Sometimes I forget I’m seventy years old. In fact, most of the time I’m as unaware of my age as I am of my gender. They simply don’t seem important—at least to me--in relation to the other things in life that really matter.
That is often as true of the characters in my novels as it is of myself.
My wife of almost thirty years, Gretta McCombs Anderson, was a dedicated feminist. She disagreed with me greatly about the importance of a character’s gender. Gretta, who knew for many years she lived with a ticking timebomb inside of her, was also acutely aware of age. She died before turning fifty-seven.
The difference between the time I was born and Gretta was born was nearly eleven-and-a-half years, and that never mattered to me at all. I loved Gretta because of who she was inside and not how she looked outside, and I think that’s why she loved me, too. She taught me a lot because she was born and raised in a different era and in a different environment and in a different body than me. But inside we were the same. We celebrated both our differences and our similarities equally.
We both loved to explore. She had explored a lot of herself and the world before we met, and so had I. I had married twice before and she hadn’t, though she had loved and lived with more than one man before me. Most of the time that didn’t matter to either of us, but sometimes jealousy raised its ugly head when one or the other of us encountered an ex. We learned to work through that. We worked together to get through a lot of things in thirty years. But we worked so well together that people often said that Gretta and I were two halves of the same coin, neither of us worth much alone but very valuable together.
There are two reasons I bring this up. I have been working like crazy to revise my novel Spilled Milk to meet a November first deadline. Spilled Milk is a departure for me from my usual comfort zones. Not only do I tell the story in the first person, my protagonist is female.
Thinking like a man is supposedly easier for a woman writer than thinking like a woman is for a male writer. Most women know how men think because, like it or not, we live in a male-dominated society. Women need to know how men think in order to survive, just as left-handers (both my girlfriend Elizabeth Flygare and my daughter Tammy are lefties, and so was Gretta) are taught to think like a right-hander or African-Americans taught to think like Caucasians. Learning to think like someone else is hard work. Men seldom bother. Women have to.
I hate writing in the first person, and I often find it difficult to read stories written from the first person viewpoint. I prefer to see the big picture. That’s why I usually write in third person (either limited or omniscient) and alternate viewpoint characters between protagonists and antagonists.
So Spilled Milk is a big departure for me. But life is an adventure of exploration, and I ventured into the swamp with a goal in mind of exploring everything I encountered there, not knowing if I would sink or swim.
Life became even more complicated for me when I came down with a virus about a week ago. For two days I was nearly completely out of it with fever and chills and incredible aches and pains. I was too exhausted to do anything, and I hurt too much to sleep. I became acutely aware of my age. There was a time when I would simply plunge ahead despite my discomfort. I discovered I can’t do that anymore.
Of course, this happened at the worst possible time. I had commitments to fulfill and couldn’t simply take to my sick bed. I made it through the lecture at Rock Valley College and only collapsed afterward. Elizabeth fed me hot chicken noodle soup and crackers and left me alone in my misery. This morning I dragged myself out of bed and managed to make it to the keyboard without falling down the stairs, cracking my head open, and spilling my brains all over the carpet. I’ve cracked my head open twice before, and don’t intend to do it again. Bloodstains are difficult to eradicate from plush carpeting.
So here I am, seventy years old and male, handicapped by illness, age, and gender, writing like a twenty-something year-old woman. I had to rely on what Gretta, Tammy, and Elizabeth had taught me about being a woman. I recalled what my lesbian and gay friends taught me about the way a woman thinks. And, somehow, I think it all works and Spilled Milk is the best thing I’ve ever written.
Just for fun, I tossed in a few of my favorite ingredients: a crazed serial killer and his rapist associates who dismember their victims with assorted tools that leave distinguishing traceable marks, a rookie female cop and an overworked male detective, an old-time newspaperman who smells a story, political corruption and cover-ups, and a cowardly male who risks everything to save the woman he loves from a fate worse than death and only makes matters worse by his desperate meddling. There’s even a pathologist or two in the mix, though in a very minor role.
I added a few surprising twists and turns through the swamp. As long as I was writing outside my comfort zone, I decided to go all the way. I thought of my greatest fears and threw them in. I thought of Gretta’s greatest fears and added them in, too. I thought of society’s greatest fears and focused on one or two.
One final revision and I can put those fears behind me. Finding ways to face our greatest fears and ways to conquer them is a primary function of all fiction, not only horror fiction. As William Faulkner so elegantly put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “The writer must teach himself that the basis of all things is to be afraid. And teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old universal truths, lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed: love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse.”
Have I removed the curse from my labors? Did I spend forty days and forty nights in the swamp only to discover more things that scare me?