One of the things I love most is when a writer says, “Whoa, I was looking for my protagonist’s defining misbelief, and I discovered my own.”
Once again, in literature as in life! Turns out we all have defining misbeliefs – that is, beliefs about human nature that turn out to be mistaken, even though early in life they sure seemed true. But from then on out, they’re often the very thing that holds us back from getting what we most want, so spotting them can be life-altering.
Life is full of such defining moments – moments when a misbelief springs into being, moments when a driving desire is born, moments when, suddenly, we see the world very differently than we did just a second before.
As writers we dig deep to create such seminal moments for our characters. In life, they are all around us – we just have to be on the lookout for them. They tend to be very simple, almost mundane – and yet they change how we see everything, including ourselves.
To illustrate this truth, here are three such moments I stumbled upon a week ago in the lives of real people:
The following is from a NY Times article titled “Because I was a Girl,” and it’s a perfect example of a gut wrenching moment that changed how one person saw the world, and what she then did from that moment on. That person is Sherry Knowlton, 65, of Newville, PA. I’ve bolded the meaning – and the transformative power – that she drew from one, single event.
In high school, I applied to be a Senate page. I can still remember my disappointment when I received the reply from Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania that girls were not permitted to serve as pages. I was a straight-A student, among the top in my class, active in the school newspaper, a bit of an overachiever. But I wouldn’t even be considered because I was a girl. I was devastated. And then I got angry. My resolve to approach life with the belief that I could achieve anything I wanted rose out of the ashes of that defeat. It took me far in my career in state government and the health insurance industry, and now as a suspense author. Along the way, I’ve encountered other gender roadblocks — many insurmountable. But few affected me as much as the one from Senator Scott. I can still remember standing in our dining room after school and tearing open the letter with the fancy gold Senate seal — only to find I’d been rejected. Not because I wasn’t qualified, but because I was born female. I’m getting angry all over again, 50 years later, as I write this.
From the same article, here’s a perfect example of how we can look back to our early seminal moments, and see them for what they really were (this one made me cry). It’s from Amanda Beam, 41, of Lanesville, Indiana.
Growing up, I lived with my grandparents in a small Indiana town. My Papa raised chickens, not to eat, but to show. Each August, he would load crate after crate of chickens into his covered pickup truck and make the trek across the river to the Kentucky State Fair. When I was 8 or 9, Papa encouraged me to raise a few on my own. My grandfather wasn’t a feminist in the traditional sense, but he taught me lessons that stayed with me. When I entered the chickens into competition, he advised me to go by my initials: “A.D. Hillard.”
“Why?” I remember asking, while fluffing a white banty hen with a hair dryer.
“Because then they won’t know you are a girl,” he replied.
Youth prohibited me from understanding this simple suggestion, but later on I realized Papa was talking about more than a chicken contest. He was teaching me about life.
And finally, paraphrased from the Huffington Post, here’s the moment when a little boy’s misbelief – one instilled by the world around him – was overturned by a man who very well may be the real Santa Claus. That is, if heart has anything to do with it.
Just before Christmas in 2015 six-year-old Landon Johnson went to the River Town Crossings Mall in Grandville, MI with his family. While there, he and his cousins took turns chatting with Santa, sharing their Christmas wishes.
After telling Santa he wanted a Wii, a toy dinosaur and a remote control car, Landon hopped off Santa’s lap to rejoin his family.
But Landon was worried. He had often been told he was “naughty.” He’d get stares for being too loud in the grocery story, at school he was always getting in trouble. Strangers everywhere didn’t hesitate to ask, “Why do you need to be so naughty?”
That’s why, a few moments later, Landon ran back up to Santa. His arms were twitching in anticipation and pure adrenaline. He was going to ask something that made him very nervous.
"Will my autism put me on the naughty list?"
Santa took the time to listen to Landon’s worries, holding the boy’s hands soothingly all the while. “You know I love you and the reindeer love you and it’s OK. You’re a good boy,” Santa said, “You’re a good boy, you know.”
Then he said the words we all want to hear: “It’s okay to be you.”
His mom, Naomi, was watching. “Seeing Landon’s face light up in that moment was just incredible. I couldn’t stop crying.”
Me either. Because this is what we live for – those profound, unexpected, often quiet moments that, yes, change everything. That’s what we come to story for: new ways to look at old problems, beliefs, fears, ourselves.
Life taught Landon that he was naughty, and summoning the courage to ask Santa about it couldn’t have been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But look what he gained.
My advice: start looking for these moments everywhere – in novels, in newspaper articles, in the stories your family tells as the holidays pounce, and in your own life’s story.
They’ll not only help you become a better writer, but hey, they might unleash a whole, new you.