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The first short story I ever wrote is titled the Cardboard Fireplace. As you might expect, it focuses on girl meets boy—sort of. The girl met a boy long ago, one for whom she never mentioned her feelings. He was the “it” guy in high school, and she never felt she measured up. Years later, thanks to the Internet, she reaches out to him through a high-school dating website. They end up connecting after a nasty divorce that had left her mentally paralyzed.

Come to find out, the boy always liked her too.

Of course, she has issues, and the boy, now a grown man, becomes the hero who helps her cope by getting her, you guessed it, a cardboard fireplace. After all, fireplaces represent to her the epitome of wealth. She’d always wanted a mansion with numerous fireplaces, but would have settled for a cheap imitation if it meant she’d find peace.

Nice, right? It is, by far, one of my best works. Romantic, breathless…and detrimentally comfortable.

It’s easier (although writing is never completely easy) to write about the things we cherish, especially from the point of view of the good guys. But what happens when we step out of that comfort zone, enter a world far different from the roses and the sunshine?

This is where my fine arts studies took me, to that cave where I had to write about a villain from his point of view. The challenge? I had to make him sympathetic and yes, likable.

How the hell do I do that?

I set the scene in a convenience store with dead bodies littering the ground. Blood coated the floor. The protagonist was standing there, holding his gun, looking around at the effects of his madness. The story centered on his journey from the back of the store to the entrance. Two things he knew awaited him on the outside: law enforcement and the end of life.
But with each step toward the entrance, we learn about him, his pain, and his anguish over losing his family in a previous incident. A once reasonable guy turned into someone else at the hands of the evil monster known as life.

Would you have sympathized with him? I don’t know. Only you can answer that. But I did my job, as hard as it was, to write about a guy I loathed for whom I could, on some level, like. That story made me grow as a writer, made me hone a skill I never thought I could: become somebody I never want to become. (I will attempt to find this story, dust it off, and send it to all of you).

I must put a caveat here. There are some types of evil for which we should have no sympathy, and we shouldn’t try such measures to make people condone pure hate or sympathize with it. I’m merely saying that we should push ourselves into different worlds, into different shoes.

I think at some point, we all need to step out of our comfort zones. If not, we don’t truly live…and we never grow.

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