Your #1 Responsibility as a Writer

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A writer friend I know adores her hero and heroine so much that she’s afraid of hurting them.

Your #1 Responsibility as a Writer

She realizes her story reads flat, but can’t seem to put any real obstacles in their paths, despite the depth it would add to their journeys and the improved experience for her readers. Another writer recently told me he dislikes dark books, characters, plots, anything. He feels that life has enough suffering and not enough happiness.

I agree there’s too much pain in this world, but I also believe there’s a bigger discussion about your responsibility as a writer that needs to take place here at The Write Practice.

Every Writer's Responsibility

In my opinion, your #1 responsibility as a writer is…

To tell the truth.

Why?

Because it’s your job to show the world as it is… how it should be… what’s wrong… what’s right. This applies to fiction and nonfiction alike, whether you write humor, thought-provoking essays, or novels with incredible twists and turns.

Every fact in your story can be made-up, but you still should reveal the authenticity of those characters in their particular story, whether it's positive, negative, or somewhere in between.

Harry Potter is much more than a fantasy about a boy wizard. It teaches empathy for the disenfranchised, courage under pressure, teamwork, creative problem-solving and countless other lessons.

Don’t Sugarcoat the Truth

That said, I must admit I’m freaked out by my latest novel.

It’s the darkest story I’ve ever written. Each week, I write two new rough chapters and am shocked by the somber subject matter. I yank my fingers off the keyboard and think—I can’t believe I just wrote that.

I’m googling things like:

How long does it take for a dead body to decompose in winter?

What are the physical effects of meth?

How much does a bus ride cost?

I’m a little piece of white bread from Texas. I’ve ridden the bus before, but I’ve never done meth and know nothing about dead bodies. What will my mother say when she reads my book?

I’ll deal with my family issues later.

My #1 responsibility right now is to the tell the truth of the characters in this story.

I’ve read some of my work to trusted beta readers who are loving it. Despite the dark subject matter, they say it’s balanced with hope and even joy.

They want to know what happens next, despite the poor choices some of my characters are making.

Don’t Sensationalize the Truth

On the flipside, I also believe it’s just as wrong to write for shock value, such as being over gratuitous with violence or sex. I could probably publish Sixty-Nine Shades of Zombie Dinosaur Sex and become a huge bestseller. I could laugh myself all the way to bank. It sure would make my husband happy to retire and to live in a lap of luxury.

But, that’s not the story of my heart and it’s not what this novel calls for. I plan to write the truth of my characters to the best of my ability. No more and no less.

I hope you show your readers the same respect.

Do you think this is a writer's responsibility? How much truth do you include in your writing? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Today, I want everyone to focus on the same character, Maria. Give her both a big dream and a big struggle: a financial crisis, a divorce, an addiction. What happens to Maria with her dream and her struggle?

Take fifteen minutes to tell his story, then please share in the comments. Remember, if you post a practice, please comment on your fellow writers’ work.

Enjoy!

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

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47 Comments

  1. Dana Schwartz

    Great post Marcy! I lean toward the side of not wanting to hurt my characters, but lately I’ve been better at putting them in harm’s way when the story calls for it. I’m the kind of person who watches a movie and yells at the screen, no don’t do that! But if they don’t, there’s no reason to continue watching – or reading.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      That’s funny how you yell at the movie screen, Dana. Every person’s life had joy and pain, so we must honor both for our readers. Take care.

      Reply
  2. Kirsi

    (I have to admit I let my inner proofreader grab the tell his story line and run with it)

    ***
    When you look up gender-neutral names in some languages, what you get is pages and pages of names, something that always left Maria wondering, what it might be like, growing with a language like this. But in Maria’s native language, the only name the search engines come up with, consistently, is, indeed, Maria. And even that comes with a sort of excuse, an explanation about the traditional respect for the Virgin and a list of examples of the people, the men who had Maria as a name. Never a first name. Only a second.

    At least, not officially, right?

    Maria still find comfort in it, prints it out, folds the page so that no-one can read it, just in case, and carries it around in the wallet.

    ***
    Maria gets a short haircut (you look even more feminine, my dear, how do you manage to pull this off?). Maria wears business clothes, and they are strictly black and white (girl, you look hot in this! This tie – tying someone’s hands up later, aren’t you, naughty girl?) Maria gets rid of all the make-up (honestly, I respect you so much, you’re one of the real feminists, aren’t you? You go, girl!)

    None of these little things would have been enough of themselves, Maria has to admit. But they don’t work, anyway, and that leaves Maria staring in the mirror, looking hopelessly for other things to fix, to help the others see the real person that is talking to them.

    But even the mirror lies, and shows a girl whose hair is too short to be styled properly. Maybe buzzing it off would help things – but Maria knows well that it won’t work either. Will anything?

    ***

    Maria’s hair grows longer and longer (they wouldn’t let you do this in the army, man). There’s a stack of bright and silly t-shirts in the wardrobe (why don’t you dress your age?). There’s eau de cologne on Maria’s bathroom shelf, three bottles, no less.

    Maria keeps his name. As a second one.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Gender-bending with Maria. Clever, Kirsi. I was intrigued from the beginning and wanted to know what would happen next. You can’t ask for anymore from your readers. Well done.

