“It’s been an awful year,” I said to my brother Andrew. It was 11:30 on New Year’s Eve 2016, just outside of Seattle, and we were the only ones in the house still up. The music was low, the kitchen was a warm glow in the darkness, and the mood was much more suited to introspection than celebration. My baby nephew was cranky with a cold. Andrew and his wife had just come back from visiting her dying aunt in the hospital. A planned fun evening with my husband’s sister had been cancelled after she badly sprained her ankle.
And that was just December 31. Our father had died in September, after fighting pancreatic cancer for three years. It had been a difficult few months, especially for Andrew, who was still coming to terms with the fact that his son would never know his Grandpa Steve. The country had just gone through an ugly election, and one of my first thoughts at the time was that I was glad my dad hadn’t lived to see it.
Andrew leaned back in his chair and said, “F*** 2016.”
And I had to agree. But I was hopeful for 2017. Grief doesn’t last forever, after all, even though it sometimes feels that way.
What do you do when sadness pulls you down? With so many serious things happening in the world, it sometimes seems hard to justify spending time on a trivial activity like writing fiction. You may think, “What good will it do? How is this going to change humanity for the better?”
Despite my hopes for 2017, the year hasn’t been all kittens and birthday cake. The massacre in Las Vegas two weeks ago hit close to home—literally. I live only a couple of hours away from that glittering, self-absorbed, resilient city. A couple of good friends were at the Route 91 Harvest concert at which 58 people were senselessly murdered and hundreds of others injured. Though my friends are physically fine, the pieces of their story that they have so far shared are absolutely heart-rending.
And once again, it’s hard not to wonder, “Why bother? Why am I wasting my time on this when there are important and real things to do in the world—things that may actually make a difference?”
The plays of William Shakespeare tend to be divided into histories, tragedies, and comedies. (For purposes of this post, I’m going to ignore further divisions such as romances and tragicomedies.) In the simplest possible terms, if the play ends with everyone getting married, it’s a comedy. If it ends with everyone dead, it’s a tragedy. As for the histories—well, I’m going to ignore them, too.
There always have been, and always will be, happy stories and sad stories. My husband can always tell when my book club is reading something sad, because I’ll be down for days. (My book club went through a phase where it seemed that the only books we read were about Nazis or slavery. Whoa. Just—whoa.)
Humans need sad stories. The tragedies—the deep tales that dredge up all the emotions we usually prefer to keep buried—can serve a cathartic purpose. A catharsis, according to Brittanica.com is, “…the purification or purgation of the emotions (especially pity and fear) primarily through art.” It goes on to add, “… through experiencing fear vicariously in a controlled situation, the spectator’s own anxieties are directed outward, and, through sympathetic identification with the tragic protagonist, his insight and outlook are enlarged. Tragedy then has a healthful and humanizing effect on the spectator or reader.”
In practical terms, tragic stories can give us the impetus and courage to change things—whether within ourselves or in the world at large. Who could read The Nightingale, The Book Thief, or The Invention of Wings and not want to fight evil and ignorance with every last breath?
But maybe you prefer stories that make you happy. I know I do. The ones you choose to tell probably depend in some measure on the ones you like to be told. Because I prefer comedies (in the Shakespearean sense of the word), that’s what I try to write. I love stories in which unhappy things may happen, but in which everything comes out all right in the end. Light-hearted tales may not garner the respect that serious ones do, but they can release us, at least temporarily, from a life or a world that may be less than perfect.
We humans need the happy stories as much as we need the sad ones. Studies have shown that reading fiction makes people more empathetic. Check out this article: “Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Person”. We could all use more empathy, right?
Here’s another article, this one from the TTOF family. Rosalyn Eves has written an encouraging post that touches on the importance of fiction as an escape.
And in case you simply have a hard time opening up that document file and getting to work, Megan Paasch has some good tips for writing when external things get to be too much.
Because I want to write a comedy—because I prefer them—I’m going to finish with a couple of happy things. Thousands of people survived the worst shooting in modern U.S. history. Stories have emerged from that terrible night—stories of heroes, human connections, lives well lived, and legacies handed down.
Finally, on a more personal note, my brother and I had never been close. We have different mothers, he’s fourteen years younger than me, we live 1,100 miles apart, and we haven’t shared a home since I was seventeen and he was three. But my dad’s cancer sparked a friendship between us that might not have happened otherwise. Because of something tragic, I’ve gained new relationships with a brother, a sister-in-law, a nephew, and even a handful of step-cousins.
And that’s worth writing about.
Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah and writes renaissance-era historical fantasy. She read—i.e. memorized—her first book, The Owl and the Pussycat, when she was two. She likes to think this is where she got her first taste for thrilling adventures in magical lands, spiced with a touch of romance. When she’s not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she enjoys spending time with her four independent children, an adventure-loving husband, and more dogs and cats than she likes to admit. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden.