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?

About Mary Ann Rivers

Mary Ann Rivers writes smart and emotional contemporary romance. Read more >
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22 Responses to The Rest is Silence: a meditation

  1. Katy Cooper says:

    Yet another Wonkomance I will need to chew on for a while. Thank you.

  2. Sarah Frantz says:

    Maybe somewhat off topic, except in reading this amazing post, I was reminded of it, so my brain connected them at least: Margaret Atwood’s fabulous essay, “Happy Endings”.

    I’ve been noticing the best stories I edit/read are those that show the characters seriously fucking up, show how they deal with the loss they themselves have caused, and show how that makes the relationship stronger after destroying it.

    Thank you for this. I’m not being nearly as articulate as you, except for, “what she said.”

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Atwood really has a way, doesn’t she?

      There is just no way to enter into love and not fuck up. The fucking up, actually, is okay. That’s okay. It’s how it’s handled that makes the story. It’s the characters’ acknowledgements to each other that they have borne losses and that what they have received in return will still sustain them. Or more than sustain them.

      I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see that you commented :)

      • Sarah Frantz says:

        Um, thank you? I’m nothing special. I’m just glad I get to hang around all you amazing women. :)

        It’s the characters’ acknowledgements to each other that they have borne losses and that what they have received in return will still sustain them.

        This is the key to a story I just acquired. And I acquired it precisely because I love how deeply the characters fuck up and how they go about acknowledging what they’ve done. Also (and I know I go ON about this book), but Alexis Hall’s GLITTERLAND is exactly about this.

  3. I can’t emphasize how much I love this. I am going to print it and reread it today just because I can and I want.

    So often in HEA there is nothing (or there is everything, which sometimes amounts to the same thing) at stake–the trope of HEA insists positive resolution and thus the stakes might feel false or forced.

    But loss is always the answer. OMG.

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Thank you, Cherri!

      I love that you pointed out that when everything is at stake it is just as meaningless as when nothing is. So true, and why some very high narrative drama books work, and many don’t.

      Right, this is a complication of the HEA, not an undermining of it, but an enrichment of it. A way to point out that happiness in romance really isn’t overdetermined.

  4. Megan Mulry says:

    So beautiful. And so (selfishly) perfect for the manuscript I’m working on right this very minute. So much loss that I was not properly connecting to the love story. “If you are to be fulfilled, you are also to accept inevitable loss.” This also reminds me of Brene Brown lecture (as nearly everything does lately) about vulnerability and wholeheartedness. The depth of love and loss are from the same pool, the same place inside me. Both are terrifying places for me, but I can’t stay away; it’s rich there. Thanks for unwittingly clarifying that I have been too timid with this heroine, too afraid to let her suffer through it, to live. Thanks for saying so much, so well. Just, thank you.

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Oh, Megan, you’re welcome. I couldn’t be more pleased that something I wrote helped another writer in practical application.

      I think we are so afraid, sometimes, to visit loss on our characters because we know precisely what kind of sad bastard it will make them. Because we are sad bastards, or have been. Forgetting, like you said, where our love and happiness came from in the first place.

      I love what you said “to let her suffer through it, to live.” Yes. Exactly.

  5. A friend just posted the below quote to facebook and got me thinking that my question is: how does this character separate themselves from the love they need/want/deserve?

    Quoted: “Your path is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find within yourself all the barriers you have built against it.” ~Rumi “The more we are mindful of the ways we create separation, the more we have some choice about it.”- Tara Brach, Tara Brach podcast, The Barriers to Loving Presence

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      The character who has constructed walls against love, or separated themselves against it is such a familiar characterization, I think primarily because it is so satisfying to see how those walls come down, or how the character finds a way to connect. Or, to see what it other characters do to smash down the walls or connect to that character.

      It’s even more trope-y when this character is very obviously characterized to deserve love more than any other, but denies themselves this love. They save orphans, or whatever, and are also a grumpy hermit or wear spectacles and prefer books over people, etc. I both resist and find myself outrageously attracted to this trope. I mess around with it all the time.

      Because, we want there to be an answer that isn’t giving something up, or letting something die, or killing something. It’s not rescue, precisely, but something more like being seen and being fought for, when we have lost the ability to fight for ourselves.

      I like to say that a crush is not on the object of affection but on something about the object you want for yourself, and I have sort of a crush on this trope.

  6. Edie Danford says:

    Thanks so much for this piece of beauty and thoughtfulness. One of the deepest satisfactions I get as a reader is finding a book I can connect with–finding a book that makes me think “hey, someone understands and I’m not so alone…through the creation of scenes and settings and characters and dialog, someone out there has connected with my heart through words…someone is THERE!” And as I writer I am always thinking of potential and possible readers, wondering if I’m succeeding in creating anything that will forge a connection and make some happiness. But it’s the creation of my written characters–the getting the stuff out of my head and onto the page–that’s the process where this question “who’s there?” most resonates. I need to practice “more explicitly stating the ordinary stakes of love” and it’s always baffling how hard this is for me. I always want to make the love extraordinary, you know, even when the ordinary stakes of love are quite blessedly and beautifully enough.

    (Here I want to go on a long tangent about one of my fave books from my angsty teen years, Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is mostly about death and that question “who’s there”–complete with a sort-of discussion of Yorick’s skull–and in which, at the story’s end, they find solace by answering the question “who’s there” in a way that knocks me out every time I read it. But you kind of need to have read it to get what I’m saying and, see? I digress.)

    Anyway, thanks again for the provoking post. :-)

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Oh! I liked Franny and Zooey, too.

      Yes–I think it’s easy to forget that we can, we really, really can simply do away with subtext and have, you know, text. We can plainly state what it is our characters want, or think that they want. We can talk about their love in the baldest terms possible.