      Reply
    • EndlessExposition

      I love how this is so simply worded and yet conveys the pain Maria endures from misgendering with so much power. I myself am not trans, but my friends who are have told me a lot of stories similar to this one, and your work really moved me.

      Reply
  3. Forth'Wyn

    I’ve never had a problem with hurting my characters. I’ve been known to have one of them stabbed or have her nose broken in a fight because it looked like she had the upper hand too early. Thankfully, my writer friends told me that it wasn’t too sadistic and that they did it, too 😛

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Sounds like you’re doing right by your characters (or, wrong — depending on what the story calls for). 🙂

      Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
      • Forth'Wyn

        I make it up to them by giving them nice things later, but they have to learn how to look after themselves, first 😛

        Reply
  4. TBL

    I find myself putting too much of myself into my characters, especially the women. It’s hard for me to let them do something I wouldn’t do.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      See? You get it. My character who’s causing me such fits already came into the story in a mess, so I feel like I’m just letting her true self just play out. Still, it’s TOUGH. I appreciate your thoughts.

      Reply
  5. Moonlight Press

    I’m all for ‘truth’ however one defines it, but in my view the number one responsibility of the writer is to never bore our readers.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      EXCELLENT point. If Maria is washing her car, who cares? But, if Maria is washing her car because she’s destroy evidence of her dead fiancé was in her trunk last night, well, then, that’s much more interesting.

      Reply
  6. Vaughn Roycroft

    Good for you, Marcy! They say write what you know, but I firmly believe we only need to know the humanity and hearts of our characters. You don’t need to have been to a meth lab, and I don’t need to have been in a trial with real longswords and no armor. The stuff that’s happening isn’t the beating heart of a novel. It’s about the characters’ inner conflicts, and the change they undergo over the course of all of the “stuff that happens.”

    The novel I’m working on now is so much different than my first story. In the first, there was a lot of me in the primary protagonist. And if readers figured that out, well, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But this one… While I wrote the first draft, I was almost appalled at the depths the main characters sank to as it came rushing out of me. And yet, it almost seemed like I was trying to see “how low they could go,” and still manage to have them find redemption. We’ll see how the whole thing works out in the revision stage.

    Best wishes for the new story, Marcy!

    P.S. Although I’ve don’t write dinosaur S&M, I’ve never shied away from either sex or violence in my work. But it seems like readers see that it’s not gratuitous or lurid. I think that speaks to your point, about writing from the heart.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Sounds like you understand EXACTLY what I mean with your characters. Is it interesting how different our various stories can be? I find the psyche of a writer both fascinating, as well as frightening. 🙂

      Reply
      • Gary G Little

        Ever read Heinlein’s Number of the Beast? His precept is that every story ever written exists in it’s own universe. The protagonist(s) flip from universe to universe and find the villains and heroes from such greats as Burroughs, Doyle, and “Doc” Smith. There is a very interesting bar scene near the end.

        Reply
        • Marcy Mason McKay

          I haven’t read that, Gary, but you’ve definitely intrigued me. Thanks for sharing.

          Reply
  7. Gary G Little

    By the way, if the body is in a northern Minnesota winter, then freezer burn becomes a factor. But, my practice:

    “Oh my god, look at that,” Maria pushed up close to the display and commenced drooling. Her eyes were fixed on the triple chocolate layered cake sold by the slice.

    Evelyn looked and said, “And is that on your diet?”

    “Screw the diet. I’ll walk another mile in the morning. What are you having? I’m buying.”

    “Oh my … strawberry parfait … god I haven’t had that in years.”

    “C’mon Ev, we’re splurging today.”

    “Good afternoon ladies, my name is Max, how May I help you?” came the query from the middle aged male in white apron on the other side of the counter.

    “Yes, please, a piece of that chocolate cake, strawberry parfait, and two medium size diet Cokes.” Seeing the man raise an eyebrow at the diet Coke Maria added, “Yes, I’m on a diet.”

    That made him smile, which made Maria pause, and then she burst out laughing. “I have to make some sacrifice to the diet gods.”

    Patting his own ample tummy, the man gave an impish smile and said, “Oh yes, or else they do exact their revenge.”

    Taking their cakes to a table, Maria and Evelyn sat and enjoyed the treat. As they walked out the door, Max over heard Maria’s final remark, “My god, diet coke tastes like crap after that.”

    Reply
    • Christine

      Good story, Gary –or rather, the beginning of one. Does Maria get fat or doesn’t she? Do the diet gods exact revenge? Stay tuned…

      Something in Max’s first statement doesn’t ring quite true. In a restaurant the server gives his/her name, but I’ve never heard anyone behind a fast-food counter do so. Plus you might take out the “How” (may I help you) since Maria answers with “Yes, please.” Gives the reader a little twinge. Like, did she not hear him right?

      Reply
      • Gary G Little

        I dunno. I just met Maria and Ev yesterday. As to the diet gods, they ALWAYS exact revenge. 🙂

        I made the suggested changes. I added Max early because wanted to introduce him early, but I just thought of away to reconcile that.

        Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Thanks for making me smile, Gary. Maria’s struggle is such a universal one with weight loss. The Diet Coke was a nice touch. Good job, amigo.

      Reply
  8. terri george

    How long does it take for a dead body to decompose in winter?
    No idea, but you’ve got me intrigued!

