Most of my family and friends have stopped asking me the “P” question. They know and trust that if I have news to share about the status of my books, they’ll be the first to know.
Not so, Shirley Shark.
Shirley Shark – as I like to think of her – enters my social sea about twice a year. Every time she locates me during a party, my heart hitches, my belly tenses and my breath turns to sludge in my chest. Short of full-blown eye-twitches and seizures, I’m a physical and mental wreck. My dread of her approach pools around me as clearly as blood in the water. Shirley Shark likes to circle in with a wide schadenfreude smile. My middle name turns to “Chum.”
A few weeks ago our exchange went something like this:
Murmur, murmur, weather, weather, nicety, nicety, and …
S.S.: “So, any publishing news? Sold anything yet?” Twenty-two rows of teeth gleamed.
M.M.: “Oh, you know …”
I’m not proud about what happened next. I swear to God, I meant to tell her what I’ve told her 31 times before, but to my mortification, I stuttered the one word I shouldn’t have: “P-P-Published.”
The “P” word left my mouth like a verbal fart. I couldn’t call it back. A dear friend standing at my side looked as surprised and horrified as I felt. She knew this was a lie and she understood how much I dreaded talking to Shirley Shark about my writing.
Shirley Shark’s smile dipped. Her shoulders dropped. The predatory gleam in her eye dimmed. “Really? You did get published? When? How?”
Whatever nano-second of self-satisfaction I enjoyed was snuffed out as I back-stroked and retracted the statement – badly, awkwardly, but as quickly as possible. Shirley Shark then brightened and spoke a few condescending words of encouragement before she swam off while I tried to figure out what in the world had possessed me.
The mystery of this whole scenario is that I’ve fielded this same question from countless people over the years and I can answer with truth, grace and goodwill.
For me though, Shirley Shark is “The One.” She’s the one person in my wider social circle who consistently unseats my self-confidence and reduces me to worm status.
So. What’s the point of this story?
Writing + Time = Insight
I had a sudden epiphany after I finished my second novel. Both books had the same underlying theme, even though I thought they were wildly different stories. Both narratives had something to teach me about forgiveness. Not just forgiveness in a general sense, but specifically in regards to a child forgiving an adult. Writing those books and getting to know those characters opened up a path to compassion and revealed a place inside me that needed to be healed.
In the movie “Jaws,” Roy Scheider’s character, upon seeing the size of the man-eating shark for the first time, says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” As writers, we get to build that “bigger boat” for ourselves. Be it sharks, monsters, bullies, neuroses, self-doubt – we can craft the vessel or fort or castle or hot-air balloon we need to find a safe vantage point to explore what haunts or hunts us.
I don’t have a profound insight on my ongoing issue with Shirley Shark quite yet. My hunch is that something inside her touches upon an unresolved or unenlightened piece of my own psyche. I could try to psychoanalyze the issue, but I’d rather keep writing. I may not understand Shirley Shark, but I bet there’s a future character inside me who does.
Whether we will it or not, know it or not, intend it or not, our characters often appear to show us what lurks in our personal shadows. Sometimes, our characters come to light for our own benefit. Sometimes, they show up carrying tender blueprints.