We’ve all had to suffer through this ritual: sit around a holiday table and testify about the things we are thankful for, things we cherish in our lives. Then, like Pavlov’s dogs, we are rewarded for our participation with the opportunity to grub down on a steroid-bird and a quivering lump of dye-infused cranberry jello.
I am grateful I have a job.
I am grateful that my family is healthy and alive.
I am grateful that Johnny came back from the war with all his precious limbs intact.
This is a touching exercise but it always seems so empty to me—a tin can you listlessly kick down the echoing tunnel of your mounting depression…because, you see, here is the paradox of Thanksgiving: Turkey Day is the gateway to the entire season of dislike and ungratefulness, of dread and claustrophobia, of anxiety and powerlessness. But we are all required to smile and play joyful in our scratchy snowflake sweaters as if we were lobotomized inmates in a very strict looney bin.
Thanksgiving is one of those times when Americans are MOST likely to self-medicate on booze. Thanksgiving is THE moment when Americans feel like they’re losing ground to their neighbors and their over-ambitious nativity scene. It is the red letter day when we are MOST likely to climb into the satin coffin of credit card debt.
Thanksgiving is also that box on the calendar when you gird up our loins to confront those people whom you reluctantly call “relatives.”
It is the time of year when you might see that uncle who molested you and flash back to the smell of Jim Beam on his breath during those late night visits to “tuck you in.”
Or that long-distant cousin–the religious fanatic–who used to kick your ass every day after school and then warn you to keep your filthy rat-trap mouth shut or else, God help you, you will really get it.
Or the spinster aunt who snuck away with your boyfriend behind the wood shed and returned to the dinner table with leaves in her hair and hay on her back.
Thanksgiving is the time when we spend weeks researching the jiu jitsu moves to bust out during the dread moment when polite family discussions suddenly veer into the octagon of politics—that time Uncle Rudy spouts off about the place of women or minorities or homosexuals.
Yes, the true reality of Thanksgiving is not the glaze that lies on the surface of the ham but the meat that once belonged to a pig raised in the squalor of confinement—a poor animal living with the fact of death, the stench of suffering, the odor of sitting in your own poop waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse. So with this in mind, here is the exercise:
Instead of thinking about what your character is grateful for—her accomplishments, her aspirations, her desires–think about what she loathes, what she absolutely detests. What sends her off the cliff? What makes her nervous system fill with the adrenaline of dread? What makes her hand itchy enough to grab grandma’s wedding cutlery and stick it in the ever-loving eye of Uncle Rupert–that first class child molester and blowhard–whose fact of existence is a blight on humanity?
Start off with a list of grievances that are as sweet as frosting and as refreshing as peppermint candy canes. Build it out into a ginger bread house of anxieties, of resentments, of traumas, of secret-hurts. Then finish it off with the ideal revenge fantasy—the witch pushed into the oven screaming in agonizing pain as her skin burns to a charred crisp and her eyeballs pop out of the sockets of her head.
Let’s make this point absolutely clear: This is not a sadomasochistic exercise. This is not my condoning violence. And no, you should not maim nor kill nor bludgeon those strangers you call “relatives.”
Rather, this is fundamentally an exercise in negative space—an exercise that defines a picture by what it is not. In doing so, we are able to understand what is really inside the inside of the picture of your story: the characters, the situation, the plot. And as such, it allows us to see things in an entirely different light that challenges the ways we are compelled to see.
Why? Because we WANT to see things as we WISH to see things. And we WISH to see things as other people tell us we MUST see things. We are all Pavlov’s dogs licking at the plate after the dinner bell has rung.
As a result, we often default into a list of empty desires, of echoing tin-can-cookie-cutter platitudes that we kick around. But answer me honestly: Who hasn’t wanted to confront an abuser, to flip over the dinner table, to storm out of the room and come back with a semiautomatic blazing cold hot lead into the hearts and souls of the so-called “friends and family” who have wronged them?
Not me. I’m a veritable angel. And I am grateful that I am alive and not in jail. But YOU…I know I’m not as sick and twisted as YOU. YOU are capable of anything.