    I’m currently writing book 3 of my ER trilogy. Whilst I wouldn’t describe it as dark (far from it), I haven’t shied away from giving my alpha hero a sleazy backstory – as we find out in book 2. And I have no qualms about showing him in a bad light (he’s far from a hero when drunk) or him getting physically hurt in book 3.

    I may be writing a romance but it can’t be all rainbows and unicorns, there has to be conflict and drama to keep the story interesting. I want my characters and what happens to them to be real to my readers.

    Both my hero and heroine make bad choices, they do things behind each other’s backs and they lie – not because they’re being deliberately deceitful, but to protect themselves, protect the other’s feelings, or to save having an uncomfortable conversation. Why do they do this? Because that’s what people do in RL. Regardless of the genre, authenticity is key.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Well said, Terri. You’re correct: authenticity IS key. That’s what will resonate with readers. You’ve made me feel more confident with the dark direction of my book. I really appreciate you sharing and gook luck with your trilogy.

      Reply
  9. Catherine North

    Oh I totally relate to this! One of my characters in my current novel dies from anorexia. She’s not the main character, but I do keep wondering if I should give her a happier ending. But the reality is, sadly anorexia DOES kill some people, and although my character is strong and fights it as best she can, in the end that isn’t enough to save her. The ending I’ve written makes me cry whenever I read it, and my instincts say I should keep it, but I do worry about it being too dark.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      You do understand the struggle, Catherine. I’m glad I’m not the only one. My unsolicited advice about your anorexic character is to KEEP the ending the same. It’s an important topic, it evokes strong emotions; plus, it’s not your main characters, so it won’t be as hard of a blow. Good luck with your story.

      Reply
      • Catherine North

        Thank you. I’m glad you think I should keep it, and your new novel sounds fascinating! My taste in books tends to be quite dark (I love moody intense tragic love stories!) but in my own writing I worry about upsetting people 🙂 Thanks again for your advice.

        Reply
        • Marcy Mason McKay

          My pleasure. Keep trusting your instincts, Catherine. They’re steering you right.

          Reply
        • BeBold

          My only suggestion is to do some good research about anorexia vs bulimia symptoms and keep them real. I also have known women with severe anorexia and it does kill people for sure but I have known several women who were around 5’7″ or 5’9″ and 55/60 pounds and still alive and still only eating bits of lettuce. Keep her weight and height real for what would actually lead to death. People can get so much smaller than we can ever imagine. Some of the women I did know, did die. it was painful to watch. good topic and good for you to keep it real. anorexia kills many. Just curious, do you have her in treatment thru the story?

          Reply
          • Catherine North

            Thanks, that’s useful information about the weight. I completely agree research is really important for authenticity. My character does receive treatment in a psychiatric unit, but she’s also at a boarding school, and when she goes back there, the medical staff supervise her eating. The book is set in the 1980s and loosely inspired by real life memories. My character goes through periods of relapse and recovery. She is incredibly talented and driven, and after school becomes a professional musician, but in her early 20s she has a severe relapse and dies from heart failure. My main character only finds out years later, when he tries to get in touch with her. He was once in love with her, and is devastated because he just assumed she’d still be alive. When it’s finished I’m going to ask a doctor I know to check over for accuracy. Thanks for your encouragement!

          • BeBold

            Feels different if she is not the main character. I missed that detail. Less day to day detailed realness might be fine. Seems you have a good handle on it. Best of luck. Sounds like a good story.

  10. Bill

    The main thing to realize from this experience is that you’re progressing
    as a writer. If you enjoy it, it means you’ve found your niche or
    found another genre you may be good at.

    If your story promotes any kind of bad behavior, it could be a bad
    career move and disappoint a big chunk of your friends and followers.

    Answers to questions:

    Where is the body?

    The physical effects of meth are those effects the user rarely considers.

    It depends on the destination.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Great questions to consider. I hadn’t thought of them, so I appreciate you bring them up.. My guts says I’m handling this correctly, so I’m going to proceed with my broken character as is.

      Reply
  11. Thomas Furmato

    Marcia watched the couple from across the cafe. They seemed a perfect couple. And so, she examined them more closely. He was handsome in that rugged sort of way, with a trimmed beard and arms that looked sure, safe. When he tilted his head back to laugh, she noticed a silver chain around his tanned neck, a little stubble and wily hairs were barely visible. She looked at his shoes; you could always tell a lot about a man by his shoes. They were half boots, and they looked like an expensive brand, one she wasn’t familiar with. They were probably from Europe, which meant he probably traveled a lot. Did he have money? Maybe he just bought them online. That could explain that cheap looking silver coated chain. Even his laugh came across forced, fake. Did he just glance over at her? What a creep, checking her out when he was with another woman.

    Marcia didn’t look again. She gathered her book from the table. Checked the cover for dust or crumbs. Tucked it under her arm and exited the shop. When she looked up in the depths of the sky, past the scattered clouds, she felt that clock, beating in her heart. Any day now, she would bump right into him.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Oh, wow, Thomas. I feel this woman’s yearning…desperate for Mr. Right and looking anywhere and everywhere for him. This is a VERY real struggle and did a lovely job with it. Thank you.

