Posts tagged: life meaning

The Top Twelve Things about Life that I’ve Learned from Writing Fiction

BSP talk bordered 3Last Saturday, Beta Sigma Phi, the international women’s social, cultural and service organization, invited me to speak at their regional meeting. We had a great time together and I met very impressive women. Here is part of the talk I gave:


1. People need to connect emotionally. A writer, to be successful, needs to connect with her readers through the emotions she creates on the page. We, as women, are usually much more aware of the need to interact emotionally with people, than many men who sadly have been taught to focus on productivity rather than relationships.

2. Everyone needs some creativity in their lives. For me writing is therapeutic. For others it might be painting or singing, drama or woodwork. We adults need to play! By trying our hand at creativity, we discover that we can keep learning and improving as we go. Without play we can become dull and mechanical. And we won’t have the imagination to see what we could be, if we try something new.

 3. You can’t make someone like you, or what you write, or even make them read what you write. My oldest daughter can’t bring herself to read my novels because she’s afraid there will be sex in them. No one wants to connect their mother and sex in the same thought. I may have been a little devious lately when my husband drove our daughter and me to Seattle. I read novel # 3 aloud and she was forced to listen the whole way. I have to admit, she could have put on her headphones and listened to music, but she didn’t. She says she tried the door but the child safety locks were on.

4. We all hate to leave our comfort zones. Novels often open with a glimpse of the ordinary life and its challenges. Then some event or person disrupts that life or causes the hero or heroine to have to leave it behind. Our current life starts looking pretty good to us when it is proposed to us we need to change it in order to accomplish some good.

In my first novel, Hope and a Future, poor Colm, who is terrified of flying, must leave Ireland for a temporary teaching position in Portland. Otherwise he would never meet Marjorie!

We all hate to leave our comfort zones. But if no one did, even when it becomes very uncomfortable, we wouldn’t make this world a better place.

5. We are all on a quest. Our life story is written day-by-day as we work toward becoming the best version of ourselves. So is everyone else’s, so it makes sense to sometimes be the subplot friend who helps accomplish someone else’s goal. You never know, you might even be making progress on your goal at the same time. But despite setbacks and detours, we need to keep making progress toward our goal.

6. We need friends to help us along the way. Think of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Or any 70s sitcom, for that matter. Think of your friends. Without friends, the mission would be doomed.

7. We all have flaws that keep us from being the hero we’d like to be, or doing the deeds that we’d like to accomplish. I struggle with introversion and so I don’t reach out to others as much as I wish I did. Some main characters are proud, or distrustful, or lack self-confidence, or courage. They must overcome their flaws to achieve their goals.

In Hope and a Future, my heroine Marjorie lost her husband of 25 years in a car accident. Her guilt over the failings in her marriage keep her from being open to any new love in her life. Her Irish hero-to-be, Colm, has so many phobias that he lives a very limited life, at least until he starts facing his fears one at a time.

Our weaknesses often are what bring us to growth, when we face them and steadily overcome them, or … at least beat them into submission for a time.

Our flaws, on their flip sides, can be also our gifts. One stubborn daughter is also tenacious and has persevered her way into being a successful engineer. One overly quiet, watchful child grew up and turned her deep thoughts into great academic success, and avoided many common pitfalls by observing and avoiding her friends’ mistakes. One daughter as a teen declared she wasn’t going to work too hard for A’s anymore because she was tired of being a Goody Two Shoes. Now as a school counselor, she has a special connection with the type of students who tend to fall through the cracks.

8. Sometimes going home is extremely challenging. Remember fearful Colm from book 1? He is terrified of horses, and grew up on a horse ranch. In the sequel book 2, Where Hope Leads, his father wants him to come home and take over the business. The poor guy must fly back to Ireland but suffers a panic attack, missing his plane. Going home can be an ordeal.

In book 3, When the Vow Breaks, Kay left an abusive father behind when she fled Montana and moved to Spokane. Now her mother and father need her to return to take care of them. She really doesn’t want to go.

