Monday, December 26, 2011

Of Forests and Trees

The EMT was framed in a now-glassless window. The night was filled with sirens and flashing lights, and it was bitter cold. “Hang in there,” he told me. Even with all his gear on, his teeth were chattering. “We’ll get you out soon.” I looked back at him and — after several failed attempts at speaking — managed to say, "It's okay. I'm going to write about this. I'm a writer."

I was seventeen. I understood viscerally then what it took me years to understand intellectually: that writing is a way of detaching yourself from pain. If you are reporting on an experience, you’re outside it. I’m not sure if all writers find themselves dissociating in this way when facing trauma, but I know I’m not the only one. While Susan Sontag was dying miserably of cancer, her son, writer David Reiff, says he refused to take notes on the experience of watching her, of suffering with her. “I thought that to do so would be to seek and perhaps gain a measure of detachment I neither wanted nor felt entitled to,” he wrote in a 2008 article for the British newspaper The Observer. “And for a long time after my mother died, I believed that I would not write anything.”

In fact, to create art that moves other people, you have to do nearly the opposite of detaching. You must actively attempt to channel strong emotions, represent them in some way, and pull your audience into the experience. If you’re not feeling it, your readers won’t, either. It’s a writer’s paradox: you need deep empathy, so you can feel what others are feeling and share it; but you also want detachment, so you can observe accurately.

A few years ago, I took a class in mindfulness meditation, which culminated in a day-long retreat at a Zen center. Nothing but silent meditation. All day. Our instructor taught us that to survive this experience without running screaming from the room (which does happen), we had to become expert observers. Whatever thoughts were in our heads, whatever itches were in our bodies, we had to accept them. Not react to them, not try to change them, but simply observe them. With six weeks of preparation, I was able to build up enough meditation muscles to make it through the retreat and even enjoy it. I was aware of my own discomfort, ranging from muscular cramps to highly intrusive thoughts, but I could simply watch these reactions. And they would pass.

From that class, I learned that writing and meditation have something in common: they are both about observing. Observation is the tool they use to bridge this paradox of extreme feeling and extreme detachment. By going straight into the sensation and then watching it, you are neither squelching it nor flooded by it.

Writing can be quite meditative for me in this way, which isn’t to say that it’s soothing. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. But it is about feeling and observing. Writing takes those two essential bits of mindfulness and tacks on a third: sharing. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I wanted to write about my car accident wasn’t just to distance myself emotionally from the situation, but to share the impact with others: to distribute the load. If someone read my story and had been through something similar, she might think, “I reacted that way, too. It’s not just me. I’m not alone.” And if someone read the story and hadn’t experienced anything like it, well then, he’d be that much closer to understanding it. Finding or creating bits of shared humanity, especially in distress, is immensely comforting.

So this is the ultimate challenge of the writer: to be inside something completely, yet able to see the whole thing in perspective, as if from a distance. To be the forest and the trees, at the same time.

p.s. Hat tip to Suze for her recommendation of the book "Nerve," which sparked this post.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Does Your Style Say About You?

What comes to mind when you hear mentioned the following directors'/producers' names:  Stephen Spielberg, Michael Bay, and Tim Burton? If you're a little bit of a director aficionado, then certain films and images come to mind. Here's what I think when each are mentioned:

Are you feeling a
little ghoulish?

  • Stephen Spielberg -- Has a knack for creating adorable and loving aliens, like the ones in Cocoon, A.I., E.T., and Super 8. He also loves creating sci-fi creatures that munch on unsuspecting scientists (Jurassic Park) and swimmers (Jaws) and pretty much anything that deals with World Wars (Schindler's List and War Horse). He's a bit of a softy when it comes to his main characters. Most often, when I see his films, if anything is lacking in the storyline, then throw in an alien!
  • Michael Bay -- Do you want something blown to kingdom come? Something that works well as a tent pole blockbuster (any Transformers film, The Island, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor)? Then Bay is the director for you. He likes to make a big summer splash at the movie theaters.
  • Tim Burton -- Ever get the feeling that the dead are watching you? Or maybe just some creepy guy with crazy hair and scissors for hands? Burton seems to enjoy the theater of the absurd. Look at just about anything on his long list of credentials -- Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, James and the Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, or Corpse Bride -- and you'll see that he has a thing for the other-worldly part of life. And his go-to actors are, without a doubt, the lovely Johnny Depp and his longtime partner, Helena Bonham Carter.
Why, you may ask, am I bringing up these individuals? Because much like directors and producers of films, writers create their own style and voice. And those who do it well create a uniqueness to show how and what they write.

Let's try the above game with a few authors, shall we. What comes to mind when you hear mentioned the following authors' names:  Jodi Picoult, Nora Roberts, Clive Cussler, or Stephenie Meyers?

