“The worst” is a relative term. I have one friend for whom ‘the worst’ is basically anything for which she does not immediately get her way. Everything is a crisis, just in varying proportions. She is a generous –hearted human but always, always waiting for the other shoe to drop and always assuming that not only will it drop, but it will fall specifically to piss her off. In some ways, I think it’s a defense mechanism. An ‘ohmygod, ohmygod, it’s the worst! The absolute worst!’ demand to the world that it not mess with her. She can’t take it. She’s too fragile. She doesn’t deserve it. Just back off.
My mother’s philosophy for impending or ongoing crisis was to say, “It will be okay.” She had grown up poor, raised with her siblings (including her identical twin sister) by my grandmother after my grandfather left them and eventually took his own life somewhere outside Atlanta when my mother was in junior high. So I’m assuming—although we never talked about it, not ever—that my mom knew the truth of the universe. But for the longest time growing up, I believed her absolutely. It was a comforting lie, that philosophy, at least in the short term. Break ups, bad grades, spats with friends, betrayals, illnesses, crazy world events… I would tell myself, ‘okay. It will be okay.’ It got me through…Until it occurred to me that sometimes it –whatever ‘it’ was—was absolutely not going to turn out fine. At least not any time soon.
I find that phrase slips into my writing now and then and always with a touch of irony. Characters say, “I’m okay” while their interior voices shout, “No. No. I’m not okay. This is not okay.” The worst is something that fascinates me as a writer. I want to know what happens when I pull the rug out from under my characters, when I take things from them and leave them to figure it out. I write families that have cracked or fallen apart, missing parents and missing siblings; strange magical events that force characters into situations that will test them, with random alliances that may or may not be trustworthy. In one way or another, my stories are about confronting ‘the worst,’ trying to figure out if things will indeed be ‘okay,’ and persevering even when they’re not.
Because let’s face it. S--- happens, you know? Well, yeah, if you were around in 2016, you know that. And not just then, of course. It’s kind of the one constant of the universe, despite our frequent social media pretending that we are special and wonderful and our lives are a constant ball of amazing. (I wrote five books this week! I arranged fifty school visits and my books appeared on 25 'best of' lists! It's exhausting being me!) My job as writer is to poke at that idea, to see what people are made of when the going gets impossible, to explore inner lives and families and all those layers of experience and events that contribute to how one gets through the day and especially through the worst times. What makes a character implode? What gives her the fortitude to just muscle through? How does that fit into the universal patterns? What comes after the trauma? What happens when things are absolutely, positively not okay? What then?
In the long term, I suppose my mom was right. Eventually, it’s ‘okay,’ just rarely in ways we assume. For the writer in me, that’s where the juicy stuff lives.