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What’s the story, Morning Glory?

by Molly Moynahan

Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to be a writer--and if so, why?

- Bennett Cerf

I’m going to write about how writers tend to tell the same story, but since the two famous writers I contacted for this column failed to return my e-mails, despite their previous kindness in providing blurbs and being generally nice, I’m going to just interview myself. Artists remind me of cats sometimes. If you rattle the treats they come galloping but then they get all furtive and spiky.

Anyway, I wondered if these writers thought I was suggesting they tended to write the same book over and over, or that they had no imagination. Nothing could be further from the truth. But let’s face it, there are only so many stories out there unless you decide to incorporate tsunamis, earthquakes or the rapture, and then you might as well deal with angels, mermaids and multiple personalities.

I’m not talking about those kinds of stories. I’m talking about the regular stuff, like birth, death, marriage, being young, getting old, losing and winning and waking up one day and recognizing you’re confused about what all the fuss was about.

Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen. - Willa Cather

Before the age of fifteen I still believed in love and redemption. I was sure there was an answer to the question as to why people were so cruel to each other and I generally thought things would end happily. These elements have remained part of my writer’s palette, the power of kindness, the importance of taking risks and certain symmetry in the retribution doled out to those who behave badly. When I was fifteen, I was babysitting Roger Angell’s younger child in Maine and Roger heard me explaining something about heaven to his atheist three year old. “Don’t fill that child’s head with your Catholic propaganda!” Roger roared.      

I remember feeling sorry for that little boy because I realized my writer’s imagination had been fueled by that propaganda, heaven and hell, Satan and God, the fall from grace, the guilt and the glory of a system that arbitrarily punished both the innocent and the evil alike.

I thought how terrible it would be to be deprived of the Garden of Eden and the flames of Hades. Fairytales had inspired and comforted me, since the youngest daughter was ever the prettiest and always managed to do the right thing.  My grandmother’s irrational devotion to martyrdom inspired me and then there was grief, how delicious and awful; Beth’s death in Little Women, Rima’s destruction in Green Mansions, the loss of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon, a devastating scene in my father’s first novel, Brothers and Sisters, when the missing alcoholic father comes to visit his injured son in the orphanage and is drunk and pathetic, the death of Cathy in Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff’s refusal to allow her to leave him. I read these books in my attic room and cried into the night, tears rolling into my ears, delighted by the fact that mere words on a page had broken my heart.

So I tell stories filled with drama, family relationships, passion and grief. I like to think of things glimpsed from moving cars, opportunities lost, the things that elude the conscious mind, a dream half remembered, or something in the peripheral vision that you can’t quite see. My stories are romantic, gothic and usually end happily because I remain optimistic and stubborn and refuse to believe people won’t end up happy somehow. Unless they’re dead, of course.

I was a true fan of Joyce Carol Oates during the years I struggled to understand my life with distracted parents; to pierce the loneliness of living in the country in a family deeply invested in intellectual brilliance and artistic accomplishment, but lacking in the ability to answer mundane questions.

I like to enter the life of my characters at a point of crisis, death, revelation of adoption, reunions after long separations, the suicide of a loved one, or whatever. I have too much first hand acquaintance with this kind of drama and wonder sometimes why I can’t leave well enough alone. If life is already so complicated, why recreate the same crisis moments on the page? Because I can and because it’s fun and because no one wants to read your goddamn Christmas letter about your kids attending Ivy League schools. They want to hear about your kids making meth, your parents deciding to disinherit you and the end of your marriage. That’s life. We rubberneck at the car crash because we are fascinated by disaster, especially when it belongs to someone else. Understanding human nature is key to all my stories. More importantly, not understanding human nature is one reason I keep writing, that and revenge.

Molly Moynahan is the author of three novels. The most recent, Stone Garden, was a 2003 NYT Notable Book. Her website address is Her blog is

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