The Reason Shame is the Beating Heart of All Great Stories
I read a ridiculous amount of novels and I’m very picky, namely because I have the attention span of a fruit fly with a crack habit. Like most modern readers, it takes a lot to grab then keep my attention.
Most books I end up putting down or returning to Audible for another. There are books I finish then forget. Most are meh. Good way to kill time not much more. But then there are the ones that stick, the stories I never grow tired of reading and rereading and recommending and as you can see, I have very eclectic taste.
Some of my fondest loves are Heart-Shaped Box, Big, Little Lies, American Gods, Prisoner of Hell Gate, The Joy Luck Club, Luckiest Girl Alive, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer, and anything written by Fredik Backman Britt Marie Was Here being my favorite.
Yet what do all these great stories have in common? Why do they make me laugh and cry and cheer? What is so cathartic about these books?
Deep, profound, gut-wrenching and very identifiable shame.
The content of this blog is actually from a guest post I did for Rachel Thompson. But I think it’s a valuable lesson, especially for the new writers who haven’t yet developed the rhino skin to dare to be vulnerable themselves, let alone with their characters.
So I shall go first….
Back in 2002 when I finally made the decision to become a novelist, I had no idea what kind of a personal journey I’d signed up for. In fact that could make an entire book—okay series of books—in and of itself.
When I started writing I was not a very nice person (and that’s putting it mildly). I was angry, self-centered, bitter, undisciplined, and immature. But I did have great hair so it wasn’t a total loss.
In short? I was a jerk.
Often though, the trouble with jerks is they are the only ones unaware they are jerks. Kind of like that movie The Sixth Sense.
I see jerks. Everywhere. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re a jerk.
Yeah, that was me. It was everyone else. Everyone else was responsible for ***insert emotion/problem/drama here***.
And maybe this isn’t a very useful post for you because you’re all wonderful, perfectly adjusted individuals who rescue kittens when you’re not knitting onesies for cold baby goats. But maybe what I have to say today can help…a friend 😉 .
I did not come from a healthy family. Scratch that. I was born in The Jerry Springer Show Reality TV Edition. As a kid I didn’t know it was not normal to have screaming fights lasting hours every day. That sane people didn’t kick in doors, throw things or constantly threaten a) abandonment b) suicide c) divorce.
As a kid, I only partially grasped why I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids in the neighborhood. I was a straight A student and a teacher’s dream pupil…but every parent on the street walled their kid off from me like I carried Ebola.
Eventually my parents divorced and my father decided it would be fun to just you know, disappear for two years without so much as a word as to whether he was even alive. Child support?
My poor mom did the best that she could, but by the time I hit middle school we lived on spaghetti because it was cheap and lived in unending fear the power would be cut off. I wore thrift store clothes and Toys for Tots supplied my Christmas gifts.
I got bounced home to home and in the process switched schools a total of ten times; five times just in high school. And it was strange. It was like every school came standard with a gaggle of Queen Bees WASPs ready to skewer me with their stingers over and over and over.
What was even worse were the teachers (probably Queen WASPs in their high school heydays) who joined in the “fun” of tearing me apart. In fact, I had nightmares about one particular teacher well into my 30s.
No place. No person was safe.
The harder I tried to appease the WASPs in school and home, the more I was stung. I was a bleeding ruined wreck.
I’m fairly certain to this day that I am the reason for the current Texas truancy laws. I’d skip and take refuge in the library. Books didn’t care that I only owned two pairs of pants and four shirts.
Eventually, I dropped out of high school…twice.
The only thing that kept me from getting a GED and being done with it was I’d always wanted to be in the military. I longed for structure and order and hell I was used to being yelled at and called worthless. Perfect fit!
But, in the 90s, you couldn’t get into the military without an actual high school diploma, so groans I had to go back. I was nineteen years old in an English class of fourteen-year-olds. Talk about a slice of humble pie.
Yet, to survive, I learned two key defense mechanisms. One, I became funny. Being funny works, it’s sort of like peeing yourself so no one eats you. High five! My possum friend! But when funny wouldn’t work? I became MEAN.
I’d always wanted to be a writer from the time I hadn’t even nailed down the entire alphabet song. I was good with words and after years of using them to flatter and pacify? I realized that didn’t work on bullies.
So I whipped out my whetstone and sharpened my words to a razor’s edge that rivaled any Samurai sword.
I truly believe that those who are born to be writers—good writers—have an almost preternatural power for observation. We very literally see what others don’t or even can’t. This meant I could meet a person (enemy) and instantly know every perfect pain point.
Thus, when I went for someone, I didn’t waste time. I went for their heart, for the thing they thought they’d buried so deep, hidden where no one could see.
And I’d carve it out and show it to them—still beating—in my hand.
If my tormenters were unwilling like me, they would by God fear me.
Of course while this worked to make the WASPs keep a nice and respectful distance, it also isolated me. Regular, nice people also were afraid of me and in my mind? I didn’t care. Being alone was safer. People always left anyway. Best not to care.