      Reply
  12. Adan Ramie

    If you don’t mind, I think I might take “69 Shades of Zombie Dinosaur Sex.” That’s too hilarious to pass up!

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Great to see you, Adan! Maybe we could write 69 Shades together and both become bestsellers! Let’s start researching ASAP.

      Reply
  13. BeBold

    I am going to take this opportunity to write a story I wish I didn’t have to write. This is live in my life this week but it felt good to write it out. I spent a touch more than 15 minutes but also did a lot of editing.
    —————

    Oh, Maria. Your dreams. You had so many dreams. I am so sorry for what you have had to go through and how much it turned your life around. I remember just a few years ago you winning the 100 mile “Garganuan Mountain Bike Race” in 4 minutes less than your arch-enemy and fastest male competitor, Jake.

    Everyone was so proud. You beamed with achievement. Preparing for over 2 years really paid off. Of course that was minus the healing time needed when you nearly destroyed your knee while flying over the handlebars (yikes!) I also secrety know that you and Jake were great friends and put on a show for the rest of us! Always the jokester.

    We all remember that day like it was yesterday but then just days later, that phone call came. You were found on the floor of the bathroom and had been lying there for almost 2 days. Your husband and kids were out of town. Your recovery was going to take years, your brain injury was massive. You were near death for several days. You lost complete use of your right side, could barely speak, could no longer read and eventually, depression took over for such a long while. You perservered after a while of self-pity. You deserved to feel sorry for yourself. What a huge life you had lost.

    Kayaking with the girls every weekend, teaching them to rock climb, ziplining. You
    taught them to be fearless just like you. And now, you knew you would never enjoy those times with them every again. You knew you had to stop homeschooling and send them off to public schools which you dreaded. So many changes. So much adaptation. Frustration combined with smiles. That was you.

    Once you were allowed to drive again, you got more of your life back. You found us and we became your hope. We watched you blossom. None of us in the depression support group knew you before your stroke but you let us see that side of you and your tenacity through your ragged syllables; always holding up your “hope” necklace when you couldn’t find the word you wanted. We knew what you meant. There was that one day when you were trying to share with us what you were feeling and suddenly
    the words “Never give up” came flying out of your mouth. You surprised yourself. From
    that day, it became your motto.

    5 years of rehab, wheelchairs, aphasia classes and physical therapy,
    and you now have decided it’s time to go for the gold again. Your family, friends, therapists and even some of your nurses formed “Team Maria” and everyone
    had T-shirts made. You decided on your 6 month goal and they worked with you to make it happen. One night at group you had a spark in your eye as you showed us the video on your new ipad. You were kayaking on your own through what looked like rapids to me. I’m chicken, what do I know? Your immovable right hand was taped to the paddle and you paddled with just your left arm. You were laughing like I had never
    seen you laugh before. Then came ziplining and “Team Maria” was right there ensuring you were not hurt. Dan said you and he climbed to the top of a mountain last week to catch a view of the waterfall. Things went poorly on the way down and he needed to call the mountain patrol to come and carry you down. You both spent hours in the cold waiting and feeling defeated. But once you were back in the car, your response to Dan was “next time, I bring more water!” You accomplish more with one arm and one leg than I do on a good day.

    In April, for goodness sake, you got on a plane with The ARC and travelled to DC to speak before congress pushing for more money for the disabled and especially more funding for aphasia. You are difficult to understand so often but the word is the floor was pin-drop silent while you spoke. Your point was made. Some say there were very few dry eyes on both sides of the aisle. Congress was crying. Only you Maria!

    We have not been in touch for a few weeks since you decided to take a break from group as you were moving and unpacking was going to take you some time and effort. We all knew how much it would tire you out but you insisted you did not need help. I assumed some others in the group that were closer than you and I stayed in close touch.

    The pain I feel is overwhelming. Two days ago, while sitting in my chiropractors parking lot, Judy sent a text. I open it and read “Maria is dead. It appears that she overdosed, had a seizure that caused brain death and they let her pass. Some are speculating
    it was suicide but some as saying it was an accidental overdose. Call me.”

    Oh, Maria. Why? Why didn’t you reach out to us. We all cared about you so much. Any of us from group would have dropped whatever and rush to be there for you. You are the very first from group we have lost to suicide, in fact, you are the first death
    we have had at all. We don’t know how to react. Texts are flying. There are postings galore on our private facebook pages with strangers commenting feelings of sadness for your loss. I posted an announcement on our support group facebook page and on our website.

    If only you knew how much joy and how much pain you have caused our hearts. It’s
    going around that all the sporting activity you have recently undertaken was reminding you of what you had lost. Someone said that you told that to someone at the end of last week. You wanted to get back to sports, which had
    been your life and you thought it was the answer. None of us considered the overwhelming naustagia you might feel. There is so much speculation. There are always so many unanswered questions. Did you leave a note? Did you call someone for help and they didn’t hear the phone ring? What and how many pills did you take. Was it fatal because of your brain injury. Are you glad now? Are you in peace?
    Things that swirl around the heads of those who love you and trying to make sense of it.

    Your memorial is tomorrow. Your kids must be devastated. You were so close. You
    spoke of them so often and with such pride. You always smiled when you tried to speak of their recent achievements.

