Listening Back

I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head today:

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

My Wordsmith Studio friend, Lara Britt, keeps encouraging me to write memoir.

“But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh sure, I’ve written some pieces for this blog, mostly in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess, though, that I found it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it felt good for them to be gone, no longer cooped up inside my head. But a memoir, a cohesive story of my life? No, I don’t think I have the material. Or the nerve. Because it takes courage to remember.

no such thing as perfection

I used to think I’d had a nearly perfect childhood. Nobody beat me. I didn’t grow up poor. I didn’t grow up rich. But I was an only, overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were complicated, so not so perfect, after all. Idealistic and immature, I did what I was expected to do: got a teacher’s license so I could “take care of myself” if the need arose, married a good boy with “promise,” settled down and had babies and and generally lived what I thought would always be the good life. How can I get stories out of that?

Well, life doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? And that’s where remembering gets hard.

looking back, listening back

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as an easy metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly turn and face the past head on or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us a little sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

My dad's radio / Gerry Wilson

My dad’s radio / Gerry Wilson

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning helplessly in one place, not moving ahead but not able to go back, either, which of course we can’t do; we can never, ever go back, not to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost.

deaf to the fullness

But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

So maybe my friend is right. Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

Nobody wants to “live deaf to the music.” How do you confront—or embrace—your past?

Own the Emotion, Then Give It Away

Back in April, I volunteered as a studio monitor during the Southeast Regional Ballet Association’s festival here in Jackson, where some 800 ballet students and teachers gathered for three days of dance classes and evening performances. My sixteen-year-old granddaughter’s local dance company, Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet, hosted SERBA—a huge undertaking—and I wanted to help out. I also knew I would enjoy watching the dancers in class, so my motivation was partly selfish.

My duties? Introduce myself to the master teacher and the pianist, make sure the right dancers were in that studio, fetch whatever was needed, call for help if a dancer was injured, wipe down the barres after class. I knew what to do, but I didn’t expect the master teacher’s most important insight.

I’ve watched my granddaughter’s developing talent, hard work, and dedication over the years, so I wasn’t surprised at the young dancers’ talent and intensity. Some of them had arrived in the room by the time I got there, nearly 30 minutes before class began, and were already warming up. I sensed their nervousness; I was nervous, too, and worried that the teacher might be harsh or demanding. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I watched as he put the dancers through their paces, pushed, corrected, encouraged, and praised them.

Tutu, up close; a kind of artistry in itself
Tutu with hand-sewn ribbons

And then, toward the end of the first class, he said something remarkable: Technique, he said, isn’t enough. You can be technically proficient, but without emotion, you’ll never be a true artist. Repeatedly, he urged them to feel the music, to make their entire bodies expressions of emotion.

Artistry on the page

The same is true of writing. Artistry on the page isn’t about skill alone or even about eloquent writing. We can study and master craft; we can have a gift for language and story-telling; but if we can’t create emotion in ways that compel readers to feel, the prose will be flat, no matter how well written.

I learned a long time ago that my best work comes from an emotional place deep inside me where, quite often, I’d rather not go. When I become aware that a story isn’t working, I have to look at what I’m holding back.

One of the first stories I ever wrote and published (“Appendix,” published in the wonderful but now defunct Crescent Review) gave me a lot of trouble as I tried to write it. It dealt with betrayal, a subject that should have been fraught with emotion, yet no matter how I tried, I knew it wasn’t working. My husband gave me great advice: Step back from it, he said; change the POV, and give those emotions to somebody who’s the opposite of you.

I tried what he suggested, and the story came pouring out of me. And yet, even though I’d successfully created distance, I’d go upstairs after spending hours at the computer late at night (I was teaching full time then; that was when I had time to write), lock myself in the bathroom, and sob.

I’m not saying that tapping that kind of painful experience is necessary for every story, nor is probing personal experience right for every writer. For example, if writing about an experience brings back too many raw, painful feelings, give it more time before you tackle transferring that emotion to a fictional character. There may very well be some places you can never go in your fiction.

Going the distance

But my husband’s advice holds true. Take what terrifies you or makes you angry or sad or jealous and pour that emotion into a character who isn’t you. I read somewhere once that a fictional character will always be the writer in some way, whether we intend it or not. I believe that’s true. But if you’re dealing with difficult feelings, gain some distance. Give them away to someone very different from you, or turn the circumstances on their pretty little heads and write.

So, as with any art—dance or music or visual art or photography—writing techniques and skills must be mastered. We have to learn the rules before we can successfully break them. So we learn the craft. There’s no end to that, is there? We’re always learning! And then we reach inside and pull out our own hearts and examine them in the harsh light of day. We mine our experiences for feelings, and we make of them gifts for our readers.

How do you shape your characters’ emotions? Where do they come from?

Character Misbehavior: What to Do?

What do you do with someone who just won’t behave?

I’m talking secretive, aloof, moody . . . She wants something, I know, but she won’t tell me what. She’s keeping me up nights and interfering with my WIP’s progress, for sure.

I’m not talking about a daughter or a friend or a sister, although this person is one. A sister, I mean. In fact, she’s an identical twin, which complicates things even further.

Robin: the character who “vants to be alone!”

"Silhouette of a Woman" Image courtesy of Lobster20/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Silhouette of a Woman
Image courtesy of Lobster20/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m talking about the main character in what I hope will become my third book. Her name is Robin. As I said, she’s a twin. She has dark, curly hair and green eyes, she’s twenty pounds or so overweight, she’s married with two sons, and she’s a nurse. Her twin sister has died, and Robin carries a terrible secret. That’s what I know.

Even after feedback on the first chapter at Writers in Paradise back in January, I’ve remained stumped by what Robin really desires and what will keep her from getting it. (You can read the short story that prompted this third novel idea at Prime Number: Issue 37; it’s called “Book of Lies.”)

I started over with the beginning, typing it into Scrivener and revising as the story seemed to lead me. I was still worried, though, about not knowing clearly enough who Robin is and where she’s going. I’ve tried applying Ann Hood‘s novel rubric she shared in the Writers in Paradise workshop. It’s a good tool to get a handle on what a story is about (can you say it in a sentence?), determine what the “container” is (time frame and place), and sketch out the main characters and plot points. The rubric helped, but I’m still not there.

Getting from here to there

I have to confess I’ve never been big on plot points, but I’m learning. I tend to want to let the story evolve, which means I probably have to do a lot more work than someone who is able to plan the book out, start to finish. So I had been feeling a little inept as a writer  until I read a piece in The Writer’s Chronicle last week (March/April 2013 issue).

Many writing experts contend that we should know everything we possibly can about a character before we begin. But in “Homo Sapiens v. Homo Fictus, Or Why a Lot of Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing Too,” David Jauss takes the stance that we don’t have to know everything! In fact, Jauss says it may be preferable not to know; not knowing every little detail ahead of time may lead to richer characterization as we discover things about characters as we write them. (I highly recommend this article; if you’re an AWP member but not a subscriber, you can access it online. Or maybe you can find a copy at your library. It’s worth the read, especially if the issues surrounding characterization are of particular importance to you.)

What a relief!

What Jauss says doesn’t absolve me of all responsibility where this manuscript is concerned. I can’t put the writing on automatic pilot–wouldn’t that be interesting?–but his take allows me the freedom to write about this character and her circumstances and see if, after a while, I’ll discover along with her how she ticks, where she’s headed, and how she’ll get there.

So here we go, my make-believe friend, Robin! Let’s see where the words on the page take both of us.

How do you handle your less-than-cooperative characters? Are you a “know everything” writer or one who goes with the flow?