2. Take sides—against yourself.
Sometime before I wrote “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,” now my most anthologized short story, I had become aware of a growing problem in my community: the reluctant immigration of aging parents to the U.S. from India. Deprived of their familiar support systems, these immigrants did poorly in their new environment, often becoming depressed or ill. The issue made me uncomfortable. I knew I’d face a similar situation soon—my own widowed mother in India no longer had immediate family there. Indeed, a few months later, she came to our home on an extended visit.
It was not a success. My mother found it difficult to adjust and resented being expected to change lifelong habits at her age. She was bored and lonely when my husband and I went to work—and sad, though I didn’t realize it then.
I, too, was full of resentment. My life was disrupted by her demands. In addition to my work responsibilities, I ran around doing things for her all day—or so it seemed. By evening, I was too exhausted to even think of writing. Worst of all, nothing I did made her happy. When she returned to India, declaring that she would rather die there than live here, I felt both angered and guilty.
To heal myself, I decided to write a story about the experience. I had an arsenal of details: How my mother would criticize me for asking my husband to share the household chores. How she would rise before dawn and clatter around the house, waking us all. How she refused to use the washer and dryer and would instead drape her hand-washed saris over the backyard fence, so that I lived in fear of complaints from our neighbors.
But the more I dwelled on these facts, the worse I felt—not just as a person but as an artist. The characters in my story were wooden and unsympathetic. The mother was a harridan. The daughter was self-righteous and whiny. I threw away draft after draft in frustration. But I had to write this story! Go where the pain is, a writing teacher had once told me, and I knew from experience that she was right.
I finally realized that the story wasn’t working because I had an agenda: to prove that I (thinly disguised as the fictional daughter) was a good person who had done her best with her unreasonable mother, the story’s villain. But in doing this, I was misusing the story form. Stories are for understanding the nuances of life, for empathizing with characters in spite of—or perhaps because of—their exasperating frailty. If I wanted my story to succeed, I had to give up my identification with the daughter and become the opponent.
It was when I made old Mrs. Dutta the point-of-view character that the story came together. It wasn’t easy. But I forced myself to plunge into her homesickness for India. I finally began to feel her loneliness, her bafflement at being trapped in a country where the rules had changed overnight. And the story came to life. I understood this, too: The story did not need a villain; most stories don’t. Mrs. Dutta’s situation was compelling enough by itself.
Your real-life conflicts are full of riches to be mined for your fiction. After all, conflict is what drives plot. But you may find, as I did, that you’re too close to the subject matter of your life’s battles to achieve the objectivity you need to tell the story with the complexity it deserves. Try stepping into your adversary’s shoes with honest empathy, and you may find the fresh perspective your story needs.