A Story Series: The Butterfly Mask
Characters. Characters have been a part of my world for quite literally as long as I can remember. The first ones I remember falling in love with were the members of the Baby-Sitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin. I loved them because they were so real to me. My Bible teacher was the cutest man to walk the planet; I, along with every other girl at the school, had a major crush on him, and his Mickey Mouse ties. And he was so, so kind to me. I remember him telling me I was good at reading Scripture aloud to the class; when we were told to create a made up story about someone experiencing all of the plagues, in order, he asked me to read mine aloud to the class. He called it “creative and well-written;” my heart exploded. When we moved mid-year, I was devastated; days before leaving, unaware that we’d soon be moving again, I’d given him a copy of a story I’d written. When we settled in a new city, I wrote him what amount to a love letter, doused in perfume, true to form, and asked for my book back. I didn’t care about getting the book back, I just wanted to talk to the man. When I graduated high school, he called to congratulate me. The point of this trip down embarrassing memory lane is that, at the same time I was humiliating myself in front of this model teacher, I was also reading Stacey’s Big Crush. I felt every one of Stacey’s emotions. This book had me laughing so hard I almost split my spleen because I literally planned to marry my Bible teacher! Other books in the series like Claudia and the Sad Goodbye broke my heart and made me cry. I cared about the characters in that series for a long time. After that series, I graduated to Danielle Steel and was immediately captivated by the idea of backstory and, also, happily ever after triumphing. While my first written story was written when I was, like, six or seven ,I don’t remember writing it; I only know that I did because I still have it. The first book I remember writing was modeled after The Baby-Sitter’s Club. The first novel was modeled after Kaleidoscope, the first book I read by Steel.
Reality, for me, became blurred as stories became ever more important. Having characters to read mattered, but it was the ones in my head that were destined to become treasured friends. Writing was like watching a rainbow explode in front of me, or finally catching the pot of gold. Suddenly, although I remained a voracious reader, characters started shadowing me. Sitting at the table in a restaurant, I’d grab a napkin to work on whatever scene was next in my outline if I ran out of paper. If I didn’t have a napkin, I’d use my hand. I wrote so much the side of pinkie was calloused. I wrote so much people, even adults, found me odd. I wrote morning, day and night; in the backseat of cars traveling down the Interstates, sitting at my desk in school between classes, on my break at work at Taco Bell when I was sixteen. I fell asleep at night laying on my side, a blue Bic pen between my fingers on a pad of paper, preferably a four subject wide ruled notebook that would eventually be so filled I’d even use the inside cover and back cover as pages. My blind grandfather bought me a tape recorder so that I could record the books so that he could listen to them; my mother went and sat at a publishing conference because I had to go to school. I sent terrible query letters that didn’t have a prayer to agents I discovered in books at the library. I read the stories I wrote to classmates. The stories were varied, rich and ambitious, tackling subjects like the Holocaust, the Orphan Train, love stories that rivaled Romeo and Juliet, racism, hostages taken in the Middle East, a couple recovering from the loss of a child, a group of friends’ journey through high school to graduation — over 100 books including short stories, children’s, and full-length novels by the time I graduated. The longest was over 2,500 pages handwritten. Writing was more than a passion, it meant life.
Escapism allowed me to see beyond the pain. A secret shared: I’ve really never felt like a real person. The “real” Tiffini was awkward and clumsy; learning her left from her right took literally forever and, as recently as a couple years ago, I went to work with two completely different shoes on. The “real” Tiffini needed very clear instructions before she could execute anything: I didn’t trust myself to make a decision of any kind, no matter how simple, to the point that, my freshman year in college, I’d call my mother to tell her if I was leaving the dorm and when I’d be back. The “real” Tiffini was ugly, and never going to be picked first for anything by anyone, ever, so she stopped trying. I only felt like myself , or valuable, when I was with imaginary characters. Publishing, or even being “good at” writing, never really mattered to me because I didn’t write to share it. I wrote because I could suddenly speak; I could say the crazy thoughts spiraling through my head; I could laugh — genuinely with my characters, without fear of being judged or abandoned or mocked, because they chose me to tell their stories; I came alive when a pen was in my hand. Cage doors burst open and I could see the way things should be in the world. My pretend world was how I imagined the world might look be like one magical day when I “grew up.” I imagined that my life was an anomaly; my characters’ lives were what most people, and the real world, was like. That belief gave me hope, and afforded me a way out.