So why am I talking about all of this other than hey, FREE THERAPY!
When I became a writer and my goal was to become a novelist, I had to face who I’d become. Being a jerk made me a lousy writer.
My first novel (which of course I thought was perfect) sucked. But why was it so bad? Okay that is actually a loooooong list. But the main reason is that all my characters were “perfect.”
They were everything I had always wanted to be. My MC was tall and beautiful and eerily resembled Angelina Jolie and she had mad fighting skills and spoke 42 languages and Zzzzzzzzzzz.
Over and over I tried new stories and same deal. Why were all my stories boring the paint off the walls?
The reason? All great stories are birthed from SHAME.
I finally understood that I’d fashioned so much armor around myself cobbled together with self-delusion, B.S. glitter and flat out lies, that I couldn’t be vulnerable. I didn’t know how to be.
Until I acknowledged I was a jerk, I couldn’t start understanding WHY I was a jerk so I could heal those parts and then…change.
I didn’t know I was a jerk because I was deeply and profoundly ashamed.
Fiction as Therapy
To be a great author, we must understand this core truth…
Readers don’t connect to perfection; they connect to flaws. We aren’t telling stories to perfect people, we are telling them to lost and broken and hurting people who can pick up a book and by GOD at least there is one frigging place in the world where the good guy wins and bad people get what they deserve.
We writers must understand who we really are if we want to resonate with readers.
Writers are dealers of justice.
Because here’s the deal. We live in reality where the popular girl who tormented the poor kids in high school didn’t get what she deserved and never will.
No. She married rich. Then as a “stay at home mom”—with a full-time housekeeper and au pair—went on to start a home-based company selling non-GMO organic vegan nail decorations made from fair trade coconut oil.
And she made millions, because of course she did!
She spends every Spring Break in Vail, summers in Europe, and never loses one moment of sleep over the young girls she emotionally ravaged, has not a singular care for the self-esteems she plundered. She doesn’t even recall her victim’s names just hopes the pathetic little lemmings buy her nail wraps.
We all know villains like her exist in real life, certainly did in mine. And in real life, she gets away with her crimes…but in fiction? This is the place she has no power. Her looks, money and family connections mean nothing. In story, she can be held accountable for what she’s done.
But here we are talking plot. Now?
What about the protagonist? Because a protagonist ambushing the mean girl of high school and feeding her through a wood chipper FARGO style, while morbidly interesting, is not a story.
The story is always with the hero. Outward defeat of said villain is not enough. That is only half of the recipe for a perfect story.
How does the protagonist face this villain and finally change? How can she evolve to a point where she can finally say that crucial line?
You have no power over me.
She must not only defeat the villain, she must also face and defeat her own shame.
She must do the very thing that all of us—in real life—must do to find peace. To heal.
Facing Shame & Taming the Jerk
When I came to a point I realized I needed to face and explore my shame in order to write something people might like to read? I will admit it. I was a total chicken and too broke for “real” therapy. So I did what many writers do, I put it into story.
At the end of May, I released my debut fiction The Devil’s Dance and it IS a fiction. The plot is, at least. But I used my MC Romi to work through a lot of places where I felt shame, in order to expose then overcome them.
Like Romi, I grew up ashamed of where I’d come from, desperate to fit in, to be accepted. Trying WAY too hard. No matter what I achieved, I felt like a fraud, a poseur.
There is a real reason I use a lot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s references in the book. Holly Golightly in the iconic Turner Classic beginning is standing in front of Tiffany’s staring at all the beautiful things she desires. But she’s an outsider peering in through an impenetrable wall of glass. No matter what she looks like on the outside, it is the inside that must change. Romi’s journey is the same.
And Romi’s journey looks a hell of a lot like mine sans drug cartels.
But a really interesting thing happened when I wrote this story. I learned a lot about me. By placing my shame in a fictional setting, it was less frightening. It lost its power over me. I found that as I understood Romi, I understood me. I began healing and one day realized my armor was falling away like the husk of a cocoon no longer needed.
Because fiction helped me face shame, it helped me learn to be vulnerable and in being vulnerable I became a better writer and a better person.
I was joking earlier about y’all being perfect, though I am pretty sure some of you really are knitting onesies for cold baby goats. I finally mastered the potholder.
I do know many of you have your own wounds, probably a lot of them far worse than mine. Yet I think we can keep going around the same mountain over and over. If we miss the linchpin of why we’re hurting—SHAME—we can’t heal. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound and we’re walking around bleeding all over the place with no clue why we’re drawing sharks. Additionally, we will be too afraid to write characters with any depth and end up with Literary Barbies, not literature.
All I can say is that the road isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. And I have a secret to tell you. You’re much stronger than you realize 😉 .
I love hearing from you! What are your thoughts? What are some wounds you’ve dealt with via fiction? Do you struggle making your characters flawed or even vulnerable? Did you learn to use words as weapons? Have you struggled with the weight of your emotional armor? What is your story?