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Feel-Better Stories

Last week, I discovered a genre I’d never heard of: up lit.

One article describes up lit as “the new book trend with kindness at its core . . . novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood.”

dog - hopeful

After the past month—the past two years, actually—it sounds pretty good to me.

Earlier this year, even before the Kavanaugh debacle, I found myself pondering the question, “How do you write about hope in such dark times?”

I wish I had a terrific answer, one with clear steps and guaranteed results. Dots to connect, numbers to paint by.

Because the truth is that when we dig deep into ourselves to write, what we find may be anything but hopeful.

hopeless - hand rising from water

This is an especially disturbing notion coming from a person of faith. I know the gospel, and I’ve read Revelation, so I know how it’s all going to turn out.  (Spoiler alert: Satan loses.) I know that, as Anne Lamott says, grace bats last. Or there’s this wisdom from John Lennon:

John-Lennon-Quote-Everything-will-be-okay-in-the-end-If-it-s-not - 2

But in the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day, this world where leaders spew hatred and mobs cheer it, I’m finding hope hard to come by.

Which is why the idea of up lit appeals to me.

Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

cat - annoyed

I used to know how to do this. Many years ago, when a dear friend was dying, I coped by writing. In between cleaning her house and going to the hospital and sitting with her to give her husband a break, I wrote. At one point, I wrote a story about a man whose dear friend is dying, and I put everything I was experiencing into that story, which turned out to be sad but oddly hopeful.

When I finished that one, I decided that I really needed to smile, and so I wrote a story about a man whose sons had gone into town to fetch the payroll, except a bunch of things went wrong, but in the end, everything was okay.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw a contest for an anthology which would be entitled, “Stories That Need to be Told.” I figured that a story about things going wrong and then turning out all right was exactly the kind of story that needed to be told. The publishers apparently agreed with me, because this week, they awarded my story an honorable mention and asked if they could publish it in the anthology. (I’ll let you know when the anthology is available.)

applause

This morning, I sang three services full of great music about God, Who is totally about hope and the triumph of love. Then, I came home, took a nap, and dreamed about writing a murder mystery. I even dreamed that I wrote the story down, and when I woke up, I realized that I’d only dreamed about writing it down, so I wrote it down before I could forget it. Then, I sat down to write, only to have the story veer off in a different direction (though still involving an untimely death and somebody who may have caused it).

Okay, I grant you: a murder mystery doesn’t sound like hope. It sounds more like what’s in my brain is anything but hopeful. But consider this notion that I found somewhere (and forgot to write down where, so I can’t tell you who said it, but if it’s you, please let me know so I can give you proper credit):

Murder mysteries are the most hopeful genre.

I know that sounds weird, but think about it. In a murder mystery, something terrible has happened: a person has been murdered. A life has been taken. Indisputable wrong has been done.

Then, the detective arrives. This person may be a real detective, or she may be a dog walker, an innkeeper, a quilt maker, or any of a million other professions practiced by the amateur sleuths who populate cozy mysteries. The stakes may be pure justice, or they may be more pragmatic: if the killer isn’t caught, the sleuth (or someone near and dear to her heart) may lose her job, her home, or something else important to her. In Diane Mott Davidson’s first book, a caterer tracks down the killer after someone is poisoned at an event she catered, and she must either find out whodunit or risk her business and/or her freedom. Since cozies always end well for the heroine, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the caterer succeeds in her quest, thereby setting her up for a long-running series.

And that’s the key: in a murder mystery, the murderer is ultimately unmasked, and justice is done.

surprise

That’s what makes it such a hopeful genre. In real life, wrongdoers get away with all sorts of wrongs. They get elected to high office. They get appointed to high positions. They lie and cheat and hide information and manipulate the truth, all with no apparent consequences.

But in the mystery genre, the wrongdoers get their comeuppances. Righteous indignation rises up to correct the course. Good triumphs over evil. The truth is revealed. The price is paid. Lady Justice is satisfied.

justice

We live in a world full of wrongs. This is not a new thing. For people of the Bible, it hearkens back to the time Lucifer fell from grace because of pride. For those who do not subscribe to the Judeo-Christian heritage, the origin of evil may have a different starting point. Either way, no one can deny that it’s not a recent development.

