Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | November 25, 2014

Traditions: Continuity and Change

Thanksgiving week, here at last. Time to finalize the plans and put them into action.

I love holidays. During the month of November, my focus shifts more and more to the Thanksgiving holiday, which I host for the family, and this week, Thanksgiving moves to the top of my priority list. The planning, the cleaning, the preparation, and the cooking claim all my waking (and some of what should be sleeping) hours, leaving no time for writing. During the holiday season, writing slips way down my priority list, and that’s as it should be and must be, for life must be lived, not just written about.

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner is a delight and a responsibility for me and has become a family tradition. For most of the years of my life, the family congregated at my grandmother’s house to celebrate Thanksgiving. My grandmother was a decent cook, but her pies … heavenly! Upon her passing more than twenty years ago, I took over the traditional meal — a change resulting in a new tradition, a new continuity for the family.

I’ve often wished I could participate in NaNoWriMo in November. The challenge of the project and the camaraderie with others attempting the same challenge appeals to me. Since I’m a slow writer, I’d need a full month to meet that challenge; unfortunately, as keeper of the family Thanksgiving tradition, I just can’t dedicate the necessary time in November. However, since we each must find and follow our own writing paths, I just acknowledge that the NaNoWriMo path isn’t for me and don’t let that get me down.

For some reason, I do a lot of reflecting during the holiday season. Putting together the Thanksgiving dinner is a creative process that I enjoy, and it’s one that provides ample time for thinking. While I’m shopping and cleaning, and later chopping vegetables, cutting bread cubes, mincing stuffing herbs, straining applesauce, mixing pie dough, and doing the dozens of other time-consuming preparatory tasks before the big day, I not only consider all that I have to be thankful for but muse about many other things as well — like the importance of holidays and traditions, both to individuals and to cultures.

Traditions are part of the continuity that we human beings need as a framework or an anchor in our lives. Traditions do change over time, but when they do, we establish new traditions, either intentionally or by chance. Although we have an intrinsic longing for traditions and continuity, we crave change as well. As with so many things, a balance between the two is necessary. Too much unquestioned, unchanging tradition can be stifling or even disastrous, as exemplified in Shirley Jackson’s haunting short story, “The Lottery.” On the other hand, unceasing change leaves us adrift and lost, never able to achieve our full potential.

As I thought about holidays and traditions earlier this year when gathering with friends for Memorial Day, it occurred to me that characters in stories should also have holidays and traditions as part of the story framework, as a facet of the setting in which they live and move. Too often, I forget this when crafting my stories and novels. I don’t want to dwell on holidays and traditions, which are not a key part of the story; however, adding mention of them and having characters plan for and celebrate them — or dread and avoid them — can add depth to the setting and the characters as well as lend a greater sense of realism to the story.

My current work-in-progress is a novel that takes place in a future settlement on an asteroid over the course of a year, and I realized that my characters had not celebrated or even mentioned any holidays during that time. While the holidays and the ways they are celebrated might change in the future, we will still have them. The lack of holidays in the story left a void that weakened the novel. My solution? I set an important discussion and revelation at a holiday gathering, thus making the holiday an integral part of the story (which my critique group loved), and during the revision process I’ll add mention of other holidays whose celebrations won’t be shown.

So, when you have some time to reflect during the holiday season, think about whether you’ve included cultural references in your stories. Do your characters engage in traditions and celebrate holidays? Could you use such an occasion to add dimension to your story?

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From all of us — Gwen, Nancy, Matt, Kerry, and me — warm wishes to all of our American friends for a delightful and tasty Thanksgiving!

Instead of our usual Top Picks Thursday post this week, we’ve decided to list some of the things for which the five of us are thankful. Feel free to add your own list in the comments.


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