Amanda Ray, Hero of a New Work-in-Progress by Pat Bertram

Bertram: I can’t get into writing your story. You’re nothing special, just a woman grieving. Boring.

Amanda: Sam thinks I’m special and unique.

Bertram: Who’s Sam?

Amanda: Don’t you know?

Bertram: Of course I know. I created him. I just wondered if you knew.

Amanda: I know he’s a special man. We met online at a support group for people whose mates are dying of cancer. His wife and David—my husband—were both told they had three to six months to live. Having something so real to talk about cut through all the usual crap people go through when the meet, even online, so we got to know each other very quickly. And we fell in love. Took us both by surprise. Neither of us were looking for that, and we didn’t know you could develop such powerful feelings without ever having met.

Bertram: What happened to Sam’s wife?

Amanda: She rallied. Is in remission right now. Still not well, but doesn’t seem to be terminal. Sam is staying with her. We want to get together, but he lives halfway across the country. In Ohio. I need so much to feel his arms around me. I am stunned by the depth of my grief for David. I thought I was over him—he took such a long time to die, you see. Over a year. I thought I’d finished with my grief and moved on, but when he died, it felt as if I were dying, too. If I didn’t love Sam, I couldn’t have gone on.

Bertram: I don’t understand how you can love one man while mourning another.

Amanda: I don’t understand it either. Sam says I’m a complicated woman. He says that there’s a part of me that will always belong to him, a part David never knew. Apparently I need to men to fulfill me. Yet here I am . . . alone. And grieving.

Bertram: What part belongs to Sam?

Amanda: The passionate part. I always thought I was a passionless woman—I’d have to be, being David’s wife. He wasn’t much for sex. I think it had something to do with his childhood, something that happened to shape his life, but he never talked about it. I’ll find out, though—it’s important to the story. See, when I find out that he’s different from the man I knew, then I panic and wonder who I am. For most of my adult life, I defined myself by my relationship with him. He gave my life focus and meaning. Which is why finding out the truth about Davis is important. I need to know who he is so I can find out who I am.

Bertram: And who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job, to create me?

Bertram: I was hoping you’d do it for me. Writers always talk about how their characters take over and do things they never intended. It’s never happened to me, but I thought this time would be different.

Amanda: Different? How?

Bertram: Because you’re me. Well, not all of it—the character of a grieving woman is based on me since I know grief only from my point of view. But the story is not my story. I mean, it is my story since I’m writing it, but the story I’m writing is not the story of my life. That part is made up, though I’m hoping some deeper truth will emerge.

Amanda: What sort of truth?

Bertram: Hey! Who’s the interviewer here? I’m the one supposed to be asking the questions.

Amanda: But you’re the one with the answers. So how can you be the one asking the questions? And anyway, you’re evading the issue. What sort of truth are you looking for?

Bertram: The true sort. The universal sort. Something that will mean something different to everyone who sees it.

Amanda: Clear as bell.

Bertram: Good thing you’re not a writer. Clichés are so passé. But we’re getting off course here. Will people believe that a grieving woman can love another? Won’t they think that love negates grief?

Amanda: Seems like it’s your responsibility as a writer to make people believe it.

Bertram: So that brings us back to the original problem. You’re boring. How do I make you interesting? I mean, you sound like a whiner in the book, always screaming, “I can’t do this!”

Amanda: But if you notice (and you should since you’re the one who wrote it) every time I say I can’t do something, I do it. As you keep stressing, in the book, I don’t know who I am. Even though I’m in my fifties (cripes, couldn’t you have made me forty-something? Fifty sounds so old) I’m in a chrysalis. I’ve lived a lot of years, but never LIVED. I’ve defined myself by other people, and now that David’s gone, I need to learn how to define myself by myself. To find my home within me since David’s death stole my home from me. He was my home, not the parsonage we lived in for the past fifteen years. I have to leave the parsonage, too, because the church is selling it.

Bertram: I never asked you if you wanted to be a preacher’s wife. Would you rather be a different character? A cop, perhaps, or a CEO?

