This weekend I was on a panel at the breathtaking new Halifax Central Library (pictured here), with acclaimed journalist and fellow Fierce Shorts author, Chris Benjamin, talking about writing from life (although isn’t all writing from life? Even if it isn’t from your own particular life?)
Anyway, as happens every time I am asked to talk about writing, I thought of most of my brilliant anecdotes afterwards.
But seriously, not brilliant perhaps, but maybe useful.
I did speak a little about writing highly emotional scenes by keeping excessive emotionality out of the writing. The more painful the scene, the more spare and anchored the prose. At least that’s what I do when writing about events and experiences that still make me tear up. In those scenes- like for instance when I have written about my best friend’s suicide, the stripped down (almost mater of fact) language actually makes it more poignant to read. Any excess comes across as a Hallmark card moment and robs the weight from the words.
What I should have also mentioned though, are two things I learned from my writing teacher and superb memoirist, Abigail Thomas. (By the way she has a new book coming out in March called: What Comes Next and How to Like it).
One is to write around the subject. Instead of going into a monologue about death, talk about something else that ‘walks’ next to it. A different event and the feelings engendered by it. For instance, I wrote about a trip I took with my best friend shortly before she died. Her subsequent death made this trip a once in a lifetime experience and the things that occurred during it took on a different meaning afterwards.
Writing tangentially as if you are bracketing the main theme of the story works as well. You know who’s really great at that? Kate Atkinson- and if you haven’t read any of her books, get ye to an independent bookstore right now and buy one!!!!
Sneaky sideways action- It’s how our minds operate after all. Memories linked in all kinds of interesting ways, each begetting the next one and each with a different flavour and mood. Most writers know that leavening gloom with humour is a really good idea.
The second is to consider the spaces in between the words. The things that aren’t actually said but the reader hears them anyway. You can’t say to your reader, Prepare to be sad now, or I order you to be sad about this. But if you set up a scene, present a situation/dilemma/question, write the end result and then just let the reader form their own conclusions, and put themselves into the story, you’ll achieve the impact you’re looking for.
Writing is not a one way dialogue. The reader brings all their own experiences and feelings to the writing and in a way takes over the story. It becomes their story if it resonates with them. It’s one of the reasons that individual readers take so many different things away from a story and often these are completely dissimilar, or not necessarily what the writer intended. But that’s OK too.
Once a story is out there, its ownership is in question. It belongs to whoever reads it.