Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Digging Deep to Make It Real

by Sophie

What is the most difficult scene you've ever had to write? And why?

The most wrenching scenes are actually the easiest for me to write. If a story stirs me up, it’s usually because my emotions are already invested in the setup or outcome, usually because the scene somehow reflects an event in my own life that was evocative, either positively or - more often - negatively. (No mystery there - happy doesn’t make for satisfying fiction. Trouble does.)

This is not to say that these scenes trip gaily off my fingertips. I live in the emotion: the grief, fear, rage or whatever feelings I am trying to describe in my characters and invoke in my readers are present as I work. In fact I would say that the more they take over my head-space, the more successful the writing is likely to be.

Odd as this may seem, though, it’s not a negative experience. For me, the act of writing allows me to process and eventually purge the effects of the inciting action. If it’s on my mind sufficiently to motivate me to write it in the first place, it usually means that I have not finished with those emotions. I may not have forgiven myself for a mistake made long ago, vanquished an old fear, recovered from a past hurt, or gotten over an old love.

The experience has proved most cathartic when the emotion at the core is shame.

I think this is because for me, the act of writing is in part the act of identifying and accepting the things I resist. (The reverse is true; when I have resisting writing about something I was usually trying to keep it buried.)

In my young adult novels I wrote about being rejected and shunned in high school. While this was not the central theme of the book, writing it was a powerful experience for me nonetheless. I found that the words poured forth with the immediacy and vivid pain as though the experiences took place yesterday, not thirty years ago. In that sense the writing was easy. I had access to the sensations, thoughts and emotions of the awkward and isolated teen - I didn’t have to imagine or invent any of it.

You might think that I would find the experience painful and, in fact, in the past I have skirted the subject and had to retreat from it because it was still too raw. What’s different now, I think, is that I understand that I did not engender my own pain. I have no remnants of the belief that I was truly flawed. Unburdened by mistaken beliefs, I can access the feelings and, finally, eradicate them through fiction.

(Anyone who doubts the therapeutic powers of fiction really ought to write the story of their most painful moments in the third person - a little authorial distance seems to be endlessly freeing for the inner storyteller.)

I use shame as an example, but it really works for any powerful memory. I recently wrote a relationship scene while thinking about a boy who broke my heart when I was twenty. Again, the passing of time has allowed me to see a number of things far more clearly (e.g., what I perceived as charisma was really self-absorption) but I still can call up the sharp-edged emotions the experience evoked for me (longing, obsession, indifference to everything else, despair). The memories allowed me to create a far more convincing scene.

It takes a fair amount of guts to write the hard stuff, but the hard stuff is often the best stuff. Personally, I think it's fine if you have to work up to it; that's what "starter books" are for.

Well, I must say that I can't think of a single appropriate image to slap on this post. That's never happened to me before! Ah well...I'll try to be more visual next time. :)


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Lovely post, Sophie! Ah, the boys who broke our hearts when we were 20. Books and books could be written on that. In fact, maybe I should write one....

Graham Brown said...

Great point Sophie - not just for the post and writing but for life. Everything pain/guilt/fear I've ever tried to deny/surpress/hide from the world has eaten me up. But when you get it out there it's cathartic somehow. And your writing does that in spades. Which is one of the many reasons - evreyone loves you.

Terry Stonecrop said...

What a heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing it. It touched me.

I can't believe you were shunned in high school. Some people are just plain mean and probably envious. You know what the singer, Frank Sinatra, said, "The best regenge is massive success." I'm sure you've got the last laugh on them. ;)

Shane Gericke said...

When one's emotions eats one up, turning it into letters on paper IS a wonderful cathartic, and so I thank you so much for this wonderful blog, Sophie. I still can't believe boys were mean to you.

Whitewing said...

Sophie, I completely agree with you about writing being cathartic. As a quick aside, I live in a small city, where the public library has ordered two copies of A Bad Day for Sorry. You're in Canada now!


Sophie Littlefield said...

aw thanks everyone - you are all so terrific!

I think that every person on the planet has been made to feel small and lesser at some point in their lives. But yes, I was extremely awkward. Lots to to draw from those few years...

Kelli Stanley said...

Sophie, what a soul-stirring post--thanks for sharing, sweetheart.

Oddly enough, I never subscribed to method acting when I was studying drama ... but method writing is a different story.

I didn't think CoD was all that political, until someone pointed out to me that hell, yes, it's political. That's because we can't help getting out what's inside of us--hurt, forgotten dreams, horror, guilt, revenge, desire to be loved--and for crime writers, the hope of fixing pain, of giving the victim back some dignity.

Strong emotions are like water ... they'll seep out somewhere, and better on the page where they can do some good for others than in a therapist's office. ;)