But going home can teach us a lot about ourselves. We all need to look back on our childhood with the eyes of an adult, with the advantage of some time and distance between us and what happened in our families. Sometimes, we can mend hearts that were broken and reconnect to people we truly love deep down.

9. Conflict is good. Our struggles help us to grow so we can overcome that main character flaw that keeps us from succeeding. We fight, we fail, we learn from our mistakes and the next time we get closer before we fail again. But each struggle brings us more information and calls out a better self than we were before. Each attempt, whether a success or failure, leads us closer to our goal.

You might say, “That’s fine for a character in fiction. A good story has to have conflict. In fact, one of the most common errors of new writers is being too easy on their characters. As a mom, I spent 25 years of my life trying to limit, solve, resolve or forbid conflict. I’m not sure I’m done yet. My poor characters, on the other hand, are subject to me increasing, enhancing, and in general bringing all sorts of unpleasant conflict into their lives.

Looking back as a mom, I see how the struggles my children had in their young lives taught them lessons that continue to serve them well in life. One daughter has Tourette Syndrome and had to learn interdependence to make it through. She is just as willing to help as to ask for help and, after working as a special education teacher for several years, is now a mother of two and is back at school working toward a Physical Therapy doctorate. Her personal experience with special needs has made her tender heart want to reach out to help those who struggle to meet goals that are easy for others. Conflict is good.

10. We are often drawn to our opposites. In romance writing, the hero and heroine can be so different that they are at first repelled by each other like opposing magnets. In fact, you can predict the end of a romantic comedy by seeing which man and woman dislike each other the most at the beginning. Consider Mary and Matthew in Downton Abbey. Or Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Somewhere along the way in most romances, the magnetic field flips and the attraction becomes powerful.

Like good romance heroes and heroines, in real life, we are often drawn to our opposites. I think this is because we are meant to learn from our “soul mates” so that their strengths teach us to overcome our weaknesses. We are meant to learn from each other, but we tend instead to polarize and become more extreme in our strengths and weaknesses. The emotional spouse takes over all feeling while the rational spouse takes care of business. Or the introvert becomes overwhelmed by the extrovert, and rather than learn to enjoy a little more socializing, becomes even more protective of privacy. Perhaps the responsible person watches the fun-loving date become an irresponsible spouse and resents him, rather than learning to lighten up a bit and helping the other grow.

In When the Vow Breaks, independent Kay eloped with compliant Wade on graduation night. When they returned home, peace loving Wade agreed to an annulment to appease his mother, thinking it was only temporary. Heart-broken and angry, Kay fled home planning to never return … but then later found out she was pregnant… with twins. (That’s the cruel writer heaping conflict on her poor characters.) But if Wade had learned some independence from Kay, or Kay some peace keeping from Wade, well… it would have been a much shorter, duller novel. As it is, the novel actually starts 18 years later when their twins have just left home.


11. We need to use what we’ve gained to help others. At the end of any great quest, the heroine should bring back what she learned, or accomplished, or attained, in order to improve the lives of the people she left behind. In The Lord of the Rings the quest brings peace back to the Hobbit’s Shire. Harry Potter, in every book of the series, makes the world a safer place for wizards and muggles alike. In my sequel to the first novel, Where Hope Leads, Marjorie and Colm both want the other to relocate to their homeland. Marjorie hopes Colm will stay in Portland, and he hopes she will fall in love with Ireland. I won’t tell you who wins, but I can assure you that by the end of the book they’ve grown enough to consider the needs of others as important as their own. When they are willing to be open to God’s leading, they find a way to help their version of the Shire.

And finally…

12. We want satisfying endings, and usually in books, though not always, that means happy ones. Daughter 3 once was so upset when a favorite character died, she threw her book in the freezer to punish it. I think we’ve all gotten to the end of a book or a movie and thought, “No, that’s not the right ending!” We feel like we’ve been cheated. We invested hours in reading or $15 at the theater, and we aren’t satisfied. Sometimes I wonder what God thinks as we move away from the direction he wanted us to head. I imagine he might like to throw us into the freezer for a while. Which might explain me growing up through Montana winters!