Amanda: Don’t know what I want to be. Isn’t that the point of the story? For me to find out what who I am and what I want to be? A coming-of-age-in-middle-age story? For that purpose, a preacher’s wife is as good as anything. Also could explain why she led such a cloistered life. A CEO probably wouldn’t have defined her life by her husband’s. A preacher’s wife, by definition, defines her life by his.

Bertram: I just thought of something: how about if I make you the preacher?

Amanda: Nope, it wouldn’t work story-wise. I wouldn’t get kicked out of the parsonage when David died, I wouldn’t be defining my life by his, and I probably wouldn’t have time to have an online affair. Until David got sick and was forced into idleness, he never had much time. He spent time with our daughter Thalia, for which I’m thankful. She loved him very much, though she doesn’t seem to be grieving. But perhaps she has less to grieve for. She’s a grown woman with a life of her own, so she’s not panicking about growing old without him, or worrying about money, or any of the other things that go along with grief. But everyone’s grief is different. Also, she feels betrayed—apparently she knew I was having a cyber affair. She doesn’t understand how I could do such a thing while David was dying. Heck, I don’t understand it. Can you explain it to me?

Bertram: Perhaps you were at a vulnerable time, grasping at life any way you could. Perhaps you needed someone to help you through the worst time of your life. Perhaps you really did think you’d moved on, though you were actually denying what David’s death would mean to you. The best way to show yourself that he no longer meant everything to you is to find another man who meant something to you.

Amanda: But I do love Sam. He wasn’t—isn’t—just a replacement. And anyway, he can’t be a replacement. He’s married.

Bertram: Yeah, there’s no getting around that. I mean, I could make him single, but then there’s no story. You’d go from David’s life to Sam’s. Period. No identity crisis. (Do they even call it that any more?) No coming-of-age story. No money problems.

Amanda: Sounds good to me. After all, I’m the one who has to go through all that turmoil and grief.

Bertram: Talking to you here, you don’t seem all that boring. Seems like an interesting story for those who are interested in this type of story. So what’s the problem? Why don’t I like you? Why don’t I identify with you?

Amanda: Maybe you’re putting too much of yourself into the story. It is my story, after all.

Bertram: So how do I take myself out? How do I make you seem like a living, breathing woman who is not as wimpy as she appears to be?

Amanda: Give me good characters to butt heads with. Thalia, my daughter, isn’t well defined. I’m not sure what purpose she serves other than to prove that I had a normal life.

Bertram: Hmm. Good point. She has to serve some purpose. Maybe she’s another way you define yourself—as a mother. And now that she’s grown, it just adds to your inner turmoil. But she’s been living on her own for a long time—first at college, and now in her own apartment with her own business.

Amanda: Pet therapist. What kind of business is that? She seems happy enough. Well, except for the part where her beloved father just died and her mother is carrying on with another man. She’s not real, though. It’s as if you were just filling a slot in the story: insert kid here.

Bertram: I was. I am. Maybe her whole reason for being is to give you someone to fight with. I mean, who else but a daughter would fight with a woman who just lost her husband? The problem is that it doesn’t reflect well on you. You have to be someone people sympathize with or else there is no story. It only works if readers care about you, and I don’t know how to do that.

Amanda: Maybe add more Sam. I’d like to see more of him. He makes me feel good. He says wonderful things to me, he makes me hot—or at least he did. My libido seems to have died when David did.

Bertram: But you two have never actually met. You used to spend hours online, though that’s dwindled—since his wife is getting better, he doesn’t have the privacy he had when you first met him. You talked about things you hadn’t talked about to anyone else, really opened up to each other, exchanged photos (even a couple of naked ones) but you’ve never even touched. So how do you know Sam loves you? How do you know you love him?

Amanda: Could that be part of the story? And how come I don’t have any friends?

Bertram: I don’t know. Maybe your friends with other preacher’s wives, but they’re as busy as you once were and have little time for you. That seems to be a growing theme in the story. David had no time for you—he became reclusive before he died. Thalia has no time for you. She’s busy with her work, and she’s angry at you. Sam doesn’t have much time for you now. And your friends have no time for you.

Amanda: That makes me seem pathetic. I don’t like feeling pathetic.

Bertram: I don’t much like it, either. A pathetic hero is not much of a hero. Maybe I should throw more trauma your way.

Amanda: As if losing my husband, losing my daughter, losing my home isn’t trauma enough.