    Your poor daughters and husband. They lost you twice. That day 5 years ago when you had your stroke and now again.

    On a more personal and perhaps selfish note, I don’t think I am strong enough to attend your memorial and I hope from whereever you are, you can understand. I’ve been toying with the thought of ending my life as well and your death has made me look at it more closely. I am crying constantly. I can’t be at your memorial causing a scene. I don’t know your family and they don’t know me.

    Please don’t take my not going as not caring. You can see how torn up I am. We all loved you so much. I hope you knew that. I am so sorry you were in so much pain and
    alone in the end, as we all are.

    Some say suicide is the easy way out. Having been there, done that, I know it is the most tortuous decision anyone can make. I hope you have finally found peace. Your selflessness and kindness will stay with me forever. And your ear to ear smile.

    I am so mad at you.

    Your dear friend,
    Martha

    Reply
    • BeBold

      sorry, didn’t know the link would put the entire video here. tried to remove it and can’t. this is the real woman I write about tho.

      Reply
  14. Marcy Mason McKay

    Hi Lujain,

    First, your exchange between Maria and Bob was EXCELLENT. It was real and raw and so vivid. Sadly, I know people like them, drowning in their own inertia. I could feel their inner explosions. I like that he had more of a backbone that I thought he would.

    These two probably should separate. I see Maria moving on and finding herself and growing up, as painful as that may be. I could just as easily see Bob continuing to drift into nothingness. Or, find another woman to take care of him.

    Bring in whatever conflict you need with Jade. She’s stronger than you think. That’s part of the hero’s journey….walking through pain.

    You can do this, Lujain. I believe in you.

    Reply
  15. kwjordy

    Maria bounced into the room as she always did, with a smile. Always a smile. Always, seemingly happy. She gently placed her “Hello Kitty” backpack on the floor next to the chair she chose to sit in every day: front and center. Maria didn’t want to miss a thing in class and made certain she was in a position to volunteer first for any class exercise. Mr. Shine would forever hold that picture: the cherubic face, eyes wide, looking around the room as if she couldn’t believe she was there.

    Maria was thrilled when she was chosen to go to the high school for the performing arts. She entered the audition room with a picture and resume; she was the only student who brought them. The musical theatre teacher was stunned and didn’t quite know what to think. He figured she was an over-achiever who used her organizational skills and tenacity to make up for her lack of talent. But when she put her pre-recorded CD into the player and hit PLAY, she transformed herself into Fiona from the Broadway Musical version of “Shrek”. It was a polished, professional performance that she had obviously worked on a long time.

    “I know it’s today!” With that, she froze in her final pose for a moment, then hit the STOP button. Before she could remove her CD from the player Mr. Shine, the teacher, had already written in big, bold letters on her audition form: YES!! He didn’t give her obvious stunted growth and her stump arm a second thought; he wanted her in his program. Enthusiasm. That’s all a teacher asks.

    The students took to Maria immediately. Mr. Shine had little experience with young adults with disabilities, and so was over-protective of her at first. But after Maria’s mother called him to say, basically, “back off”, he let her wend her own way. He needn’t have worried; everyone adored Maria. Because of her health problems that had seen her in and out of hospitals since she was born, she was wise beyond her years. She was also a couple years behind in school. Every doctor had told her mother Maria would not live to be older than 20. But Maria’s mother rejected that prognosis and made certain Maria lived a full life and as normal a one as she could give her.

    Her mother was honest with Maria. Maria told Mr. Shine several times, “I wasn’t supposed to live past 20.” She said “wasn’t” as if this was something she had already overcome.

    Their family was very close, and Maria and her sister adored each other. Both shared a short-cut bob of golden blonde hair, and although her sister was younger by three years, she was already three inches taller than Maria. Whenever Maria spoke of her family, her sister, like Maria, was front and center.

    During Maria’s freshman year, one of the students in the theatre program mounted a production of a children’s musical. She cast Maria in the show. Maria had natural comedic timing as evidenced in her “big scene” when her character fell asleep mid-song. Mr. Shine roared with laughter every time he saw her plop over into her pillow, fast asleep.

    Maria’s health problems continued, and she missed a lot of school her freshman year. Her science teacher read her the riot act and accused her of lying about her absences. Mr. Shine took umbrage to that and wrote the teacher a long email assuring her that Maria did, indeed, suffer many health problems. He couldn’t help it; Maria had gotten under his skin, which is something he was warned not to do when he switched careers in his 50’s to teach theatre.

    In the Spring Mr. Shine asked Maria to work backstage on the Spring Musical, “Little Women”. Maria happily helped build the set, then took on the task of flying a kite during performances. At the end of a beach scene, the kite flew up and out of sight as the character Meg died. After every performance Maria approached Mr. Shine and asked, “How was the kite?” Mr. Shine only looked down on Maria and said, “It was perfect.” Something tugged at Mr. Shine’s heart every time she asked about that kite. And every time Maria guided the kite up and out of view, Mr. Shine cried.

    Maria’s health improved her sophomore year. She was cast in both big musical productions that year, and seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. She joined the school’s Thespian Club and shared a trophy with her fellow cast mates at the annual regional Thespians Competition. She was flying high. Her grades were great, and she had more and more friends at school.

