if not now, inevitably.

If we build our story explaining, then, the specific nature of our characters’ love, the stakes will have no choice but to rise. The more invested we are in the love, in who wants the love and what kind of love they want, the more invested we are in the delay of loss and grief.

Who’s there? It is a roll call, and every response to this call is a place for us to lay stakes. Hamlet’s last words in his play are the rest is silence. Everything that is left will fail to answer a call—either because we have lost them, or because they are concealing themselves from loss.

O, I die, Hamlet begins this final speech. The stakes of his love have always been death. And death is represented large in this tragedy—skulls and ghosts and murder. It is tragedy, so we are to be invested in death in order to understand how Hamlet loves.

I write romances, and I must represent death, too. Except, I do so by investing my readers in love, by cataloging who is there, by stating as plainly as I can what it is my characters want and describing with terrible, investing beauty the precise nature of their love. If I write love, the echo will be its loss.

And it is always loss, the stakes of love.

That’s why when we are confronted with terrible losses in our world, when our loved ones are in danger, when we are in danger ourselves, we reach for our loves. We must be reassured that our own losses have been delayed, just a little longer. For those who have finally met grief, we grieve by loving our own.

So, I have to ask writers, when they tell us what it is their characters want, so that we can know what they stand to lose, please help me also understand how it is they might grieve. Is there love such, that when they face their inevitable loss, they will lose themselves? Or is this a love that when lost, will link to other loves, loves these characters have found together, or made the other ready for?

Whose hand are we holding? Whose head is in our lap? Who’s there?

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Hail, the Competent Hero

There are a few careers for heroes in Romancelandia that are decidedly non-wonky. Rock star, movie star. Doctor, lawyer, FBI agent. Navy SEAL, billionaire tycoon. We see them over and over again, in a kind of shorthand for character. These careers seem universally appealing, and often are used as defining characteristics for our heroes.

There are a whole slew of reasons these jobs are so common in Romanceland– they exemplifiy something about traditional male gender roles; the people who do them are often physically fit and conventionally attractive; most imply some kind of power, whether it is physical or financial.

But there is one more element to these careers that I think is even more necessary than wealth, or power, or abs, and that’s competence.

For the moment, I’m going to leave aside the discussion of the problems inherent with using a character’s job as a kind of shorthand, because it does seem to be a common practice. We talk about the “kindergarten-teacher hero” in Tamara Morgan’s The Rebound Girl; entire series lines are devoted to heroes in a particular career path. There’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about this labeling, though.

Most of us do our jobs in a certain amount of anonymity. Sometimes that anonymity comes from the private nature of our work, done in a cubicle or from a desk at home or on a line in a factory. Sometimes it comes from the specialized nature of the work itself: I, for example, have absolutely no idea what the work of a competent claims adjuster looks like, nor do I know how to assess the performance of a lab tech. What I can appreciate, though, is an excellent performance from an actor or (if I knew anything about sports) an athlete.

For those occupations that aren’t performed in the public eye, but are so common in the romance world, there is a presumed competence. Of course there are incompetent doctors, lawyers, or billionaires. But the fact that the law or medicine requires years of rigorous study means that many of us assume that only the capable go into those fields in the first place. The very financial success of the billionaire tycoon is a signifier not only of wealth or power or security, but of the assumption that said tycoon is good at what he does. There must be incompetent FBI agents or Navy SEALS; but when the job is physically dangerous, the hero’s mere existence is proof that he must be good at it. After all, he’s doing something terrifying and is still alive.

So, what about those of us who want to write about heroes who are janitors, or roofers, or unemployed llama farmers? (Note: if anyone writes a romance featuring an unemployed llama farmer as a hero, I will die of joy.)

Let me tell you a little story.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m married to a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. His work is bound by ethics guidelines that ensure clients’ privacy, which means that while I have a general idea of what his day might be like or the kinds of problems he might deal with, I cannot know the specifics. Intellectually, I’m aware that my husband must be pretty good at his job, and I’m sure that no one can talk about the philosophy behind what he does so well and not be good at it. But, of course, since I’m not a social worker myself, and because I’ve never seen him at work, all of that knowledge remains in the abstract.

Then, one night during dinner at a sidewalk cafe, a highly intoxicated, probably marginally housed, man passed out on the sidewalk near our table. My husband stood up, and I watched, fascinated, as he called an ambulance, and with a smoothness I would never have expected, removed a bottle of vodka that had been secreted somewhere on the man’s person and disposed of it. By the time the ambulance arrived, the man was conscious and had agreed to go to a detox center, and yet the whole interaction was so subtle that most of the diners in the sidewalk cafe had no idea any of it had taken place.

