In most fictional tales, the character(s) face a pivotal choice that will change everything.
It can be as simple as deciding to declare your love in public for a secret crush. Or as big and bold as stealing the US Constitution (so-so movie, cool premise).
Whatever the choice, it changes the course of the plot and impacts everything that comes after.
Life is like that too.
I was born to two loving parents. Well, they loved me but not each other. They divorced when I was little, and my mother got custody. My dad saw me on weekends, and things settled into a back-and-forth routine for more than a decade.
When I was fifteen, my dad asked if I would come live with him for a year. He wanted to spend time with me while I was still a teenager, and my Mom agreed that i could go if I wanted to.
What neither one knew was that I had a terrible secret, one that was eating me up inside.
I was gay.
I’d been seeing Damon since I was fourteen – and by seeing, I mean having sex. He was my age – young and beautiful, and we had been friends since I was ten. He was the one who made the first move one sunny afternoon, on a hike out in the desert.
But there were to be no flowers, no sweet young romance, no beautiful love scenes.
To be gay in Tucson in the early eighties was to be ashamed of who you were, to do your business together in secret, and to never let anyone around you know what you were feeling or thinking. It’s hard to explain the dark shame that consumed me in those days. I wanted him so desperately, and then I felt so dirty for the wanting.
I was a nerd with bad acne in my mid-teens, and was near the bottom of my high school’s pecking order. I had a lot of reasons to want to leave.
I did want to get to know my dad better – don’t get me wrong. But I also wanted to extricate my way out of the situation I was in, with no one the wiser about my secret.
So I packed up my bags after school let out and moved to California to live with my Dad. I enrolled in a new high school, where I got to reinvent myself, no longer the outcast. I discovered hair mousse – I still remember the copper-flecked one I used to wear – and a whole new wardrobe.
I’d never be a jock – though my Dad did enroll me in soccer – but I found a place there with the smart kids, and even met a nice girl who I started to date near the end of my senior year.
The while time, I kept my shameful secret hidden.
I rationalized things in my head. I wasn’t really gay. These were just feelings I had been given to help me be a more compassionate person.
I know, total bullshit, right? But we can go to extraordinary lengths to make ourselves believe something that excuses our own shame and guilt.
After high school, I moved back to Tucson for a bit, and eventually my (by then long-distance) girlfriend and I broke up. I came back to California when I was twenty for a job with a SoCal publisher I met through my high school teacher, and ran into an old friend from high school. She and I dated for a couple years, and I even moved in with her.
And then one day, out of the blue, Damon called me. He’d gotten my number from my Mom, and he wanted to see me.
His call woke up the side of me I had hidden so long. I went to visit him, and he looked so normal, not at all what I thought a gay man should look like. My own shame again.
Within two weeks, I came out and left my girlfriend, finally embracing my truth. It was messy and sad, but necessary for us both.
I wonder sometimes how things might have been different between Damon and I in high school, if we’d lived in a more tolerant world. If we hadn’t needed to hide. If I hadn’t felt such burning shame every time I thought of him.
Then again, I wouldn’t be where I am now (or who I am now). That’s the thing about life. Every pivot colors everything that comes after, for better and worse.
That first big pivot of my life – choosing to live with my Dad when I was fifteen – led me to a new school and a teacher who connected me with that publisher, Hunter House. I moved with them to the Bay Area a few years later, and shortly thereafter met Mark.
What started as a flight from who I was finally freed me to be who I am today – a happy, proud, out gay man who has spent the last thirty years with the love of his life.
When I’m writing, I try to remember this lesson – how a single choice can change the direction of an entire life.
And I embrace my own choices, because they brought me here, to Mark.
In my current WIP, The Dragon Eater, my main protagonist Raven makes a rash choice in the first chapter that changes his life, mostly for the better. But it echoes throughout the next three books, not unlike the choice I made when I was just a few years younger than him.
Fiction imitates life. 🙂
Writers, do you consider your own life pivots when writing your characters? How do they factor in?