I am looking through my notes from a ‘how to write’ course. They speak of ‘dramatic imperative’, and stories only as strong as their antagonists. And of that crisis near the end of the book when yet another cruel hurdle leaves us agonising over whether the protagonist, our exhausted hero, will be thwarted – or not – so close to the end of her long, hard journey.
It strikes me that Friday’s shock travel ban would make a perfect illustration of this. All those thousands of heroes who were feeling pretty wrecked after almost two years of the pandemic, but cautiously optimistic about being with family and friends for Christmas. Or of going on that adventure. Getting to that job. Having the holiday they have dreamt of and saved up for.
Antagonists can come in many guises, my notes teach. Oh boy! Here we have no shortage of examples of those. A lethal virus and its mutations. Trigger finger journalists. Powerful, prejudiced countries with fearful constituents and bunker mentality politicians. And last but not least our hero’s internal antagonist, who thought she could bear no more disappointment, injustice and loss. Who could not even cry as she stood with her packed suitcase this past weekend, negative Covid test in hand, staring in numb disbelief at a departures board.
What my writing course notes did not say was how to rescue my hero, to give her journey a happy ending. I want to write relief, an eleventh-hour rescue, and tears of joy and reunion into this tale, but even this writer’s inner protagonist is finding believable words of consolation hard to come by.
The notes did mention that what a hero wants and what she really needs may be in conflict. That what a hero usually needs, according to the great moralists, is to not get what she wants.
In Cathy Park Kelly’s inspiring memoir Boiling a Frog Slowly, she describes how reading the self-help gurus reinforced her self-doubt. Her belief that her abuser was right, his anger her fault, that it was she who needed changing. And that when she eventually left her partner, Eckhart Tolle and his ilk were summarily boxed and dropped off at a charity shop.
I think this new travel ban story is one in which our hopeful, seeking heroes should not be pushed any further, or encouraged to seek ever more transcendent states of self-actualisation.
Can’t they, please, just be allowed to get what they want for a change?
On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Sue Brown’s twelve-year-old son, Craig, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. In the turmoil of the time, Sue instinctively turned her hand to writing. In 2017, six years after Craig had lost his battle with cancer, she published a memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Cape Town. The family spends as much time as they can at Craig’s Cabin in Betty’s Bay. Sue continues to find hope and solace in the written word. Her new book, Earth to Mom: Personal Essays on Loss & Love, is a tribute to her son and the indelible mark he left on his family and friends.