    Mr. Shine was so proud of Maria, and her classmates. Whenever the theatre class got into a circle to hold hands, no one freaked out over having to touch Maria’s undeveloped, two-fingered arm. Maria didn’t always have the stamina of the other students, but she always had that enthusiasm.

    In March Maria came running into Mr. Shine’s class one day to share some good news.

    “Mr. Shine, I’m going to Hollywood!”

    Mr. Shine thought for a moment about what she might be talking about.

    “Make-A-Wish gave me a trip to Hollywood to visit the set of “The Wizards of Waverly Place”!. That was Maria’s favorite show.

    Mr. Shine was perplexed. Make-A-Wish was for dying children. Surely Maria wasn’t dying. She was still just as enthusiastic about life and the theatre. Perhaps her past problems – and he was certain they were in the past – qualified her for the trip.

    In any case, Maria was on cloud 9. Upon her return she shared photos, had stories to tell, showed off her autographs. That afternoon Maria approached Mr. Shine after school.

    “Mr. Shine, do you think I could be an actress with this stump arm?”

    “YES!”, Mr. Shine blurted out. “You can be an actress…you can be anything you want!” Maria looked at him with wide, pleading eyes.

    The next day in class, Mr. Shine announced a change in plans for that day: “Today we’re going to watch some performance videos.”

    Mr. Shine found videos of people with various disabilities, performing. There was a stand-up comedian and actress with Cerebral Palsy, a developmentally disabled actor, and a beautiful ballet performed by a man and woman who each had lost an arm and a leg. Mr. Shine still was not certain Maria was convinced. By June, however, it was clear that pursuing an acting career was going to be Maria’s mission in life. Mr. Shine was certain she would succeed.

    Everyone went their separate ways over the summer. Mr. Shine performed in a couple of local productions, graduating seniors went off to college, and Maria worked all summer on her voice with a singing coach. She told her sister, “I’m going to get the lead in “Les Miserables” this year.” Her sister, as ever, was supportive. “You would be great as Fantine!” Her sister didn’t have Maria’s passion for the theatre, but kept up as best she could for Maria’s sake. “Or even Eponine!”

    “Oh, Sharon, do you really think so?” Maria didn’t really need any confirmation; she was certain of her destiny. Whenever she thought about playing Fantine she couldn’t eat and her head filled with “remembrances” of her turn on the stage.

    School started again the end of August. The kids poured into class, irritated that summer was over and they had to return to school. Mr. Shine eagerly looked forward to Maria’s enthusiastic appearance.

    By day’s end Maria had not shown up. Mr. Shine figured she couldn’t make first day of school, for some innocuous reason; he tried to shrug it off. But something had been bothering him all day – he just couldn’t put his finger on it.

    As he left school for the day Mr. Shine stopped in the office to retrieve his mail. Principal Draught approached him and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry about Maria Parks.”

    Mr. Shine’s head jerked to face Mrs. Draught, his face immediately ashen, his eyes searching, his shoulders raised and tight.

    “Oh my God, you didn’t know?” She gave him some time to take it in. “She went into the hospital three days ago…there was nothing they could do.”

    Mr. Shine stood against the wood mailboxes, holding tight to his backpack. Other teachers moved about, some talking about “poor Maria”, others oblivious to the day’s events. Mr. Shine felt he was standing on a trap door; one move and he would be lost forever. He stood there for a long time.

    Outside the sky was blue and a distant dog barked. It was another sunny Florida day.

    Reply
    • Beth

      Thats a nice story. It seems like Mr. Shine might react with more surprise at how the kids react so positively to Maria. He might be wondering why that is? -knowing kids the way he does. You could introduce a little of Maria’s personal daily struggle to fitin/achieve to add more depth. The floor coming out benath Mr. Shine and the sunny Florida day are a really great ending.

      Reply
  16. Beth

    Great exercise. I started writing to help me better draw out the truths of life. I usually shy away from dark books but it seems to me I want to address weighty topics in my writing. It is not easy to get my mind to contemplate situations in which bad things are happening.

    Maria is sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at grey plaster. There is nothing to focus on even if she could focus. Dressed in jeans that used to be too tight and a sleeveless, faded flowered blouse she shivers despite the stale, warm air. Her son, Jorge, is up on his feet wobbling left and then right. He lifts one filthy sock foot, making a step, and then another. These are the first steps but the mother still cannot focus on the little boy. He takes two more tentative steps and falls against her knees. With both arms she reaches out for his shoulders and pulls him up against her chest. She whispers his name over and over again. He taps his wrist against her head. There is a sound like rain or wind outside, she tries to determine which but cannot know. All day long she listens for the men to return. They do. And immediately the heartbreak and desperation well up in her damp eyes and fill her body with lead. She can hear two enter. Paper bags rustle. Gas releases from cans and the two men. Jorge has his whole fist in his mouth and chews. His sister, Elise, is unfortunately well past learning to walk and talk. She has not moved off of the bed today. Her small brown, body is on top of the bed spread as close to the wall as she could be without being part of it. She thinks her daughter must think a great deal about walls. Has she managed to build her own that takes her out of this room and somewhere else? Every night Maria imagines some angel of God dropping a wall down between her suffering and her children. She does not ask God to rescue her but she begs over and over that they might not have to be there to witness the rape. If only she could have herself back, she would forgo this American dream. She does not think about being a nanny in Laredo at all now

    Reply
  17. Beth

    Wow, this is really intense. There is a lot coming out. I wonder if its realistic to have it all said so quickly. I might like some of the lines (especially of Maria’s) broken up by some physical descriptions for her emotional state. Also, some emotions running through her head -is she afraid to be so blunt with Bob? -has she ever done this? I am very impressed with your exercise though.