I suspect that when our time on this earth is over, we will look back and be satisfied with our lives if we’ve done something meaningful, if we’ve improved this world, either by making it more beautiful, or helping others, or by the wonderful children we’ve raised.

So, to sum up, the truths I’ve learned while writing fiction:

  • Relationships are deepened through sharing emotion. Don’t be afraid to love, laugh, enjoy, but also to cry, grieve, and let anger inspire you to positive action.
  • Expressing creativity sets us apart as human and is necessary for happiness.
  • We can’t make people like us. That’s ok. It’s more important to like ourselves.
  • No one wants to leave their comfort zone, but wombs get tight, and we can’t grow unless we do.
  • Friends make the road seem easier and help us make it through our journey.
  • We will all have challenges. They make life interesting, and as difficult and even devastating as they can be, they help us grow.
  • We are meant to learn from our loved ones how to grow stronger in our weak spots, not how to avoid growing. If both people continue to grow throughout their journey, the travel is sweet indeed.
  • We each have a quest that only we can achieve. To succeed we need to face our flaws and fears and grow through them.
  • Then we need to bring back what we learned for the good of others—
  • So that we can have a satisfying ending.


Wishing you all successful quests and meaningful lives.

Sacred Marriage Cont’d

What did you think of Gary Thomas’ idea that God designed marriage to make us holy even more than to make us happy?

There’s more intriguing wisdom in his book Sacred Marriage. As a husband, Gary speaks from his own perspective about the care of wives. Of course, all he says can encourage wives to treat husbands as treasures, too. He writes:

  • My wife was created by God himself! How dare I dishonor her? In fact, shouldn’t it even give me pause before I reach out to touch her? She is the Creator’s daughter, after all!”
  • “The biggest challenge for me in upholding my spiritual obligation to honor my wife is that I get busy and sidetracked. I don’t mean to dishonor her; I just absentmindedly neglect to actively honor her.” Quoting Betsy and Gary Ricucci, “Honor isn’t passive, it’s active. […] Honor not expressed is not honor.”
  • “Quoting Dr. John Barger:  ‘[When women] love, they love quietly; they speak, as it were, in whispers, and we have to listen carefully, attentively.’ Isn’t God also this way? Doesn’t he intervene in most of our lives in whispers, which we miss if we fail to recollect ourselves and pay careful attention—if we do not constantly strive to hear those whispers of divine love? The virtues necessary in truly loving a woman and having that love returned—the virtues of listening, patience, humility, service, and faithful love—are the very virtues necessary for us to love God and to feel his love returned.”
  • “In his audiotape series According to Plan, C.J. Mahaney pleads with men to recover [a] sense of sacrifice. He points out that sacrifice isn’t sacrifice unless it costs us something, and then he leaves a challenging question hanging in the air: ‘Gentlemen, what are we doing each day for our wives that involves sacrifice? What are you doing each day for your wife that is costing you something?’”

The author also shares a thought aimed primarily at women who have allowed this appearance-focused society to damage their self-esteem:

  • “Continuing to give your body to your spouse even when you believe it constitutes “damaged goods” can be tremendously rewarding spiritually. It engenders humility, service, and an other-centered focus, as well as hammering home a very powerful spiritual principle: Give what you have.”

He speaks to all of us about creativity:

  • You were made by God to create. If you don’t create in a thoughtful and worshipful manner—whether preparing meals, decorating a home, achieving a vocational dream, responsibly raising children—you will feel less than human because you are in fact acting in a sub-human mode.[…]The creation, of course, must have a proper focus—namely, the glory of God.”
  • “When this sense of creation is lost, marriage loses some of its spiritual transcendence. […] If we don’t nurture a godly sense of creativity, we will experience an emptiness that we may perversely and wrongly blame on our marriage. The emptiness comes not from our marriage, however, but from the fact that we’re not engaged in our marriage. We’re not using this powerful relationship in order to create something.”