      Then, every time this character is on the page, we know what they want, and rejoice when their dramatic action supports those wants, and despair when they are fucking it up. Also, when they are with their love, we know what it is, and we also know the stakes, and the narrative can tell us how close they are to knowing, too.

      • Ruthie says:

        God, I have so much trouble with this — doing away with subtext and baldly stating things. Yet when I do, it works so much better. And I feel so naked. Aiee.

  7. Shari Slade says:

    Without bitter, there is no sweet.

    It’s almost always the loss that I connect with in a story…and I rejoice in the unexpected rewards those losses so often bring.

    I just love everything you’ve written here. It speaks to my soul as person and as a writer.

    You’re a blessing. Thank you.

  8. Serena Bell says:

    This makes so much of my year make sense to me. Before I left my old home last year, before our big move, I felt like I was living this unbelievably charged and blessed life–I kept describing my life as luminous. Because I was constantly poised on the end of loss, knowing that I was going to leave all these people I loved so much. But it made the love so sharp and perfect and clear. I’ve never felt so exactly and so keenly how much I loved anyone as I felt ALL THE TIME those last few weeks with my favorite friends and family. And on this side of things, it’s like the same process in reverse–any time I start to feel the early edge of affection or love, I feel its opposite, the END of it, the precise nature of loss, already there, because I just so recently had to say so many goodbyes. Sadly, it’s not quite as luminous on this side (though I don’t mean to be totally grim–I am finding new people to love). I kept thinking as it was happening to me–the ending part in my old home–that I could never regret leaving because I’d been given those amazing weeks of living so totally fully, but of course now I do. :-) Still, maybe it has permanently changed me for the better, because I can always think about being poised in that way and living that hard, and maybe I can write something that captures that. THANK YOU for writing this and making me cry and being awesome.

  9. Ruthie says:

    In a timely fashion, I had a long conversation with Kidlet today about what happens if I die, and his father dies, and who does he go to live with, and how do they know he is supposed to live with them, and how would we both die, exactly, and how likely is that? And will I live longer than him, or will he live longer than me? And just how sad will I be if he dies tomorrow? Oh, I will cry a lot? But adults don’t really cry very much. And okay Mama it’s fine now I just want to watch Transformers, and why are you so weepy?

    I remember, quite clearly, having this same conversation with my mother. I needed to know about death. But the loss I understood at four years old, contemplating this possible future, was the loss of my comforts — my bed, my toys, my parents who knew how to do things the proper way as opposed to my grandparents, who were fusty and old and did not know how books were to be read or foods to be prepared.

    I am thinking, tonight, about the inevitability of death, and the way it sharpens the edges of love.

    And I’m thinking, too, about the readers — the ones who will receive the story I’m editing today and really hear it, respond to it, accept it. The ones who need to hear a different story. Who’s out there in the world, and who’s here at this blog, being lovely. :-)

  10. Amber Lin says:

    What a truly lovely post. I found myself literally not breathing while reading it and had to remind myself to do it again.

    I’m really stuck on (read: confused about) this idea about telling something plainly versus wrapping it up in subtext and metaphor and pithy lines. Because I like plain speaking and also like language acrobatics. I suppose, at some point, it becomes a question of which gets the point across better. But not at an eagle’s eye view, I think. At a paragraph or sentence or word level. Perhaps it should be inverse to the complexity of the moment. Poetic language to describe a landscape, for example, might be a fun way to convey necessary setting information. But when it comes to truths, we can stick to simple words and simple structures.

    I’ve been reading, very slowly, the book The Night Circus. It’s strange because the language is so straightforward and yet none of the characters, except perhaps one side character, seems to talk about what they want or think about it. We have to guess, and yet I suspect my guess would be similar to another reader’s guess, which means it’s being shown somewhere, somehow. It’s really challenging what I know about craft. Or rather, telling me that all that stuff I learned was not the true thing. So. I’m not sure what to do about that.

  11. Doren Cassale says:

    As I was reading through this, a couple of things occurred to me. First, that you are right. Very, very right and eloquently so.

    Second, that in addition to the stakes and the “Who’s there?” is another element that, as both authors and readers, influences our perception of just how powerful these things are. Namely, the knowledge that the pain of loss often fades, and the imprint left behind is not necessarily love itself, but a memory of love that is just as powerful. It is not just a “Who will be there for me in my time of pain and need?” but also, “If, someday, I surprise myself by recalling that pain, that journey, and/or that moment in time when I knew you were there, will you be there again to corroborate what is now just another story in my life?” As a reader, believing this about the ripple effect of the loss/love relationship in a romance is just as important as believing in its immediate presentation.

    Third, this post has made me think of all those other losses. Not between romantic partners, but romantic just the same, like when my eldest stopped saying “hopoo-nay-nay” and started saying “hippopotamus.” Then, I cheered and wept at the same time. He was there for me, and he was my loss, too.

    Finally, I will say that I am commenting after some small prompting from Ruthie, so if I manage to say anything remotely intelligent, it is only because of her. And if I have said all things foolish, it is 100% me. Either way, you are all fantastic, wonky women.

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  13. I’m late to this party, as I am to most parties these days. But I wanted you to know how much I appreciate this post, both on a theoretical level and a personal, immediate one.

    I drafted more of a comment than this, talking about spending the nights in my dad’s hospital room so that his “who’s there” in the middle of the night would have a steady and familiar answer, but the comment got too… something or other. Self-indulgent? Uncomfortable? Anyway I erased it.

    The part I still want to say is that you added a dimension to my understanding of some things I’d thought I already understood. Thank you for that.