And yet . . .

As long as people have been telling stories, they’ve told stories of hope. They’ve told stories to make each other laugh. Stories have a lot of functions, but entertainment is one of them, and inspiration is another. As far as I’m concerned, if my story makes someone smile, whether in amusement or affirmation, I’m happy.

Remember the story I mentioned earlier, the one about the man whose friend was dying? When I was writing it, I expected it to be full-on tragedy, because that was the real-life situation. Somehow, it turned out to be much more than that. Yes, the friend in the story died, but the death wasn’t the weeping, wailing, soul-crushing event I anticipated:

Joe squeezed Gabe’s hand, laid it down and rose. They could have talked forever, but the truth was that it had all been said a thousand times, in a thousand ways—by the bank of a creek after a funeral, on a summer afternoon over sugar cookies and lemonade, galloping side by side across the meadows when they were young and strong and thought their world would last forever. In a church, as the groom and his best man stood together, watching a redheaded bride walked down the aisle. A year later in that same church, as an infant girl was baptized and all present gave silent thanks that her father had lived to see that day. On a summer’s day, when one man let another ride home alone. In a small bedroom in the middle of the night, one holding the other steady as fierce coughing spewed droplets of blood across a blanket. And now, at the door to eternity, as one of them paused for an instant on the threshold, nodding to his friend one last time.

As he stood by Gabe’s bed, peace, unexpected and inexplicable, began to soothe the white-hot pain that had seared his heart ever since that summer day on C Street. He would miss Gabe every day of his life, and there would be times when the ache seemed unbearable, but for every moment of pain, there would be ten more of joy as he recalled everything they’d shared. There was no unfinished business between them. In words, in actions, in every way possible, everything had been said, and it was good.

At the door, he turned back. Gabe was still watching him. He didn’t wipe his tears, but he summoned a smile as he winked. Slowly, Gabe nodded.

And Joe opened the door, and he stepped outside that room to a world that would never be the same.

* * *

Right now, true up lit feels beyond me. I love the idea, but at this moment, it’s out of my reach.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t get there. And if you’re struggling right now, ditto for you. The only thing I know today is that this whole thing–writing, hoping, living–is a process. So for today, write what you need to write, as bravely and honestly as you can, whether it’s something to make you smile or something that gets out all the hurt and rage and terror that’s consuming you.

Once you’ve done that, when you’re fragile and damp and translucent as the shell left behind by a newborn chick, you might just find something hopeful among the shards. It may not look the way you expected hope to look, but that’s okay. It may be weird and funky and something your mother would never understand, but as long as it’s your way, and your hope, that’s what counts.

woman in meadow

 

2 thoughts on “Feel-Better Stories

  1. Loved this post! Hey Jo Anne, keep it up! I am a reader of murder mysteries. Not all the time. But sometimes. I remember my daughter Jess as upset and stuck about her housing, her boyfriend, and her job. “Everything’s awful,” she’d exclaim. One time I answered, “But the new Louise Penny is coming out in just three weeks. Hang on!” And she was encouraged. Also, I remember listening to one of them in the car with Bob and Dave. Dave summed that one up as “a bunch of retirees running around solving mysteries.” Hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

    The excerpt from your dying friend story is so lovely. Jo Anne, keep it up.

    Meanwhile, I’ve made good progress in the quilting. Showed Jess the whole process a month or two ago and was surprised how much I’d made. Currently working on a king-sized quilt for our bed and a few other things. It’s nice to have choices. Meanwhile, of course, the packathon keeps me busy. But I’m more okay than usual for this season. Thanks again. And keep writing!

    Kay

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kay, thanks so much for your lovely comments! (I haven’t read Louise Penny, but now I’m curious.) Having creative and/or ministry outlets is so important, especially in these tough times. You keep quilting and packathoning, and I’ll keep writing!

      Like

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