Seeing him in action just utterly swamped me with how good he is, really, at what he does, in a way I hadn’t fully understood before. And of course, that made me appreciate him even more. I saw him through a lens I’d never used.

It’s easy to write competence into a billionaire Dom story; but writing it into a broke-ass submissive’s story is much harder. We have to work at finding out what makes our characters shine, search for the right lens for them. If that unemployed llama farmer is secretly awesome at building robots in his garden shed; if the cashier at a garden center is raising his daughter alone and tells the very best bedtime stories; if the hero who hates his job as an accountant can bake a mean brioche, readers need to see it happen.

In many of the books where a protagonist has rung false, I’ve noticed that sometimes the problem, for me, is related to competence. If the hero or heroine acts in a way that is grossly incompetent, I find it difficult to overcome– especially if the reader is told that the character is supposed to be good at what they do. And in the books that are most memorable, the protagonists’ competence is deftly drawn. Think of Christy from To Love and to Cherish by Patricia Gaffney. He’s a vicar, and a good one, and we know this because we see him in moments large and small, struggling but serving the people of Wyckerly. Or Tamara Morgan’s kindergarten-teacher hero, Matt, standing in front of twenty-five five-year-olds and silencing them just by raising his hand.

As a reader, have you had similar moments when you’ve read about competent heroes? As a writer, how do you create those moments? And, maybe most challenging of all– what about an incompetent hero? Is that possible? How would a writer pull it off?

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | 29 Comments

Making Candy on the Deck of the Titanic

Bird by Bird coverLast week I re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The last time I’d read it was ten years ago, when I was struggling to write and submit literary short stories and getting loads of enthusiastic rejection letters. It wasn’t an era I look back on with great fondness, but I remember that book being one of the lights of my writing life. So I was planning on the experience of re-reading it being a lot like coming home.

In many ways, it was.

Anne Lamott still writes better than anyone I know about what it feels like to envy other writers, even writers we love and admire. About the voices—the radio station KFKD—that drown out our creativity. About the power of the subconscious— “the cellar where the little boy sits who creates the characters, and … hands them up to you through the cellar door. He might as well be cutting out paper dolls. He’s peaceful; he’s just playing.”

She writes brilliantly about how publication doesn’t make you happier, quoting the coach in the movie Cool Runnings, which follows the first Jamaican bobsled team: “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”

And her section on giving, on giving yourself completely to every project you set before you, is completely true and also makes me cry every time, because of the story she tells to illustrate what true giving looks like. If you haven’t read it or don’t remember it, now is a good time for a refresher.

I also loves the way she writes about the joy writing brings to lives:

Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like it own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there, shining.


It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

But I was struck this time by the ways in which Bird by Bird is aimed at literary writers, struck by Lamott’s scorn for what she calls “formula fiction.” “When you get serious,” Lamott writes, “you will be dealing with the one thing you’ve been avoiding all along—your wounds. This is very painful. It stops a lot of people early on who didn’t get into this for the pain. They got into it for the money and fame. So they either quit, or they resort to a type of writing that is sort of like candy making.”

I didn’t get into it for the pain. And I don’t think you have to get into it for the pain in order to shine like a lighthouse. Granted, writing is not easy work. It’s some of the hardest work there is. And publishing—well, publishing, as Lamott so very wisely notes, may make you crazy in larger proportion than it makes you happy. So there are moments when it hurts, when it’s hard, when it makes no sense, when it feels—as my mom’s good friend said to her about her writing career—“like balloon rides and hammer blows.”

But I don’t think that if you’re not into pain that means you have to resort to a type of writing that is “sort of like candy making.” Or maybe another way to put this is that I don’t believe that making candy for people is lesser than mining and exposing the deepest crevasses of our pain.

Lamott’s words about singing as the storm rages, how it can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship, reminded me of an iconic image—the musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic. They played ragtime tunes, and at the end, possibly “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and “Autumn,”—witness accounts vary. Ragtime and hymns. Music that was probably scorned by academics and the intellectual elite of that era as, respectively, entertainment or opiate. Not art. But those people on the Titanic’s deck were not looking to be educated or edified or improved. They were looking to be distracted, to be uplifted, to be reminded that there is light wherever you shine it, at the darkest moments.

I can’t help thinking that even if the Titanic is sinking, which it almost assuredly is, always, today, somewhere, I would like to be one of the musicians who played on the deck. That seems like good, solid work, not work to be ashamed of, not the sort of thing that ought to be equated with quitting. Entertainment, the bringing of joy into lives—these are not pursuits that should be underestimated. I would like to tell the truth, be a lighthouse, and make candy. And so I shall, with no shame, bird by bird.

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