Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Scary Part of Writing

“If he [the serious writer] respects the reader, if he honestly considers what he himself would like to read, the writer will choose the most immediately and powerfully interesting characters and events he can think of.” -- John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.
I find where beginning writers err, myself included, is in failing to develop these characters to their fullest. Why? It’s hard--and scary. I critiqued a story recently that had the potential for a powerful message, but the writer backed away. It made me think of a person skydiving for the first time. He’s all bravado building up to the actual jump, but when his turn comes, he steps to the door and chickens out. That’s what happened in the story. The writer brought the reader to the brink of a real “aha” moment for the main character, only to dull the impact with a blah sentence that let the air out of the tension balloon. I felt as if the writer had reached a point that he didn’t want to deal with, perhaps because the situation demanded an emotional response the author wasn’t ready to let out.

I submitted a story last week. (I haven’t heard back from the editor. It’s too soon.) It was based on my mother and a hard story to write. She’s 89 and failing mentally. That’s what the story was about, an old woman looking for memories and a son shielding her from the most painful one. I backed away from it a few times. Wrote an ending that was safe, but not honest.

After letting it sit for a week, I decided if I was going to write the story, it had to be true. I finished the story and took it to my wife to read. She was busy, so I lay it on the table next to her and went back to my office. Later, I retrieved the story. Without my asking, she said, “You made me cry.” I knew I’d written the real story.

How many people have you made cry--or laugh, or moan? Isn’t that why we write? To touch people? To make them think? To challenge what they think they know? And if we’re not doing that, why write at all?

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