Bertram: So we need to offset those losses with things you find—like the gun, like the photo of the other Thalia.

Amanda: Like Sam. I sure would like to get naked with him. Maybe you can plan a trip for me.

Bertram: I could do that. Then I could figure out a reason you couldn’t meet. Like his wife gets sick again or his car breaks down. Maybe you could drive by his house when he doesn’t show up for your rendezvous. Maybe you could see him outside and you like what you see, like how you gentle he is with his wife. But would that take away from the climax when you do meet?

Amanda: My climax or the story’s climax?

Bertram: Both.

Amanda: I like that.

Bertram: You would, you hussy.

Amanda: Not a hussy. Just a woman lost. A woman who doesn’t see herself as special, yet who manages to find two great loves. It was just fate’s joke that the two loves overlapped. Could be that was the only time I could have fallen in love. Before David got sick, I was focused on him, living our life together. After he died, I was focused on him, remembering our life together.

Bertram: That’s what I need—a few scenes showing you and David together. What would exemplify your love? You already admitted that yours wasn’t a passionate marriage, so there had to be something special about him that made you love him, something special about you that made him love you. Sacrifice would work, but since you were together all those years, you didn’t sacrifice your life for him. But maybe you sacrificed yourself? I’ll have to think about this.

Chip, the Hero of Pat Bertram’s Work-in-Pause, a Whimsically Ironic Apocalyptic Novel (Part II)

Bertram: Continuing our discussion from October, Chip, tonight is again about word counts, not adding usable words to the manuscript, so let’s see what we can accomplish. The last time we talked, you were running from the volcano.

Chip: For two months, you left me there, running and running and getting nowhere. It was a nightmare.

Bertram: Life gets in the way. I can’t live at your whim.

Chip: My whim? When is any of this my whim? It’s not even my choice. You choose for me.

Bertram: Well, I am your writer.

Chip: But what kind of writer are you? Isn’t a writer supposed to write — always?

Bertram: Not you, too. I get enough of that crap from other writers and books on writing. Who ever thought that one up, anyway? We don’t do anything always. Except breathe.

Chip: I know. You’ve said that before. Enough with the excuses. Can we get on with this?

Bertram: This meaning the interview?

Chip: This meaning my life. You’ve written me into escapades with giant bugs, devil toads, killer rivers, and all sorts of unutterable changes to the earth, yet I never seem to get anywhere.

Bertram: You’re where you’re supposed to be.

Chip: I’m supposed to be in this zoo? Why?

Bertram: You know why.

Chip: Right. Your precious theme. Freedom vs. Security vs. Responsibility. What’s with that? Real writers just write and worry about the theme later. Besides, who cares about theme when they’re reading an adventure story or a science fiction epic or whatever this is. 

Bertram: A whimsically ironic apocalyptic allegory.

Chip: Yeah, like that’s going to sell.

Bertram: But it’s the story I want to write.

Chip: Then write it. Don’t piddle your time away on the Internet.

Bertram: I don’t piddle. I work. I’m trying to promote the books I’ve already written.

Chip: That’s just your excuse. You like surfing cyberspace and talking to people.

Bertram: So?

Chip: Soooo . . . you’re supposed to be thinking of me!

Bertram: I do think of you, but you’re not giving me much to work with. You just wander around —

Chip: Wander? Is that what you think I’m doing? No wonder you’re getting nowhere. Wander. Sheesh.

Bertram: Then what are you doing?

Chip: Learning. Trying to find foods that aren’t feel-good.

Bertram: I liked that idea. What’s wrong with feel-good foods?

Chip: When was the last time you ate something that made you feel comfortable with yourself and your environment? Never, I bet. Food is supposed to nourish. Period. I don’t trust the stuff they feed us in here. And that Francie — she doesn’t understand. She thinks I’m being irresponsible by tasting the vegetation in here. I know it’s dangerous, but I’m trying to take responsibility for myself so I don’t have to rely on my keepers for every little thing. And why do you keep throwing me and Francie together? Don’t even think about having us end up together. She reminds me of my mother, and you know what I think of her.

Bertram: Why aren’t you this forthcoming when I sit down to write?

Chip: Because . . . I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the big shot writer. I’m just the dupe.