    Reply
  18. Sheila B

    Maria stared down at the read-out on her scale; 172.8 lbs, 40.4% BMI. A
    year ago she struggled to achieve a weight under 160 pounds. What the hell was happening?
    Oh, of course, she ate more than she burned. Last night after a pasta
    dinner with garlic bread and salad, she indulged in an entire bowl of popcorn;
    not a single-serving bowl, but a family-size bowl drizzled with butter,
    sprinkled with parmesan cheese, accompanied by a wine spritzer. She munched and
    imbibed while lying on the couch watching two episodes of her current Netflix
    binge, a dark detective series full of
    murder and mayhem. She followed that up with a second glass of
    wine without the spritz, four bite-size chocolate eggs left over from Easter
    and one final episode. As a result she
    only got five hours of sleep
    Maria knew sleep was an important component of weight loss, but she couldn’t sleep. She had to numb herself to sleep and it took a long time. But Monday through Friday,
    the alarm rang at six a.m. and she got up no matter how many or how few hours she slept.

    It seemed like a week ago that Daniel had told her he was leaving her, but in fact it was 10 months and 20 days since he had told her he was in love with someone else; no one she knew or had ever even met he “assured” her. “An associate
    through work,” and that was all he’d say about her.
    “She’s thin isn’t she,” Maria demanded.

    Daniel was in great shape. He was a gym addict. He worked out every single day of the week. Even when they went on vacation, if they stayed with family, he’d find a gym and procure a short-term pass. If they stayed in a motel, it had to be one
    with a work-out room and he’d spend an hour in it at minimum, while Maria
    tended the twins.

    “Her size doesn’t matter,” Daniel had said. “I’m not going to discuss her with you.
    The point is I’m being transferred to Atlanta, and we are not going to move together. Our marriage is over Maria. Do whatever you have to do. There is nothing more to
    discuss. I’m in love with someone else.”

    “What about the twins?”

    “Of course they’ll stay with you,and we’ll work out arrangements, child support visitation. I’m sure you’ll be fair, figure out what’s best for them.”

    Maria had known that it would be futile to plead. Daniel was a decisive man. It was one of his characteristics that had attracted her. But she thought he was also a family man, a man of principle. It was her weight,she knew it. Her friends told her, “Not
    necessarily.”

    “No, he’s ashamed of me. Love and shame don’t mix,” she insisted.

    “Then lose weight and get in shape,” the more blunt ones told her. “See if that actually makes a difference to him.”

    “It’s too late. He’s fallen out of love with me and fallen in love with someone else and it’s all my fault. It’s because I’m a fat slob.” And that was when she weighed 162 pounds and although she had no time to work out, she was active, gardening, grocery shopping, laundry and housekeeping for her family of four, bathing and dressing the twins, playing with them and theirfriends. Her chores were endless.

    Now it was summer and the kids were with him. Daniel had already married
    Angela. Angela! He threw the kids into the deep end with her, and they seemed
    to like her just fine. Maria talked to them every other day and they never had a word of complaint about their step-mother. Maria knew better than to pry. She didn’t ask
    and they didn’t say much beyond things like “Daddy and Angela took us to Six
    Flags Hurricane Harbor,” or “We went to the aquarium yesterday.” There was tons of “we did this and we did that and we are going to do” and every “we” shredded Maria’s heart.

    Also, the child support checks had stopped. When Maria first mentioned it to Daniel, he said , “Oh, right, I guess in the excitement of the kids coming, I forgot. I’ll get that
    check in the mail.”

    When she told him the next week that she still hadn’t received his check, he said,
    “Don’t worry, I’ll get to it. The twins really distract me, take up a lot of my time.”

    And the following week, when sheasked again an suggested automatic payments from his account to hers, , he said, “Geeze, Maria, stop with the nagging. The kids are with me, I’m taking care of them. Why do you need child support when they aren’t
    even there to be fed. You still eating for three?”

    It was true, she’d never lost the baby weight or the hunger since she gave birth, and that was almost five years ago. She said no more about it but that night after work she pulled the divorce papers from her file cabinet and read and re-read them. She found nothing about the child support stopping or even being reduced when the twins were with their dad. The next day on her lunch break, she called her lawyer who explained that she indeed should still be receiving ongoing support payments, since she was the custodial parent, who had to maintain a home for them year around, but that if she wanted to she could agree to a different arrangement, a reduced amount say for groceries and day care, when the children were with their father.

    The very word “groceries” sent her into a spiral of shame. She stopped listening to her lawyer ramble and began to imagine going home that night and drinking a beer or glass or two of wine and some cheese and crackers, thinking she’d skip dinner.

