Remembering Pain: A Writer’s Guide
Golden delicious were my dad’s favorite apple, and I can understand why. They’re soft on the teeth and easy on the palate. Not my favorite apple, mind you, but once in a while I buy one. I think about Dad when I pick out the apple, and I think about him again when I sit down to enjoy it. There are many small things that I miss about my dad, but maybe the thing I miss most is talking with him about the stars. He was as curious about what exists beyond our solar system as any farmer I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Or banker, for that matter, because he was that, too. I wish I had the smallest part of my dad’s strength, resolve, courage, work ethic, and business sense. I wish I had his casual knack for figures, and his recall for stories involving characters from his youth. I have to make most of my stories up, and numbers come to me like fish in bad weather: they usually do come, but not before any conceivable expectation of enjoyment has been drained from the process. But let’s back up to that business about storytelling. The reason I bring up these details about my dad is that they’ve served me in my understanding of the writing process. I’ve noticed that these memories, and dozens like them, come to me in different ways. Sometimes it’s sudden. Maybe I’m looking up at a particularly starry night, and Whoompf!, there’s a memory of talking to Dad, sometimes for hours at a time, about the vastness of space. Or maybe I’m driving down the road and in a flash I recall one of the many sprawling road trips my dad took the family on when I was a boy, and how he made everything feel safe and wonderful and right (when he wasn’t reaching to the back seat with one hand to deliver a little on-the-fly discipline—or trying to, because I got pretty good at evasion). In such moments, the recollection may bring a tear to my eye or choke me up a little. If I’m hauling the memory up out of the well of my own volition, on the other hand—as I’m doing now—the remembering is more wholly pleasant, liable to bring a smile to my face and nothing more. What I’m getting at is that the trick to writing good fiction lies, in large part, in the intentional application of moments of recollection. That sounds obvious, but it is too often overlooked. If I want you to smile at a character’s remembrance, I need to try to shape the words, dramatize the scene, so that you smile. If I want you to tear up, I probably need to write the passage rather differently. To do either one, I need to remember what it’s like to feel that way myself. That’s why good writers are good observers. But that doesn’t mean we only observe others. We need to observe our own inner processes as well. Observe, record, repeat. As with all writing techniques, it’s almost impossible to separate memory application from other crucial tools. And some are more closely linked than others. I remember discussing some of the differences between writing and making art with a comic book artist once. I told him that writers really want to do the same thing artists are doing. We want to put a picture in the minds of readers. The level of detail an artist chooses to employ to create that picture varies, but it’s almost always a higher level of detail than what a writer can get away with. Even if we look back at the Victorians and their preternatural knack for crafting detailed scenes of domestic and pastoral realism, we see that relatively little information is spoon fed to us about how things should look. It is, however, the right information. In a recent article for The Times Literary Supplement, legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese eloquently expands on what I’m getting at with respect to artists versus writers, only he, of course, comes at the topic from a cinematic perspective: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/film-making-martin-scorsese/ I don't agree with his thesis that cinema is as stable an art form as prose fiction, but I love what he has to say about the importance of editing (as true in fiction as it is in film). Besides, there are enough exceptions on both sides of the film-versus-fiction debate to render it essentially futile. For every Mike Leigh there are a hundred Uwe Bolls, after all. And for every Charles Dickens there are a thousand Dan Browns. Anyway, I’ll stop there. You likely get the idea, and besides, it’s not like I’m getting paid for this. If a sentence or two of what I’ve put down here sticks in your craw the next time you settle in to do a little writing, or the time after that, or maybe even the time after that, my work here is done. Of course, I’ll never know if that’s the case or not. This is one of the great mysteries of writing, ameliorated, but not solved, by occasional feedback from readers. Until next time, write well and let the chips fall where they may.