Friday, November 23, 2018

The Five Positives and Fiction

I’m writing this post on Thanksgiving Day, which by the time it posts will have given way to that mad shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday, the lead-in to an outburst of nonstop commercialism designed to communicate the idea that anyone who waits to shop for their loved ones will lose out.

I suppose the timing could prompt a marketing post—an overdue topic, no doubt, as marketing is the element of novel writing least often covered on this blog. But instead I’m going to focus on Thanksgiving, with both a capital and a lower-case T.

It’s a lovely idea for a holiday, Thanksgiving, even if it does sugar-coat the abominable history of those first settlers’ interactions with the Native Americans. A holiday to stop, take a breath, spend time with those close to us, and appreciate all the great things in our lives is something we all need. In this mad-rush world, taking a moment to think about the good things relieves stress and produces a much-needed balance. It’s too bad that merchandising has increasingly encroached on even the one special day devoted to that exercise in gratitude.

Giving thanks also strengthens relationships by encouraging us to notice the many kind and helpful things our partners and family members do without being asked. Dr. John Gottman, who runs the Love Lab in Seattle, has discovered that happy couples exchange five to seven times as many positive comments as negative ones and that he can predict who will divorce on that basis alone. If you don’t already give your chosen partner more praise than complaints, try switching your emphasis. You’ll be surprised. And having made the switch myself, I know why. It makes my relatives and friends feel good, of course, but perhaps just as important it makes me feel good about them. I get annoyed like everyone else, but the thanks help me keep the irritations in perspective, so they don’t block the positive things from view.

One place this approach doesn’t work, though, is in fiction—by which I mean fiction itself, not interaction with other writers, where keeping criticism positive is just as important as it is in any other arena of human contact. But novels and scripts thrive on conflict, and nothing propels conflict faster and more effectively than people who talk past one another, who just can’t let go of their own way of looking at the world. This is conflict at its most raw: not meaningless arguments, which soon become boring and predictable, but the clash that occurs between people with fundamentally different views of how life works, who can’t find a point of agreement even if they want to (and in fiction, they usually don’t want to).

And why can’t they resolve their differences, at least until the end of the story? Because they can’t accept that the other person also means well, even if he or she seems misguided, or can’t believe that the other person has knowledge they lack or that their own blind spots may be getting in their way. They can’t, in short, appreciate the other person. They don’t feel thankful that this person, so unlike themselves, has entered their lives. Even antagonists don’t see themselves as unhelpful, never mind evil, although antagonists are perhaps less likely than any other category of fictional character to understand that their way of approaching life is not everyone’s and their desire for some object or goal can’t justify trampling on the rights and feelings of others.

But we are not fictional characters, and if we make the effort, we can understand the value of reaching across the aisle—in the general, not simply the political sense. So let’s, by all means, read and watch and enjoy the struggles of our favorite good guys and bad guys as their authors strive to keep them benighted and apart until the resolution. But in our lives let’s remember to express our gratitude for the good things our fellow humans do. Thanksgiving, it turns out, can be an all-year event.

And one last thank you to my readers: as of this week, this blog has had more than 100,000 hits. Some of them bots, undoubtedly, but for those who were not, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. May we have many more virtual exchanges, and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

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