Never one to avoid
Meyers conjures up images of pasty vampires hanging out in a sunless Washington state. Picoult usually means a controversial subject of sorts laced with the threads of a believable storyline. Roberts creates a hit or miss atmosphere of romance (depending on which book you read of hers). And Cussler usually means adventure, whether in an airplane, on the high seas, or stuck somewhere in the middle of a desert. These authors have formed a style that reflects (or at one time reflected) their passion for the stories that have kept them awake at night, wondering what would happen to their heroine/hero if he/she married that man/sacrificed a kidney to save a sibling/got involved with the creepy kids at school/tried to get that bomb on a plane.

As newcomers to this game long won by the familiar names splattered across the covers of airport novels, we have to learn to make ourselves distinct. Style needs to reflect the writer's personality and voice. It also needs to reflect the audience. Take, for instance, writing a letter. One would use a different style if the letter was one of business, condolence, or complaint. We don't sit down and write the same letter to our dear sister and then pop the same one off to complain to the local dry-cleaner.

The same goes for your novel. Romance authors don't write in the same style (flowery and filled with visions of love) as would a detective author (find the bad guy and make him pay). If you want to be taken seriously in the writing world, take time to create your voice. Make sure your characters have what it takes to make the reader want to invest his or her time in the book. Have a plot that not only flows, but one that is also believable. Lastly, don't force something onto the page. If you think it feels like a seventh-grader wrote it, then so will every agent you query.

Writing is entertainment. If you're only entertaining yourself with the stories you write, then maybe you should rethink the writing gig. Let your voice be heard in a way that will set you apart from other authors, but at the same time not turn away prospective readers. It's a fine line to walk, but it's what must be done. After all, wouldn't it be nice to reach Spielberg's or Roberts' status?
Know your style and
let your writing voice
be heard!
Do you struggle with voice and style when it comes to your writing? What does your style say about you? If you haven't thought about it, then now's the time to do so!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Theatre of the Mind: An Underused Tool

This article contains spoilers for Oedipus Rex, Frenzy, Psycho, The Haunting, The Blair Witch Project, Life is Beautiful and Rendezvous in Black.

We live in a visual era. Most of our entertainment comes through sight. Even music nowadays needs to be accompanied with an eye-catching package (attractive singer, choreography, video with impressive effects, etc.) But there was a time when humans relied on hearing and imagination for entertainment. Think about the origins of storytelling; tales and legends were orally transmitted. Eventually, these stories were performed as plays (but notice how violent scenes happened offstage and the audience was left to see what happened in their mind’s eye.)

In the original Oedipus Rex, the audience never witnesses the moment when Oedipus gouges his eyes out after  finding out he is, in fact, his father's killer. The scene is played offstage and narrated by the chorus.

When radio was the latest technology, families gathered in their living rooms to listen to their favorite shows. Their minds had to “fill in the blank” and imagine what the actors and settings looked like. Thus, the audience became an active participant of the story. In Latin America, radionovelas were the rage, and some aficionados still assert that the actors had superior diction and performances than their successors in telenovelas.

If we look at the history of film, there has been a noticeable evolution from innuendo to goriness. The fathers of Film Noir understood the power of overtone and audience participation and used these tools to maximize the effectiveness of their stories. Iconic director Alfred Hitchcock was well known for favoring “suspense” over  “surprise.” He’s been cited with the following quote:

"There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't..." 

One of the techniques Hitchock used in his films was to let the viewer “fill in” the details of a violent scene. He called this "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.” Two examples of this technique are seen in the films Frenzy (1972) and Psycho (1960). Halfway through Frenzy, as the audience is already aware of the identity of the “Necktie Murderer,” Hitchcock presents us with a scene where the serial killer—in his most charming self—escorts a woman to his apartment. Before shutting the door, he tells her “you are my type of woman,” the exact words he told his previous victim. The camera lingers for a bit in the hall after they go inside, then retracts down the stairs, through the front door and out to the street, where city noises and activity fill in. The crime only occurs in the viewer’s mind. [Click here to watch the scene.]

In Psycho, Hitchcock takes us into one of the most famous horror scenes in film history: the murder of Janet Leigh’s character in the shower. But notice how we never see the knife actually penetrating the woman’s skin or any gruesome wounds. Instead, Hitchcock presents us with a series of close ups of the victim’s face, the knife, portions of her skin, the curtain rod and blood going down the drain. [Click here to watch the scene.]

Alfred Hitchcock was considered the "master of suspense" for a reason. He was an innovator  when it came to storytelling and many of his implemented camera techniques are emplyed by filmmakers nowadays.