Bertram: You consider yourself a dupe? Don’t you realize you’re the hero?

Chip: I’m no hero. Sure, I dived into that ungodly river and rescued the pitbull, but that wasn’t heroic. It was . . . instinct.

Bertram: You don’t think acting instinctively can be heroic?

Chip: Heroism is more than a simple unthinking act. It entails overcoming fear, risking death, self-sacrifice.

Bertram: You did risk death. That seems self-sacrificing to me.

Chip: How could it be self-sacrificing if I didn’t stop to think that it was self-sacrificing? I just did it.

Bertram: We’re getting way off track. This isn’t supposed to be a philosophical discussion but a strategy session to figure out where we go from here.

Chip: I know where I’m going: to search for food. But I can’t do that unless you buckle down and write.

Bertram: Okay, okay. I can take a hint.

Chip: Sheesh. That was no hint. It was a full-blown declaration.

Bertram: So give me something to work with.

Chip: Here’s the deal. I’m standing at the fence, looking out at the world beyond the refuge. A bird as big as a jetliner flies over the land but swerves before it reaches the refuge as if it senses a barrier. Then I feel fingers on my throat, choking me. I try to turn around to see who it is, but all I can manage is to turn further into the strangler’s clutches.

Bertram: How do you feel about that?

Chip: How do you think I feel? I . . . can’t . . . breathe . . .

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Chio, the Hero of her Work-in-Pause, a Whimisically Ironic Apocalyptic Novel (Part I)

Chip, the Hero of Her Work-in-Pause, a Whimsically Ironic Apocalyptic Novel (Part I)

Bertram: I’ve been trying to write freeform in an effort to get your story moving. You’re on your way home now, and your neighborhood is still intact, or as intact as it was the last time you saw it. The change from open prairie to city disconcerts you, or does it? I’m still not sure who you are or what you want. You want freedom, of course. No one to bother you. No one to tell you what to do. No one to change the world on a whim.

Chip: At least you got me away from that danged volcano. You should have done it a long time ago instead of making me run and run for months on end.

Bertram: Life got in the way, you know how it is.

Chip: No I don’t. You barely wrote me into the world and then you left me to fend for myself.

Bertram: It wasn’t fair, but I’m here now.

Chip: You’re not. Your mind is still somewhere in cyberspace. You’re wondering what you’re missing. Who’s emailing you? Who’s commenting on your articles? How many people are reading your other blog? What’s going on in your discussion group?

Bertram: Okay, you got a point. My attention is divided, but . . .

Chip: Buts and more buts. That’s all you ever offer me. What you need to do is get your mind here with me in this crazy world that changes by the minute. No wonder you don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am because you’re not writing me.

Bertram: If we’re casting blame here, why aren’t you helping me to move the story along? Usually after 15,000 words, I have a feel for my characters, a sense of who they are, and what secrets they hoard, but you–you don’t tell me anything about yourself.

Chip: How can I? Growing up, my life was never about me. I didn’t have much chance to develop a solid identity. My father died when I was young, and my mother was a narcissist who always put herself first. I know she had to work two jobs to support me, and I’m grateful. I really am. She went through a lot for me. People didn’t treat her well at work. The women were jealous of her looks, and the men never saw anything but her big breasts. Yet she fought her way to the top of the company and ended up retiring with a great pension. Poor mother didn’t know what to do with herself after she retired, so she came to visit me. For six months.

Bertram: That doesn’t explain why you aren’t helping me write your story. We know what happens to you—

Chip: Maybe that’s why I don’t want to help. Maybe I want the world to go back the way it was. I was happy, except that I couldn’t get my mother to leave.

Bertram: Were you happy?

Chip: Sure. I had my store. I loved the animals in my charge, and I miss them. I know you said you sent the frilled lizard home to Australia and the Scarlet Macaw home to the rainforest, but I have only your word for it. I’ve never seen them there. And then all the other animals, like the poor blind seeing-eye dog. What did you do with it? A generic remark that it’s in a better place does not answer the question. Is it with the wolves? Is it young again? Is it sighted?

Bertram: You sound like a whiner here, and yet I never saw you as a whiner. A bit weak, perhaps—you never got up the courage to ask your mother to leave. I had to et rid of her for you.

