A couple of months ago, a new squirrel came around. He was a bit larger than some of the teen squirrels we had darting about our yard. He moved more slowly too. Then, I saw why. There was something wrong with his left, front paw. It hung there, bent and limp, as he hobbled across the grass.
I immediately extrapolated his life out about three months when there would be a foot of snow on the ground and weeks at a time of subzero temperatures. Minnesota winters are not kind to anyone, much less a squirrel with special needs. I wanted to help him. But what could I do? If I put out food for him, the other squirrels would get it first. I couldn’t bring him inside because of my cats. (And because my mom told me that it’s not a great idea to keep wild animals as pets.) So, I stared outside, knowing that life was only going to get harder for this little guy.
I think a lot of us have this instinct to eliminate the personal pain and hardship for others. I know I do. And it doesn’t just affect my urge to rescue animals. It affects my stories too (and not in a good way). While drafting my novel Superstar during my MFA work, I had the amazing opportunity to work with Anne Ursu. Each time I would send her a draft, she’d would write me pages about what I’d done well. Then, she’d gently suggest that I make things a little harder for my protagonist Lester. So, I’d try. I’d make things as hard as I possibly could and send it back. She’d read the new version and suggest again that I try making things a little bit harder.
I know that fiction can’t exist without struggle and that overarching story situations don’t do a whole lot to create the tension necessary to keep readers turning pages. But I couldn’t make things this difficult for him, could I? Lester’s life circumstances were already hard enough. Like that poor, little squirrel with the limp paw.
About a week after first spotting him, I saw my special squirrel again. He was eating sunflower seeds under the bird feeder, walking slowly from spot to spot finding what the others had missed. Then, he jumped up to the bird bath, sat on the rock in the middle, and leaned over for a drink. Finally, he jumped down to the ground, walked over to the tree, and scurried up it. My squirrel could climb? Maybe he wasn’t as fast as the others and maybe his movements weren’t as graceful, but he could climb!
I had underestimated the squirrel.
And Lester, too. It wasn’t until I finally put him in those gut-wrenching situations and watched him rise up out of them that I realized how much strength he actually had.
Now, I make it hard on my characters. Then, I make it harder. Then, I make it harder still. I do this for all my characters, even the ones I want to wrap up in my arms and protect. Because people with special needs can surprise you.
BUT SO CAN EVERYONE ELSE.
We think we know people. We tell ourselves stories about them—who they are, what they want, what they can do. It’s not wrong to do this, not exactly. It’s human nature to try to make sense of the world and the people in it. What’s wrong is letting our minds assume we’re right. What’s wrong is letting ourselves get away with those snap judgements. What’s wrong is leaving those stereotypes unchecked.
We are all incomprehensibly complex. No one word, idea, label, trait, experience, skill, preference, or anything else can define us. When I started writing Superstar, I set out to write a book about a certain kind of kid, a kid with a very defining label. (I’m being purposefully vague here so as not to spoil anything should you someday decide to read Lester’s story.) But along the way, I got to know Lester more and more. I also grew a whole lot as a writer and even more as a person. Black-and-white thinking that once felt safe became stifling. My world and Lester’s world became a lot more gray. And a lot more messy. And a lot more beautiful.
Because it’s through the mess that we grow. It’s through the mess that we learn who we are and what we are capable of. Like the squirrel climbing his tree. Or me finally realizing that it’s not possible to eliminate the personal pain and hardship of others. Societal pain, yes. Now more than ever, we must all work together to stamp out hatred and make our country a safe place for ALL people to live and thrive. But when it comes to the personal pain and individual struggles of the animals, characters, and actual real-life humans that I love, all I can do is be there with them and hold them up with the fierce belief that they’ll find their own path though the darkness.
Like Lester eventually does—in his own messy and beautiful way.