Friday, September 06, 2019

Guilt as a Plot Device

I'm still trying to finish up summer projects, settle into fall semester, and set up a schedule. But I did have a thought this morning that I want to share.

I woke up when it was still early --or seemed to be. My bedroom doesn't get morning sunlight, so I always have to check the clock. I mention this because I looked down toward my feet and remembered that my cat, Harry, had knocked on my door (literally -- with large Maine Coon paws. He does that every morning when I haven't gotten up by the time he is ready to start the day. It's his follow-up to meows).

Last night, he knocked as I was reading, and I was surprised. I opened the door, he strolled in and instead of looking around and leaving, he hopped up on the bed. He stretched out and settled in. It was almost as if he had been reading my mind and thought this would be a good time to remind me that he is a cat who enjoys company. I had been gone most of the day, and first he curled up in my lap for a nap after he'd eaten, now he was getting in more quality time with me by sleeping on my bed instead of his favorite living room chair.

He seemed to have sensed that I was feeling guilt and decided to rub it in. Before he knocked on the door I was reading a book (research for 1939 thriller that I have on my nightstand) and debating a trip in 2020. I've been wanting to visit Ireland and Scotland. A friend is going on a guided bus tour of Scotland, and emailed to invite me to join her. I have enough travel points to cover my airfare, and it would be the perfect time to do some research for the seventh Lizzie Stuart book I plan to write (assuming I'll finish the sixth). Only problem: If I go to Scotland, I will have to board Harry with his sitter while I'm away. His sitter is one of his favorite humans, and he stayed with her when I was in Alaska. But he was really upset with me when I crated him up and dropped him off. He tried to hide under a chair when I returned to pick him up. Of course, we have been together almost three years longer now. He should know by now that I'll come back to bring him home. But I'm still worried that two weeks away from home would be traumatic for him.

Okay, I know, he's a cat. But I have to live with him. And I feel guilt about not being a good "parent" to my "fur baby" (guilt is built into this language). Even though my cat lives much better than some people and he's certainly lucky that even though I didn't intend to adopt a cat, I was persuaded. He has a good life, and it's not like he would suffer during those two weeks. But I feel guilty. On the other hand, Harry's sitter has a camera in the room reserved for the one cat she is boarding. I can dial in and even talk to him. So if she can keep him, I will probably go.

That brings me to how this is related to writing -- as I was thinking about Harry this morning, it occurred to me that what we feel guilty about provides a clue about what we feel important. I have a character that I'm trying to get a handle on -- two of them in fact -- and I'm going to ponder this.

It turns out there is a difference between feeling "guilt" and feeling "shame". The two emotions are aligned, but not the same

As you can see from the title of the article, people who experience guilt are attuned to how our behavior affects others. But the question is what we do about that guilt. If a character does something because of guilt -- or doesn't do something that everyone would expect him or her to do, knowing that the character would have felt guilty if he or she didn't  . . . follow that?

Of course, it's possible to make a decision and then backtrack. I'm still feeling guilty about going away later this year and leaving Harry alone at home -- even though he'll have twice-daily visits from his sitter. But I'm locked in, having paid. What if I wasn't, and he climbed into my suitcase as I was packing. . .

I'm penciling in time to think about what each of the characters in my thriller might feel guilty about. This could also work for the character who disappears in my next Lizzie Stuart book. I might as well put my own guilt to good use. 


The Remodel Whisperer said...

I too have a Maine Coon! His name is Zane Grey and he loves lap time. When I leave, he runs to the front door while crying. As I stand at the front door with keys in hand, he looks at me, looks down at the couch where I'm supposed to sit so he can curl up in my lap, then looks at me again and cries. I feel so guilty for leaving but then tell myself this is ridiculous, I need to get groceries/not be late for my guitar lesson/get to that meeting, etc.

I'm told cats have short memories and he gets over it quickly, but when I returned home from a writer's conference he looked at me with a wounded expression for days. My cat sitter gives him lots of love and attention, but apparently this is not enough.

I love the way you are channeling this into a writing exercise. Some of my characters do feel guilt but they are vegetables in a children's book so their feelings aren't as complex as humans. But I will keep this in mind for future work.

Enjoy your trip (guilt free)!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

It sounds like your Zane Grey and my Harry would have a lot to discuss about giving their humans guilt trips. Harry even walks around crying while he's looking for the treats he likes me to scatter around the living room and dining room.

But I do feel sorry for him when we have fireworks from the campus across the street. Poor guy just ran over to sit by my chair and try to look brave.

Thanks, I'm looking at the tour, now. Just have to make sure I can work out the logistics.

Your children's book sounds charming.