And he continues his thoughts on creativity to include the creation of family:

  • “As people created in the image of God, we have a responsibility to create. […] Creating a family is the closest we get to sharing the image of God.”
  • “Building a family together isn’t a side avocation. It takes enormous energy, concentration, and self-denial.”
  • Quoting Jerry Jenkins, “Tell your [marital] story. Tell it to your kids, your friends, your brothers and sisters, but especially to each other. The more your story is implanted in your brain, the more it serves as a hedge against the myriad forces that seek to destroy your marriage. Make your story so familiar that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. It should become a legend that is shared through the generations as you grow a family tree that defies all odds and boasts marriage after marriage of stability, strength, and longevity.”
  • Quoting Evelyn & James Whitehead: “In our marriage we tell the next generation what sex and marriage and fidelity look like to Christians. We are prophets, for better and for worse, of the future of Christian marriage.”

Then he extends the idea of family and asks us to be of service to the world because, “When marriage becomes our primary pursuit, our delight in the relationship will be crippled by fear, possessiveness, and self-centeredness.”

  • “But a man and woman dedicated to seeing each other grow in their maturity in Christ; who raise children who know and honor the Lord; who engage in business that supports God’s work on earth and is carried out in the context of relationships and good stewardship of both time and money—these Christians are participating in the creativity that gives a spiritually healthy soul immeasurable joy, purpose, and fulfillment.”
  • “I will be most fulfilled as a Christian when I use everything I have—including my  money and time—as a way to serve others, with my spouse getting first priority (after God).”
  • Quoting Evelyn & James Whitehead, “Christianity has long called us to this truth: Marriage must be about more than itself because love that does not serve life will die.”
  • “We allow marriage to point beyond itself when we accept two central missions: becoming the people God created us to be, and doing the work God has given us to do. If we embrace—not just accept, but actively embrace—these two missions, we will have a full life, a rich life, a meaningful life, and a successful life. The irony is, we will probably also have a happy marriage, but that will come as a blessed by-product of putting everything else in order.”

All will be well.


 Tomorrow begins the Easter Triduum of

  • Holy Thursday, when we contemplate Jesus’ desire to be with us, even in the face of death, as he offers his Spirit to be accessible through a simple meal of Communion;
  • Good Friday, when completely innocent and all powerful, he chooses to suffer and relinquish his life to redeem us from our failings; and
  • Holy Saturday, when we move from the darkness of death to the light of resurrection on
  • Easter Sunday, when death and sin have been conquered!

Easter is a celebration of victory! God is on our side and he won! We are victors!

How can we not exude CONFIDENCE? Even if all the efforts of our past 6 weeks have not paid off and we still feel inadequate, we can step forward with confidence in God’s love for us.

There can be NO DOUBT when we look on the cross and contemplate Jesus’ suffering, knowing he chose freely to die for us.

If we truly believe that the Son of God suffered, died, and rose for us, shared his Spirit in order to continue to be with us, we have no choice but to TRUST God’s love for us.

Being followers of Christ doesn’t mean we won’t be outcasts.    He was.

It doesn’t mean we won’t know failure.    He did.

It doesn’t mean we won’t suffer.    He chose to.

It means we have already won! He lives! 

It means this life we live has meaning. He shows the way.

It means we will rise after death! He prepares a place for us!


In celebration of our victory over all that is imperfect, I offer you words from St. Julian of Norwich, who lived during the threat of the plague:

“And these words: ‘You will not be overcome,’ were said very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say: ‘You will not be assailed, you will not be laboured, you will not be disquieted,’ but he said: ‘You will not be overcome.’ God wants us to pay attention to his words, and always to be strong in our certainty, in well-being and in woe, for he loves us and delights in us, and so he wishes us to love him and delight in him and trust greatly in him, and all will be well.

“All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”


Blessings on your Easter season!

Betty Arrigotti

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