Why Heartbreak and Fiction Writing Are a Perfect Match

Editor's Note:

Jamie Ford is an award-winning short-story writer, an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. His latest historical fiction novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is inspired by a true story, and follows a boy whose life is transformed by love. Here, Jamie shares his own experiences with heartbreak, and why it lead him to write romance-based fiction.

Self-discovery doesn’t always happen on a therapist’s couch or on The Dr. Phil Show. Sometimes it happens in strange places – like at the movie theater while watching Spider-Man: Homecoming, during the dance scene, where Peter Parker shows up, wearing a suit and tie, and stands across from Liz – the girl he’s been crushing on all semester (a veritable eternity in teenage years).

They begin playing Space Age Love Song by A Flock of Seagulls and we think our hero might actually find amour. Innocent, teenage affection – the kind that’s all-consuming, not all-consummating.

But the bad guy, who also happens to be (SPOILER ALERT) his date’s father, calls him away, and Peter ends up leaving young love stranded on the dance floor.

As I listened to the music, it was as though I’d slipped over the event horizon of some unseen black hole and spiraled back in time.

Suddenly I was in the 5th grade again, where I didn’t have a crush on one girl – I actually had a crush on a set of twins: Heather and Holly Farrow. And there I was, at our school’s monthly skating party, where I waited, nervously for the last slow song of the evening, which would herald the all-important “couples skate.”

In my wishful mind, I’d soon be holding hands with… one of them… I mean, c’mon, odds are in my favor, right? We’d spend the final moments of the evening skating, hand-in-hand, to the oh-so romantic strains of Styx or the Little River Band.

Then we’d remove our skates, don our shoes, but still, our feet would barely touch the Earth. We’d drive home, separately, in our parents’ wood-paneled station wagons. But the next day we’d sit together on the bus. In the classroom, we’d pass notes adorned with felt-tipped marker hearts, and finally confess our deepest…

In reality, and much to my chagrin, my best friend, Sean, had already asked BOTH of them to skate, and I watched mortified as they happily agreed -smiling and fawning like he’d become the human incarnation of a truckload of Hello Kitty pencil toppers.

They skated away and I realized that life had become a story problem – long division – leaving me as the lonely remainder.

As the house lights dim, I’m a supernova of overactive hormones, an emotional Slinky-dog bouncing down the stairs, compelled by gravity to my heart’s doom.

I closed my eyes and turned away.

But when I opened them, the song had ended and I was back in the theater.

And while Spider-Man had finally defeated the bad guy, in doing so, he’d lost the girl forever, and I was reminded of who I am – someone with a deep, abiding weakness for noble, romantic, tragedy.

Which is a literary way of saying I have a thing for love stories.

So, I wrote another one in Love & Other Consolation Prizes.

While it’s a novel about World’s Fairs and families, about brothels and suffrage, about race and class—at its core, it is indeed, a love story, about a young man who falls inexorably in love with two young women. And tragedy awaits.

You see, having my heart broken on a regular basis while growing up led me down the path of writing fiction in the first place. Because before I was a writer, I was first that hopeless 5th grader. And I was blessed (or cursed) to be the last stop on the school bus – which meant I had a lot of time to daydream.

So I’d imagine other ways to impress the twins.

For instance, I’d long for an earthquake that would level the school, but not before I’d dashed into the collapsing building, rescuing Heather, my teacher, and the principal. I got the girl AND destroyed the school. A win/win.

I’d conceive that the Russians (it was the Cold War) had somehow found great strategic value in Bellevue Elementary. As Soviet troops descended upon us, I’d offer my bike to Holly, saving her, while sacrificing myself on the playground battlefield. As a 5th grader I had flag duty—so I was basically Special Ops.

Occasionally, I’d write these stories down. Ones where the hero doesn’t necessarily get the girl, but goes down swinging in a way that it sure feels like victory. And maybe that sacrifice would be worth it. And maybe, just maybe, someone would like that story enough to share it, to publish it, to turn it into a movie… or a song.

And maybe that song would be played in the background of some homecoming scene, or at a modern skating parlor – the kind with lasers and black lights and fog machines. And another 5th grader with his head in the clouds and his hands in his pockets, will nervously ask the girl he’s crushing on, “Do you want to skate?”

And maybe she’ll say yes.

*Disclaimer: Heather and Holly, if you’re out there, I’m happily married, but consider this a belated offer for that couples skate, Little River Band and all.