Over ten years ago, I submitted a story to a science fiction magazine about a man who travels back in time to the college bar where he used to hang out. There he sees his past self and more importantly, the One Who Got Away.
At the end of the story, the observer walks out of the bar and into a snowstorm. We discover that time travel is a one-way trip and he is living out the remainder of his life, old and salty now, in the same town where he lived all those years ago, unable to do anything about the choices that he made in life. Now just a casual observer to his life as it unfolds again.
I nearly sold the story too. At twenty-five cents a word, it would have been my first pro publishing credit. The editor had only one request: “Can you make the ending less of a downer?” Believe me, I tried. That pro-publishing credit money was something I really could have used, not to mention the credit and byline it would have given me for future sales
I rewrote the ending like three times and each time the editor said the ending was still not happy enough. Eventually, I declined and stopped resubmitting edits. The story didn’t want to be happy. The story couldn’t be something it wasn’t and still be the same story. Even if I had compromised my integrity and submitted what the editor wanted, I wouldn’t have been happy with the result. Ironic, no?
As the writer, I am happy when my story is told the way it asks to be told. Even if the story itself is tragic and lonely. If I write a story to have a happy ending when it isn’t supposed to be happy, then I’m not happy. The story isn’t happy. Maybe the reader is happy. Maybe they would have felt something else, something deeper, if they had seen the story as it was told to me. It’s not my job to make a reader happy anyway. I’m not a birthday clown. I’m not a puppy. Go find your own happiness. I’m fresh out.
The reason I’m saying all of this is one of the biggest obstacles about the book I’m writing is that most of it is heartbreaking. When I tell people the premise of the story, they usually fill in their own blanks with what I’m working on. Like that editor, they hear of the premise and they create a story in their own minds. They might even know me somewhat. They might see the funny side of me. The critical side. The sarcastic side. The weird side.
It’s probably not going to be what you think it is.
It might be bittersweet at times, cathartic, and even self-indulgent at times. But I can assure you, it won’t be happy. The best I can shoot for is I hope the ending does justice to the rest of the story. Happy would be nice, but life doesn’t work like that, so I don’t think art is set in those confines either. If you want happy, read the Hungry Caterpillar. Read Archie Comics. My book will not be what you want.
Last night I made a playlist and realized I don’t like too many “happy” songs either. I’m fine with that too. I am capable of gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, after all. What makes me happy? All sorts of things. The sound of the ocean, the rattle of aspen leaves shaking in the wind, the smell of fresh baked bread, the goofy things my dog does, telling a good story, a favorite song I haven’t heard in a while, strangers buying me coffee in the drive thru, baby giggles, clothes right out of the dryer, that moment I drop the peanut butter lid on the floor and it lands with the right side up, first kisses, hockey games, a full tank of gas…this list is not comprehensive or exhaustive.
Mostly it’s the little things. The details.