Chip: I did ask her to leave. Many times. But she didn’t go. What was I supposed to do? Throw her out the door? Drag her to her car? Change the locks when she went shopping?

Bertram: Do you think maybe you wanted her to stay? Maybe you’re a mama’s boy. Maybe you liked having her take care of you AND you wanted your freedom. Since you couldn’t have both, maybe you got in the habit of blaming her for your inadequacies.

Chip: Inadequacies? You think I’m inadequate?

Bertram: I think you’re perfect for your job—a rather ordinary character who becomes extraordinary because of what happens to you.

Chip: Inadequate and ordinary. Thanks a lot.

Bertram: You do have a few qualities that make you stand out—your way with animals, the way you identify with them rather than with humans.

Chip: That is a good quality, one I would have chosen for myself if you hadn’t bestowed it on me. What other qualities do I have that make me stand out?

Bertram: You’re reasonably bright—

Chip: Reasonably bright is a good quality? Sheesh.

Bertram: And you have a strange sense of honor. I like that you saved Nicholas Nickleby to read after you fudged on reading it during college.

Chip: I was embarrassed at having to rely on cheat sheets from the internet to write that paper, but my job had to come first or I wouldn’t have been able to afford college. I will read the book, just not now. It makes me think of all that’s lost.

Bertram: What do you miss from the old world? I mean besides working at your store. You never seemed to do much else.

Chip: I spent a lot of time planning my animal refuge, but when you destroyed the world, you destroyed my dream along with it.

Bertram: Maybe I made your dream come true. I returned your animals to their natural habitats.

Chip: But I didn’t have anything to do with it.

Bertram: So what you’re objecting to is that I saved you animals and you didn’t?

Chip: No. Yes. I don’t know.

Bertram: Precise response.

Chip: I don’t need your sarcasm. I could be doing . . .

Bertram: Could be doing?

Chip: Anything but talking to you.

Bertram: I really want to know. What would be doing if you weren’t talking to me?

Chip: Going home. I have a cat waiting for me. You’ve left us alone so long, it’s probably gone by now.

Bertram: Not yet, he’s still waiting for you. And he’s doing well. He’s quite a self-sufficient creature, you know.

Chip: It. It’s an it, not a he. “He” presumes humanness, and it’s a higher life form than any human I’ve ever met.

Bertram: Okay. It’s waiting for you.

Chip: I hear that patronizing tone in your voice. I don’t have to put up with it.

Bertram: Oh, but you do. I’ve pledged to write 2000 words tonight, and since you’re not giving me anything to work with, we’re going to keep at this until you do.

Chip: What do you need from me?

Bertram: Something to make you real in my head so that I can hardly wait to work on your story everyday. Something that excites me so that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Chip: No one can do that. You’ve read so much you’re jaded, and now you expect me to supply the excitement you once found while reading. At least you’re working again.

Bertram: But the writing is awful. I can’t use any of it for the book.

Chip: So? I thought the point was to write whatever flows out of your mind.

Bertram: I didn’t expect such drivel. I’d hoped for magic.

Chip: We all hope for magic. Few of us get it.

Bertram: Now we’re getting somewhere. Did you hope for magic?

Chip: Maybe.

Bertram: Then you got it, didn’t you? One day your world was the same as it always was, and the next . . .

Chip: It changed. Nothing is the same. Nothing is real.

Bertram: How does that make you feel?

Chip: What are you, my therapist?

Bertram: Just answer the question.

Chip: It makes me feel frightened. Awed. Unsettled. Lonely. Desperate. Excited. Except for the bugs. I can do without those.

Bertram: You have to admit, it’s interesting for a character who professes to love animals to have an aversion to bugs.

Chip: Big bugs. Two-inch beetles. Seven-foot millipedes. Next thing I know, you’re going to have dragonflies with six-foot wingspans.

Bertram: Great idea, but I don’t want to overdo the bug thing.

Chip: Believe me, I don’t want you to overdo it either. Can I go home now?

Bertram: As soon as you give me something to work with.

Chip: It’s going to be a very long night.

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Chip, the Hero of her Work-in-Pause, a Whimsically Ironic Apocalyptic Novel (Part II)