On Trying. And Fiction. And Fish
Lately, I've read too much fiction that seems to me like this: a story opens at a point where the characters have stopped trying/hoping to make their lives change. They think about this not trying/not hoping, wondering how and why they've stopped trying/hoping. Often, there is a moment where they almost try/hope--a climax. Almost. But in the denouement, they end up not-trying/not-hoping some more. (Many of these stories take place in settings that seem to me not-inherently-hopeless--present-day suburban California, for instance, or urban New York. Quite often, by contrast, stories set in war-torn pasts or dystopic futures feature characters who are infinitely more hopeful. Or at least, um, industrious. They do things instead of contemplating their not-doing of things. Or at least feel things.) Feeling, I think, is at the heart (or not-heart) of this, rather than plot. I don't actually mind plotless stories; I mind feeling-less stories. I mind characters who don't try because they are beyond caring. And I hate the implication that not-caring is somehow deep--as if emotions muted to the point of inaudibility are more sophisticated than emotions loud enough to catalyze action. I know there are many reasons people read: to learn, to think, to explore, to dream. Me, I read to feel. I want to be moved to laughter and to tears. I want to be moved to hug my children or apologize to someone or go do something different because good things usually come out of change. No one who knows me (and, most likely, no one who has read my novel) would suggest I gravitate toward stories that are all sweetness and light. I am not Chicken Soup For The Mommy/Writer's Soul. I am not asking to be uplifted. In many of the books I dearly love, characters fail to attain their dreams. But not for lack of trying. I love Amy Bloom's characters in her most recent collection, Where The God of Love Hangs Out, for always trying to connect, despite their tendency to mess up their own lives and the lives of those they love. I love the narrator of Susan Straight's story, "Dear Mr. Atende," in the most recent issue of The Normal School, for challenging her middle-school-age son's intimidating teacher, telling him that if he makes her son feel bad again, he'll "have to deal with me. In the parking lot. I don't mean in the office, with the principal. I mean the parking lot." I love, Bob, the protagonist of Wells Tower's story, "The Brown Coast," in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, who drinks too much and is on a broken streak in which nothing--including his marriage--can survive him, for the way he "rescues" sea life from tide pools where he imagines they are stuck with nothing to eat and makes a home for them in a casket-sized aquarium. "The Brown Coast" is not what many people would consider altogether uplifting. (Fish lovers, you are forewarned.) But Bob does things. And feels things. And changes things, for better or worse. All of which I thought about the other day, months after having read the story, when I found myself in the middle of my own fish tale. In short, on Mother's Day my five-year-old daughter discovered a single baby fish in our aquarium. Apparently we have live-bearers. Who eat their young. Despite our resolve to go with "survival of the fittest" and let nature take its course, twenty-four hours later, I scooped him out and gave him his own fish nursery to live in until he grows bigger and can be reintroduced to the tank without being eaten. When I posted this on Facebook in a necessarily brief way (420 character status-update limit), I implied that my daughter giving him a name--"Glub Glub"--was my primary motivation for doing something so obviously unrealistic (the fish are going to continue to have babies, after all, that they will eat) and so, well, sappy. But here's the whole truth: yes, my fish-doting five-year-old had something to do with my decision, but I made that decision alone, while she was in school. I made it when I was sitting on the couch writing and looking over at the tank way too often and thinking about "The Brown Coast" and Bob-who-at-least-tries. I imagined myself as a character who sits on the couch typing on a computer while thinking about doing something for the baby fish being hunted by the three adult fish and doing nothing. And all I could think, then, was, I hate stories with characters like that. I hate characters like that. I'd rather be sappy and unsophisticated than choose not do something just because I'm afraid of people *thinking* I'm sappy and unsophisticated. I am grateful to the stories I love--the ones that make me feel, ones I think of as emotionally brave--for helping me understand not only who I am, but who I want to be. Even if that person turns out to be someone who crushes fish flakes into a powder for Glub Glub. And then worries about posting about it on the Internet, knowing she will look sappy and unsophisticated. And then wonders why posting something sentimental feels like a transgressive act. And then, finally, hits "Submit."

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