I was hanging out with another father a few years ago, and we quickly fell to talking about the ups and downs of married life. “My rule,” he explained, “is to start my day off every morning by apologizing to my wife. I don’t know what for yet, but I figure I should just get it out of the way.”
We had a good laugh. We had a certain amount in common. We were both the kind of guy who didn’t like to argue, who could be depended on to drive kids to practices or dentist appointments, who tried to see the lighter side of any situation. And I certainly had apologized plenty since marrying. Sometimes I meant it, but more often I just wanted the conflict to end, and if that meant me apologizing, so be it.
Once I was done chuckling, however, I thought of the essays I’d been writing lately. Sometimes the stories I’d tell portrayed me at my lowest moments – me at my angriest, saddest, or pettiest. Here was Bill the Ugly, spreading his ugliness to anyone in earshot. You wouldn’t like him if you met him, but good stories trail in his miserable wake. He’s not actually a bad guy, of course. He just misunderstood something, and the more he misunderstood, the more he has to learn, and the more has to learn, the better the story.
The key to telling stories about him is to never apologize on the page for his behavior. I, the author, can’t worry what anyone thinks about him. I can’t reassure the reader that I know that what he’s doing is unkind or shallow. My only job is to portray him accurately, to show why he did what he did, specifically the underlying belief from which his behavior grew. If I can get that, everything he does makes sense, no matter how ugly. He’s innocent. By the story’s end, he’s learned what he needed to learn, and he’s ugly no more.
Since I’ve been writing these stories, I apologize a little less to the people I love. Conflicts are always a product of some misunderstanding, and it’s rare I’m the only one who misunderstood. After all, everyone’s innocent, but everyone also believes something that isn’t true. Better we spend our time learning the truth than asking forgiveness, since once that truth is learned there’s rarely anything left to forgive.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.
Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com