Compare these scenes to the goriness of Saw or American Psycho. Another interesting comparison is the 1963 version of The Haunting versus the 1999 remake. In both instances, a group of people go to Hill House, an old mansion where supernatural activity is believed to take place. In the 60’s version, strange events center around one character (Nell) and the viewer is left to wonder if paranormal activity is really happening or Nell needs an urgent visit to the nearest psychiatric ward. The nineties’ version, however, is an expensive display of special effects and disturbing images, where nothing is left to the viewer’s interpretation.

Nowadays filmmakers rely more and more on “morbid fascination” to entice their audience instead of appealing to their intellect. Do we really need to see characters at their most intimate moments? (naked, having sex, going to the bathroom or throwing up?)

However, there are exceptions. A recent attempt to employ the viewer’s imagination as a tool is The Blair Witch Project, where three film students set out for the woods to find out if the legend of a local witch is true. Through eerie noises, witchcraft symbols and the disappearance of one of the characters, the audience must connect the dots and figure out what is happening. In the final scene, the camera pans in rapid motions as the main character frantically looks for her friends in an old shack. (Incidentally, this camera technique of mimicking a person’s gaze was pioneered by Hitchcock.) Bloody handprints, screams, footsteps and finally, the camera being dropped and laying still leads the viewer to conclude the movie ending.

Another example is the Italian film Life is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni spares us the grief of seeing the main character executed by German soldiers and we only witness his death by listening to the gunshots being fired after they have taken him offstage.

Undoubtedly in novels “the theatre of the mind” is more active than in any other medium, but very often writers “spell out” things for the reader, leaving little to the imagination. In writing classes and manuals, we are taught to use all five senses in our descriptions (visual descriptions being the most commonly employed). But we are rarely taught how important it is to trust the reader’s intelligence by leaving things out, or the effectiveness of not letting a character see, but only hear, what is happening and letting the reader roam the dark corners of his mind.

Film Noir writer Cornell Woolrich was an expert at this. (Hitchcock based Rear Window on Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder.”) In his novel Rendezvous in Black, a man seeks revenge over the five men he blames for the death of his fiancée. Every year on the date of his girlfriend’s death, he kills an important woman in the life of said men. Before the last “rendezvous,” the potential victim is taken away to safety on a ship (as the detective who’s figured out the connection between the women warns her of the situation.) The woman-in-question, Martine, is blind. When May 31st has passed and it appears as though she will be saved, she perceives a presence in her cabin. For seven pages, Woolrich extends the tension of Martine going through the motions of merrily getting ready for dinner to realizing the killer is in the room with her and there is no escape. Woolrich expertly describes her thoughts and movements in her dark world as she tries to figure out if an intruder is really there. When he grasps her hands, the reader is left to imagine what happens next. On the next scene, we learn that since the ship was traveling to Hawaii, the doomed date hadn’t passed yet and Martine has died.

I confess that in my own writing, I have a tendency to over explain. But fortunately, my beta readers point out these instances to me. As storytellers, we should understand the choices we make in our writing. Violence is, at times, an important component in fiction, but is it always necessary to use gory details? Why do you think filmmakers are resorting to the lowest common denominator? (the “morbid fascination” appeal). It’s true that we now have the most impressive technology of human history, but is it necessary to display it in every movie?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Go ahead, Kill your Darlings! On the Subject of Torturing Characters.

Most novice writers have heard the advice: “Make your characters suffer!” Aside from nudging us to give in to our most sadistic impulses, the advice seems a bit exaggerated. Should we, twisting the meaning of Stephen King’s injunction, “Kill our darlings?” What rationale deems it necessary?

We all understand the need to sometimes bump off a main character. What would be the point of The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote if their protagonists had lived to ripe old ages? Don Quixote would have ended in the madhouse, Gatsby in jail and Montagues and Capulets would go on feuding in the streets of Verona, until Doomsday. Death in novels always has an objective, to teach the reader (as well as other characters in the book) a moral lesson. Whether is Anna Karenina jumping in front of a train, or Sydney Carton climbing to the guillotine, there is a moral behind their death: It is a far better thing to die than to go on sinning or leading a dull meaningless life.

                                                  Gatsby´s murder

In Little Women, Beth March’s last days are a study in fortitude, but her death is also a rite of passage for Jo. After her sister´s demise, Jo grows more sedate, less impatient, and much more aware of virtues and values. Thus she becomes the right companion for worthy professor Baher. But Beth, Dickens’s Little Nell and Uncle Tom are boring characters. They are icons of suffering, archetypical victims. We don’t really cry over their woes. Because they endure their pain with almost inhuman resilience and resignation, we cannot identify with them. And that is the first good reason not to subject your character to Chinese torture.

