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Coming of Age and the Reality of Others, a guest post by Sara Zarr

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”

Iris Murdoch wrote those lines in her 1959 Chicago Review essay, “The Sublime and the Good.” Wherever I first encountered them, they immediately struck me as deeply insightful and true, and connected at the very root to the coming of age story in adolescent fiction. What better describes the process of growing up than “the discovery of reality”? And what is more challenging as we grow up and learn to really love others than accepting that their lives are as real for them as ours are for us? The quote retroactively strikes me as the thesis statement of all my novels, as the families at the center of my stories try and fail to love one another and themselves in the face of difficult truths.

In writing Goodbye from Nowhere–with the Murdoch quote in my pocket (and on an index card near my computer)–I approached this idea with more direct intention. The difficult truth for seventeen-year-old Kyle Baker is that his mother is having an affair, and his father knows, and both of them seem incapable of following a course of action that makes sense to Kyle or brings the family close to either a reconciliation or a breakup.

Kyle’s view of and love for his mother, in particular, are profoundly challenged by the choices she’s making in a reality that does not seem to accommodate him. He vacillates between experiencing her as the same caring mother he’s always had, and seeing her as the source of everything that is currently going wrong in his life.

Naturally, when we’re children, our parents or caretakers are at least part a projection of our needs. Whether we have great parents or acutely flawed ones, giving and receiving love to and from them is necessary for our actual and emotional survival. As we move through adolescence, we start to see our parents or caretakers as who they actually are–the good and the bad, whether they disappoint or come through, their foibles and fears. Even the recognition that they exist in their own lives when we’re not watching can be disorienting. Wow, my parents mysteriously go off to work or to the store or to friend’s houses and are actually the stars of their own lives just as I’m the star of mine?

When Kyle’s mother’s reality is no longer compatible with what Kyle wants from her, the effects spill over into his relationship with his girlfriend. Who, as it turns out, is also a real person with her own life and needs. When he botches that, he settles his projections onto Emily, his closest cousin. And guess what? Emily doesn’t exist only to be there for Kyle’s emotional support, either. Meanwhile, his grandparents have their own plans and dreams that may mean having to say goodbye to the beloved family farm.

One night in the old bunkhouse at Nowhere Farm, Emily tries to invite Kyle into a bigger reality and impress upon him that love is not about people acting and reacting in ways that are comfortable and predictable. “Let go,” she tells him of his wishes and hopes for his family. “Let go of what you thought it should be. And see what it is.”

This is no easy task, of course. Not for a seventeen year old and not for a twenty-five year old and not for a forty-nine year old. It never really stops–the work of letting go of our projections about who people are or who we think they should be, and instead loving the reality of them. Adolescence is where this work begins in earnest, and is at the very heart of what it means to come of age.

The work goes both ways, and in some coming of age stories it’s the parents or caretakers who are working on accept the reality of their teens and learning to love who their kids really are and not a parents’ dream of who they will be.

Is what we call “love” the experience of people being who we need them to be, and meeting our needs and expectations? Or is it accepting those closest to us in spite of their limitations and mistakes? Does the latter type of love have its limits and, if so, where are those limits? These aren’t questions that most adults I know have resolved, but we start becoming aware of them in our adolescent transition from childhood towards adulthood.

The context of Murdoch’s quote is an essay attempting to answer the question, “What is art?” She’s joining Tolstoy, Kant, and others in an ongoing conversation around this question, and for her, love and art and morality are all bound together in this issue of reality in a broader sense.

Personally, my allegiance in writing has always been to reality–which I don’t mean in a genre sense, as fantastical stories can have an allegiance to truth and realism can be false. What I mean is that I try to see things as they are and write about them from that clarity of vision. Murdoch writes, “We may fail to see the individual because we are completely enclosed in a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own. … Love [is] an exercise of the imagination.”

I want to use my imagination to get outside my own wishes and projections and not bend others (real people or my characters) to the will of my comfort, anxiety, or childish fantasies. Like Kyle in Goodbye from Nowhere, like everyone who wants to grow up, I have to press against the ways I wish people (and life, and stories) would just be who and what we want them to be instead of who and what they are.

It’s all rich fodder for stories and for discussions about stories, and a theme I find myself returning to again and again in my work and in my self.

Meet Sara Zarr

Photo credit: Cat Palmer

Sara Zarr is the author of seven acclaimed novels for young adults, most recently Goodbye from Nowhere (April 2020). She has been a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner and is on faculty for the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Sara lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and online at sarazarr.com.

Sara’s local indie bookstore is The King’s English in Salt Lake City, UT.

Social links:

– twitter.com/sarazarrbooks

– instagram.com/sarazarrbooks

– facebook.com/sarazarrbooks

About Goodbye From Nowhere by Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr, author of the National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl, returns with an intimate, exquisitely crafted novel of the courage it takes to see those we love for who they are.

Kyle Baker thought his family was happy. Happy enough, anyway. That’s why, when Kyle learns that his mother has been having an affair and his father has been living with the secret, his reality is altered.

He quits baseball, ghosts his girlfriend, and generally checks out of life as he’s known it. With his older sisters out of the house and friends who don’t get it, the only person he can talk to is his cousin Emily—who is always there on the other end of his texts but still has her own life, hours away.

Kyle’s parents want him to keep the secret of his mother’s affair from the rest of the family until after what might be their last big summer reunion. As Kyle watches the effects of his parents’ choices ripple out over friends, family, and strangers, and he feels the walls of his relationships closing in, he has to decide what his obligations are to everyone he cares for—including himself.

ISBN-13: 9780062434685
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years