My parents went through the most amicable divorce of anyone I have ever known. There was no yelling and screaming before their split, during, nor after. I’m sure there were resentments for quite a time, but for my outwardly calm parents, I sure didn’t see any of it. At age 11, when they sat with me, my sister, and 2 brothers to let us know they were divorcing. I was not upset.
Actually, I was a little upset because I had to miss a softball game for this discussion. Or maybe I got to go to the softball game, but wasn’t able to hang out with my best friend afterwards. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on that. Also, my sister was upset and because she started to cry, I thought I should too.
The actual process of my parents’ separation was also pretty remarkable in its lack of drama. They chose an extremely unique solution for our transition. They rented a 2-bedroom apartment – each of them taking a bedroom and alternated living with us in the house for a full year. In other words, one month our dad would live with us, the next month our mother. WE didn’t move. THEY did. I don’t know of a single other separation agreement like this one.
[I imagine some of you at this point are wondering why in the world they split up in the first place because doesn’t it sound like they got along just fine? But others of you understand better in that “getting along” – for the most part – is not at all the same as being happy together.]
None of this is to say that it was all seamless and easy. I can’t speak to how it affected my siblings and surely I didn’t think it was all bouncy houses and softball games in how I felt about it, either. And yet, I have never ever felt the stress of the separation like so many other children do. I have been super lucky – and I definitely have both of my parents to thank for that.
It’s been 34 years since they separated, but even after only 10 years (or 5), I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even imagine them together. No fantasies of hoping they would reconcile. (Plus, my dad remarried and his wife has been a solid member of the family for some 30+ years now.)
When I look back at my young, elementary school days, I remember my mom and my dad living together with me and my siblings when I was young, but I have no real memory of them being together. I mean, in true observation, this tells me a lot about their relationship and its demise, but what I’m doing with this information now is using it to write what I know for marriage, change, and separation.
One of my projects (AS THOUGH YOU ARE MINE) reflects this idea of two people growing apart. My protagonist has difficulty in both understanding how her parents were together, but for her, she also struggles with their current relationship (they actually “hook up” from time-to-time between her father’s marriages).
Let me be clear. The parents in this story are NOT my parents. Really and truly (insert my own relief that my own parents did NOT “hook up” from time to time after divorcing – as far as I know – no really, I’m sure that did not happen). Could they see parts of themselves in each of those characters? Sure. I hope so, because that’s the idea behind good characters and fiction – that we can see ourselves in the stories, that we can feel the emotions and understand the behaviors and empathize. I imagine my mother could see some of herself in the single parent protagonist of another of my projects, too – but she is not her or vice versa.
The parents of Julie, my protagonist in AS THOUGH YOU ARE MINE, have different conflicts, different motivations, and different personalities, really, but there is a feel about them that reminds me of my own parents and this is where I am showing how I am writing what I know. Julie’s father is an attorney. That’s not an area of expertise at all for me. Her mother is a real estate agent. That’s not something I know, either. But I know relationships and I know what can make them gel or dissolve.
I know what it is for a couple that once found a future in one another to later change and find that future untenable. I understand the complicated feelings an adult child can have about her parents’ relationship when her own relationship with each parent is fraught with its own issues.
This is what authors and writing teachers mean when they say “write what you know”. Sure, it means don’t write about an experience you cannot possibly fully understand (such as growing up a slave if you are white or surviving the Holocaust when you are Christian), but as so many others have and will continue to say, if we stuck to the letter of the law in this statement vs the nature, our stories would be limited indeed.
When I create characters, I don’t base them off actual people (because really, that is just pure folly for any author, isn’t it?); rather, I use what I see of human nature and behaviors of those around me and enfold those bits into all of my characters. So while I used bits and pieces of the circumstances and behaviors of my parents in one project, so too do I use bits and pieces of other marriages and separations into others.
For the kind of stories I write – those about all kinds of relationships, this kind of inclusion is what makes them stronger and while I certainly want to get external details right, it is these internal ones that are even more important.
What kinds of pieces of human nature, relationships, or other human behavior have you caught and had your characters embrace? When have you watched something around you and thought, “oh boy, do I understand THAT”?
And for this post I pull from a Rob Thomas song:
Maybe you and me got lost somewhere
We can’t move on and we can’t stay here
Maybe we’ve just had enough
Well, maybe we ain’t meant for this love