    She knew she needed to join a gym, or sign up for a weight loss program, but she
    couldn’t afford it. Two really could live cheaper than one, and maintaining the house without Daniel was expensive. He had done minor repairs and maintenance, like plumbing and lawn mowing, changed the oil in the cars. Her car being the older model, had needed expensive repairs lately. Now she was going to need more money for the lawyer to press Daniel for the late child support, and make sure he got back on
    schedule.

    This morning staring down at the numbers on the scale she thought, “The day these scales tell me I’ve hit 175 pounds , I might have to kill myself.” She laughed at such a dramatic thought,knowing she wouldn’t of course, but also knowing her health was beginning to suffer. Her knees ached more from the extra weight, which made her less inclined to even go for a walk.

    She dressed and went to the kitchen to make breakfast. Not having the twins
    did give her some leisure moments. She enjoyed reading the newspaper over her morning coffee without interruptions, without fussing over Daniel’s needs; was his shirt ironed properly, was his coffee hot enough, were his eggs cooked just the right amount of over-easy without being too runny. As she pondered her current life without
    husband and children, she realized that she could sleep in another half hour or
    do 30 minutes of yoga again, now that she didn’t have drop the twins at pre-school
    before she raced off to work.

    The sun seemed to be brighter this June morning. After finishing her scrambled
    eggs and toast, she took the newspaper and her second cup of coffee out on the
    porch. She perused the paper and for the first time in years noticed the movie
    listings. “Oh my gosh! What an idiot I am. I don’t have to come home to this empty house after work every day. I can go see a movie.”

    Selecting a romantic R-rated comedy, she threw an apple and an orange into her purse, determined not to indulge in buttered popcorn, sweet drinks or candy or sweets of any kind for the next 30 days.

    Reply
  19. Connie Terpack

    I want my books to be truthful in relation to the characters and plot. I plan to have a medical condition in each one, being a retired RN. When I mentioned this to a group of friends, one chimed up that there was nothing medical in ‘that book.’ It had a mother and daughter who were both abused by the new guy in mom’s life. I figured I did the story right since no one noticed the abuse.

    I don’t bother getting books that use sex, violence, or a lot of cussing to sell their story. You can tell a love story without gratuitous sex and cussing. You can relate a murder mystery without excessive violence, sex, and cussing. I believe that writers who go overboard in those areas are not the best writers.

    Reply
  20. NerdOfAllTrades

    Okay, time to start catching up on these.

    ——————————————-

    Maria slumped onto the couch, her purse coming to rest beside her with the usual muffled clinking that hard things made when they found each other somehow, despite being surrounded by soft things.

    Maria gave a disheartened glance towards the kitchen. She knew that she should make something healthy for herself, but she really wasn’t in the mood. She hadn’t taken anything healthy out of the freezer in the morning, so healthy stuff would take longer to cook. Maybe she’d just make a TV dinner.

    Before she could talk herself out of the impulsive, quick decision, the TV dinner was in the microwave, and an episode of Game of Thrones was playing on her TV. She knew that she’d probably end up watching a second episode, and then a third, because there really wasn’t anything she’d rather be doing.

    Sure, there were things she should be doing, like practising her guitar, or paying her bills online, or going for a run, but she really couldn’t be bothered. She was comfortable on her couch, and she had earned some down time after putting in eight staggeringly boring hours at her job.

    Maria sighed. Her job. When she had graduated high school, she had felt herself destined for glory. Her guitar instructor had described her as a prodigy, and she thought that after going to university for music theory, she could have really made a name for herself as a performer. However, life happened, as it usually did, university had fallen through, and now she was stuck in a bullshit job doing data entry.

    She looked at the guitar, sitting, collecting dust in the corner. She knew that she could start playing again, going out, but she didn’t feel the urge to. It was part of her past: some part of her had felt betrayed, that her past, and the future it promised, had abandoned her. The more honest part of her knew that it was she who had abandoned that past and future.

    The brutality on screen snapped her out of her dazed thoughts, and she reached for the remote to turn the volume down to avoid disturbing the neighbours – that was all she needed, to have the neighbours think that some weird cult ritual was going on in her apartment. As she picked up the remote, the microwave beeped, and she decided just to pause the TV show for the moment.

    As she plodded to the kitchen to eat yet another processed meal, she found herself thinking, once again, “Is this the rest of my life? Eating TV dinners after coming home from a job a hate, and flaking my life away on the couch?” The smell of processed potato and gravy reached her nostrils, and bile rose in her throat as she though of eating nothing but this for – how long could she put up with this? Thirty years? Fifty?

    The word “depressed” entered her mind, not for the first time, and while she knew it pertained to her, she didn’t have the energy to deal with it. That was the problem with depression: it robbed you of energy to deal with anything, including (and especially) itself. She was, completely, unable to act.

    Maria stopped herself. She could act. She knew what to do, had done it before, many years before, and now it was time to do it again. All she needed was to pick up her phone

    The first phone call would be to her family doctor, for a referral to a psychiatrist. Her insurance covered it, so there really was no reason not to do it, other than not having the energy to pick up the phone.

    The second was to a coworker who was looking to start a band. It wasn’t going to get her into Carnegie Hall, but it would get her back on stage, and back on the right path. It would get her name back out there, and maybe lead to a solo career, and all she had to do was pick up the phone.

    She turned back to the microwave and pulled out her TV dinner. “Maybe tomorrow,” she thought.

    Reply

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