We want our favorite characters to get a break, to get angry at life’s injustice, to fight back not to be beaten down and turned into martyrs. It´s why Jo March will always be more memorable than Beth. It´s why we love when Eliza hops over ice blocks to escape from slave catchers. She is the most outstanding character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much more than the poor old slave whose name appears on the title.
Eliza's courageous flight
I particularly resent killing characters just to make another character suffer. Don Quixote gives a lovely speech and dies in his bed, but it is poor Sancho whom I mourn. His master has gone to fool’s heaven, but he remains on earth bereft of all the promises the Knight offered him, he has no island to rule, no riches to share with his family, no illusions. That is truly heartbreaking.  I wonder if Cervantes realized how unfair he was to Sancho.

Don Quixotes death
Was Hemingway aware of his unfairness to his characters in For Whom the Bells Toll? This classic Spanish Civil War tale describes the efforts of Robert Jordan, an American Professor fighting for the Loyalists, to blow up a bridge. The action takes place in a couple of days. Robert knows and we know that he´ll die. Therefore, we like him, but we don´t grow too attached to him

                                                 Robert and Maria

However, during this time, Robert meets a young girl named Maria. She has undergone every possible horror. She´s been uprooted from her home, her parents had been shot and she has been raped by the Fascists. Robert and Maria become lovers, he dies, and ... I am furious! What´s the point of making Maria suffer again and again? If at least she had been killed fighting alongside her lover, but to experience a bit of happiness and then greater loss? That is sheer cruelty.

Homer ends The Iliad with Hector’s death. Surely not an eye is dry after hearing of heroic Hector vanquished by Achilles who adds insult to injury by defiling his enemy´s corpse. That is sad, but sadder still is the fate of those left behind. And it took several centuries before Euripides dared to describe, in his plays Andromache and The Trojan Women, what Homer didn’t bear to do in his time: the fall of Troy, the murder of Hector´s parents, and the sorrows of his wife. Besides losing her man, Andromache has to see her only child tortured to death, while she is raped and forced to become a conqueror’s concubine.

                                                     Hector and Andromache
Bottom line, forget Hector (even if played by scrumptious Eric Bana), the one that really deserves our pity is Andromache. So I understand why Homer doesn’t tell us her terrible ordeal, or why Wolfgang Petersen gave her a happy ending in his film version of The Iliad. Isn’t that evidence enough that hurting loveable characters has a limit? Why advise it then?  There are those who claim that mistreating characters adds conflict and suspense to the plot, and suffering make characters evolve and grow. It reminds me of Victorian teachers who beat their students to make them strong.

I am the first to recognize Tolstoy’s genius but I don´t understand why he creates such a marvelous dashing character like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace, just to make him unhappy, and finally kill him. To me, War and Peace ends with Bolkonsky´s death. I don´t care about dense Pierre or fickle Natasha. I can’t share their happiness since it is based in Andrei´s departure. The author must have realized his blunder because he ends his novel, not in Pierre and Natasha´s domestic bliss, but in Bolkonsky´s son vowing to grow up to be worthy of his father.

                                                     Natasha and Andrei

I love William Styron’s Sophie´s Choice, and I love Sophie despite her victimization at the hands of her creator. Throughout that thick volume we see Sophie suffer everyday. Not only does she bear the scars of her Auschwitz past, not only does she carry a guilty secret, but she goes through a daily ordeal living with a pathologically jealous lover (and schizophrenic to boot).

Eventually, Stingo (the narrator) pulls her away from abusive Nathan, and offers her redemption, but Sophie, after revealing her horrible secret, chooses death. All the torments she has endured, including her part in the death of her children, have not made her stronger or better suited for life. Strange but her suicide is a relief, I am happy her pain is finally over. Is that what we get from torturing characters to the point of no return? We want to mercy kill them!

Excuse me if  for a moment I wander into self-reference. As a child, I loved visiting with my mother´s side of the family, a bunch of enigmatic but extremely generous people.  Once, I must have been around nine years old, one of the uncles offered to take me to see the latest Disney’s flick. Full of self importance, I informed him that I was “too old” for cartoons. Now I only enjoyed “movies so moving that made me cry.” He looked at me as if was demented. “Why? The whole point of going to the pictures is to have fun,” he said ”not to suffer.” I didn’t realize it back then, but all these mysterious relatives, who spoke in odd languages among themselves and had funny numbers on their arms, had seen enough suffering to last them a lifetime. Now they wanted their entertainment to be “fun.”

As serious readers we shun superficiality, we demand realism, we wish for conflict, we need to see our characters struggling against odds, but we also long for balance. We want our beloved characters to prevail, to be rewarded for everything they have gone through. We want a glimmer of hope! That´s “fun." 

Don´t you agree? Were you ever upset or disappointed by a novel or film where characters went through too much unnecessary angst or had an undeserved unhappy ending? As a writer how do you maintain equilibrium between chastising and rewarding your characters?