At 23 years old, I had a major problem: I was pregnant and my father was up for parole, after seven years. This meant he’d come home and, if he came home, he’d have access to my daughter. The only way I knew to prevent that was to tell my mother what happened. As a sneak peak into The Character, the story that this post is about, this scene depicts abuse of a ten-year-old girl and can be triggering. But it is also truthful, and why having an escape was so important to my life. Five years later, when I was 28 years old, I wrote Anna’s story in The Character. There are so many things about this story that should have made it an impossibility to write. First, it was the first book without an outline, without a character summary, without anything, and the chapters were not written in consecutive order . Second, it was the first book I’d ever written in first person. Third, it held real memories. Finally, the character shadowing me was not Anna. It was a man; I could see him perfectly. I thought he was a little boy at first, but he wasn’t. I thought the story was about him… and, looking back, it kind of is. I’ve written him at least two letters here and here. What do you see in the below:
Normal answers include: a moth, a butterfly or a bat. I do see two butterflies… but, initially, all I saw was the mask in the middle. The mask is being held by the butterflies. Ash, really, all of my characters, are important because he pulls away the mask that I wear to protect myself. He did the same for Anna. He told her beautiful stories… and then he told her to go home and write them down. He’d give her beautiful, peace restoring days like this , and Anna would be so scared of forgetting them that she’d go home and write them down, relive them when fear started choking her.
I must have fallen asleep and slept most of the night at my desk. I looked down. My story notebook was open. I rubbed my eyes and stretched. Then I looked down at the story notebook again.
“Hey, our bird is changing!” Ash said suddenly.
I started laughing.
“It’s not a bird anymore, Ash! It’s a pretzel.”
“A pretzel? You turned my red bird into a pretzel?”
“Well, look at it! It’s a pretzel!”
I was laughing so hard. Ash laughed, too, his head still tipped back. Our pretzel bird was now moving slowly just ahead of us. It met up with another cloud. It stuck to the new cloud and changed again. “Hey, our pretzel just got eaten by an airplane!”
I’d been reading the story of me and Ash at the park. I smiled and closed the story notebook. Maybe that’s why I did not dream of Daddy last night.
The gift of laughter in the midst of sorrow is priceless. The gift of being able to remove myself from the worst pain I’ve ever felt was invaluable. My characters taught me how to dream and how to see hope in the impossible. I never believed that my worst was the only truth that existed because, just by picking up a pen, I could go to an entirely different world, and be a part of a happily-ever-after. Because my writing was encouraged by every adult who mattered in my world, it taught me to believe more in myself. It is very difficult for me to read any portion of The Character, but the importance in my life of having it written, and of sharing it, cannot be overstated. You see, many children are able to tell an adult when they are being raped, but I was not one of them. Even as an adult, I can speak about the effects of what happened, and I can speak to large groups and say the hard words, but it is almost impossible for me to talk one-on-one about specific memories or events. Only through my characters and their lives have I ever felt comfortable detailing very painful memories. Only through writing am I able to verbalize the shame and the haunting memories that still, no matter how much time passes, matters. And there are millions of children, and adults, who are the same: unable to verbalize the trauma. Instead, we wear a mask during “real life” — the mask looks different on different people. On me, it looks happy, playful and confident (or so I’ve been told). On me, the mask is a show of strength I very seldom feel. In school, I focused so much on writing that I didn’t talk to people: I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t go to pep rallies, I didn’t go to the cafeteria for lunch, always opting to stay hidden in a classroom instead. Writing was, and pretty much still is, the only avenue through which I can really be me: emotional, sentimental, awkward, philosophical without fear. And it is the only avenue through which I can comfortably talk about traumatic memories without shame overwhelming me.
