Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
-Fyodor Doestoyevsky er, that would be Leo Tolstoy, and I don’t know what I was smoking
I’ve heard this sentiment echoed a thousand times, in a thousand ways: that somehow, happiness is simple and formulaic and less worthy, while pain and suffering is unique and harsh. You see this same assumption undergirding much of the dismissal of romance as a genre. Romance, after all, must be formulaic, because it demands a happy ending.
Other people have taken up that gauntlet. Romance is no more formulaic than mystery, which demands the mystery be solved, or sonnets, which are even more restrictive as to form, or cooking on Iron Chef, which demands that every dish contain mushrooms. All this falls on deaf ears; somehow, happy endings are easy, trite, predictable, and above all generic. All happy families are exactly alike; it’s the unhappy ones who are somehow different, and by nature of their unhappiness, subtly elevated.
I call bullshit. I not only call bullshit, I call stupid, self-indulgent, asinine bullshit. Anyone who has worked to make a relationship–any relationship, not just a romantic one–function knows that this is bull. When you and your best friend have a fight, it is much, much harder to work through the mix of anger and love than it is to simply walk away. And as anyone who has worked through one of those hard times knows, the happiness that you get from a friendship that you’ve worked for isn’t interchangeable. Happiness isn’t some easy, fungible thing that you can purchase. Happiness is hard work.
No, it’s the emo-teenager I-can-never-fix-the-pain-that-is-my-life crap that’s easy. It’s easy to wallow in misery. Anyone can do it. Everyone has. It’s hard to do something about it.
The way I write my books, I think of the problems first: the ones that drive the start of the story, the one that will nearly break my couple apart to the end. Those are easy; I have thousands of them in my head, just waiting to be written. I start writing, and it’s those problems that drive me. Make them harder; make them more impossible to solve. When I start writing, I don’t know how I’m going to bring my couple through it. I don’t know the answers.
Bringing my couple to a happy, satisfying ending is the hardest part of writing the book. When I was working on Trial by Desire, there were a lot of hard parts. The hardest, bar none, was coming to a satisfactory resolution of the external hardship that Kate and Ned faced. I thought I had a solution, but when push came to shove, I could see that it wasn’t permanent, that I would always fear a reprisal in the future. If I had that fear, so would my readers. My solution wasn’t good enough. After weeks of writing a thousand unsatisfactory scenes, that was the one time I broke down and called my editor, unable to figure out how to go on.
We did eventually get it right. (And I hope you agree!)
I wonder what world these people live in, where they think that throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Oh, well, life is just one unending bitter cup of misery, and then you have to pay taxes on your deathbed,” is somehow hard and worthy and nonformulaic.
No, guys. Getting up off your duff and finding some kind of sweetener to add to that bitter cup of woe? That’s hard. Walking away from something that doesn’t work? That’s easy. Anyone can walk away. It takes a real hero to stick around and try to make things better. It is a thousand times harder to solve problems than create them, and dismissing the triumph of victory trivializes the hard work and heroism that every happy person puts into being happy.
I am sick and tired of the notion that all happiness is alike, that it’s easy, and that it’s formulaic. There are a thousand ways to triumph and find joy over sorrow. And every single one of them will give you a different kind of happy.