Imagination is free; creativity is free. We have a saying in my house that the girls have heard so many times they literally moan when I start to say it: There is no wrong way to do art. Whenever they start doing something creative — writing a story of their own or making a collage or painting the little houses we do for Christmas — and they say something like, This looks like a kindergartener’s, I’ll joyfully pipe in, There is no wrong way to do art. Imagination can be the catalyst for healing. I am thoroughly convinced that every, single person alive has a built-in, God-given talent. The hard part is first recognizing what it is and then learning to cultivate and rely on it when life gets to be too much. Gifts don’t have to be what our culture defines as talent: musical ability, writing ability, any of the arts are all wonderful gifts, but so is leadership. So is having a gift for perception or being able to make people feel heard by being an active listener. So is telling jokes. So is cooking. So is designing or building things. Fixing things is a talent. Caring for things is a talent. Math, as difficult as it is for me to imagine it myself, is not only hard work, it can also be talent. Being able to see things logically or being detail oriented, public speaking, and so many other things — these are all gifts. If we find out what pulls that mask off of us so that we can reveal the vulnerable parts of who we are — we can unlock the cages that keep us from finding peace and healing and fulfillment.
Very few characters revisit me after their stories are complete. Ash is the exception. Every now and then he comes back. When I wrote Dance For Me , a story about human trafficking, Ash showed up; I wanted to give him to Maelea, the protagonist, so badly. When I wrote Haven, he was in the back of my mind, even had a cameo appearance, before, finally, he spoke again, asking me, “Was I in Auschwitz?” to get his own book . Ash is the friend I’ve never had, the one who knows me inside and out, and who still refuses to leave. He’s joyful, he’s a great storyteller, he’s thoughtful and he’ll push me out of my comfort zone. Because of characters like Ash, I wrote Haven’s story, one so intensely personal I was not okay for a long time afterward. The characters know what I need to say and they know the stories that will allow me to say it. They help me share who I am and why I am who I am. They allow me to connect with others, and to raise awareness about things I care deeply about. Rapunzel was the first story I remember being absolutely captivated by; I could vividly picture the peasant husband stealing rhubarb for his pregnant wife and the witch who wanted a baby so badly she took their child. The image of a blinded prince being cured by Rapunzel’s tears melted my heart. I remember telling my sister stories to help her fall asleep at night when we were both very young. Characters from books I’ve loved for decades like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird or The Little Prince or any from Judith McNaught’s books or Liesel from The Book Thief have brought laughter into my life. Characters like Clayton, Ash, Landon, Daphne, Taya — though their stories may include sadness and trauma, they have bought color and hope into my world for as long as I can remember. The journey from the little girl who loved Rapunzel to woman who wrote The Storyteller and Haven shows the hand of God in the amount of healing and confidence and joy; my life can be told by the stories I’ve read and written.
Everyone is celebrating a new year today. We’ve survived another year of wearing masks (physical ones as well as emotional) and watching loved ones die. 365 new sunrises await us and will include triumphs, achievements, dreams obtained, and also grief, loss, fear and unimaginable sadness. It is what was promised to us: a life abundant. I have known the claustrophobic feeling of anxiety crowding my heart at the mere thought of having to do another day: I have been overwhelmed. And yet, at the end of the day, whatever I face is not as life-defining or traumatizing as what I’ve already experienced; I find hope in that. So let the trials come; they will give me fodder for new stories and new characters who will inspire in me peace and comfort. They teach me still to live every moment with a grateful and hopeful heart because life is more than trauma; is creative and colorful and bright. Writing connects me to people — living, breathing ones — who embody the same traits as my most beloved characters. By daring to believe in a world where good triumphs over evil, I remove my mask, share my story and soak in the stories of those with whom I connect. And this… this teaches me that those magical traits of compassion, kindness, humility, humor and faith… they are not fictional.