About Me

Monday, May 31, 2010

Extending Beyond The Text

Extending Beyond the Text

There was a simple question posted on her page by a well known author of both children’s literature and poetry. She asked whether the bond between reader and writer is real, or is it ephemeral. Her question prompted me to answer, and I’ll be expanding on that answer here: Yes, Virginia, the bond is real. (I did not use that terminology in my response on her page!)

What I wrote was a brief, eloquent statement, not knowing what I would say, until the answer was written. I surprised myself, coming up with a concept that has never occurred to me. Truly great authors write a story that extends beyond the page. Those of us who write have probably always thought of that statement in terms of creating characters and a story world that continues in the reader’s mind beyond the final lines of the story. Good writers are successful at doing that.

Excellent writers do more than that; they create emotions and thoughts and responses in the reader that extend into their day to day lives, through the process of identification or recognition, into their sense of self and who they are. The writer may never know the effect they have upon a reader, but when a reader incorporates what they have learned and experienced through reading into their mode of being, applying life affirming aspects and extending it to others, the author has written something everlasting, going beyond even the authenticity and artistry of the text itself.

I never thought about it quite in this way, but I think one of the reasons I write is to create that bond between myself and readers, so that my thoughts and emotions, even more than my words, can live beyond my lifetime. But it is a writer’s skill in utilizing words and literary technique that creates that bond in the first place. So, we work to express ourselves, a circular effort, made whole, when we are read and assimilated.

This is what I wrote to her: I think there is an actual bond. Writers deeply affect their readers, and though readers can’t often find a way to give it back to the writer, they feel that bond, and can take away life affirming aspects of what they’ve read, apply it to their lives, and give it back to others. In that sense, what we write can be everlasting, and goes beyond even the beauty and artistry of the text itself.

I don’t think this is true only of writing. I think it is also true of art and music and conversation. When we share the best of who we are, we create a bond that is everlasting.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Fiction Writer's Responsibility: My Personal Vow


Note to My Readers: These are thoughts I’ve been mulling over for years, and I do not mean for these words to apply to anyone else’s writing, only to my own. I started to write this post last Friday. In it, I explore, mildly, difficult issues concerning trauma and emotion, and my responsibility as a fiction writer who wishes to publish life affirming work.


A Fiction Writer's Responsibility: My Personal Vow

Does the experience of reading about violent acts constitute assault, if the reader is not given a choice; knowing what to expect in a general sense, based on a title, an abstract, a dust jacket blurb, or a description?

The first short story I ever wrote involved a teen threatened with sexual assault; and another teen beaten so badly he is hospitalized with a broken jaw. When I write fiction, bad things happen to my characters, but they ultimately transcend. I am not in the camp of writers who believe the emotional response to our writing is the reader’s responsibility alone. Write what you will, they say, and let the reader decipher their response based on what they bring to the piece.

I’d been writing fiction for close to fifteen years, when a few years ago, I took a couple of university level creative writing classes. Before that, no one had ever read anything I’d written, outside of a handful of poems, so I did not know if the emotions I tried to translate to the page in my fiction writing had any effect.

I learned, through feedback, I had the power to make people feel. Through my writing, a reader could experience vicarious pain. A reader could smile or laugh. I could make a reader feel “horny,” and why would I do that, unless it was coupled with love, or the potential for love? (I’m happy to say, I have not failed to do that; any scene of sensuality conveys a necessary aspect of a relationship, or at least that is my primary goal.)

When that first short story I ever wrote was critiqued, I was surprised when a fellow student, a twenty-two year old man, said my work reminded him of a certain horror writer he presumably admired, because he meant it as a compliment. I read a horror novel and several short stories by the published writer, accessible through book stores and on library shelves, and I was sickened by what she’d written; not because the content was so graphic, and it was; but because she gave the characters no hope, bad was bad, and good was the sacrificial lamb. She put the reader in the mind of the villain; so as you read, you were the one committing atrocious acts.

In my short story, the violence served a purpose; and the teenage girl and boy, rather than remaining victims, transcend their circumstance through the redeeming power of their relationship. By the end of it, the reader knows there is a good chance, they will both be okay; not just for the short run, but for a lifetime, whether they begin a romantic relationship or not, because they have validated, each for the other, their worth as human beings.

Yet, the student’s reaction to the story, made me take pause, and wonder, what did this reader, the 22 year old man, feel when the teenage girl was accosted; was it arousal or revulsion? And, if it was not revulsion, there is something wrong with the way I’d written it (or the problem was, because I’d been required to cut the piece to meet “word limits,” necessary elements were missing- so I asked him to read the full story to see what he thought, and his subsequent comments made me feel better about what I’d achieved.)

I believe in the power of words, and I believe a writer does have responsibility for a reader’s emotions, and well being. (Maybe it’s my Catholic guilt, feeling responsible for everyone else’s emotions as much as my own; but I happen to think it’s a good way to live in this world.) I have a difficult time reconciling that belief, sometimes, with what I write, though these pieces are not yet published, and there is time to modify the intensity of the trauma my characters experience; so that the reader will empathize, and gain a hint of the physical or emotional pain, without feeling equally assaulted.

I do believe, a fiction writer should not self censor in initial drafts; but in the final draft, a balance between story and traumas necessary to the character’s development can be achieved. I believe some of what my character’s experience is the effect of my own catharsis pouring onto the page. I have learned from writing creatively, until I’ve written myself weary, what not to do in real life, to resolve childhood traumas.

One example: You don’t have to talk about it with everyone you meet. I have a character who did this, until I realized, it was me, working through my issues; but it’s something to keep in the text of this particular novel, because it is part of this character’s development, to come to that realization, and to start fresh, leaving the emotional scars, not buried, but addressed; not forgotten, but resolved.

I think it’s possible to do this for our readers. If we stun the reader, we must relieve them, giving them hope, as we give hope to our characters; so that the total experience does not leave the reader in a void, where pain and darkness are paramount.

As writers, we can horrify and we can titillate. As a fiction writer, I have vowed to ask myself- what is the feeling I’d like my reader to be left with? If I have sickened them, have I given them the means to feel well again? If I have affected them emotionally, have I given them satisfaction and release?

This is not to say that every story question must be resolved with a rosy ending- not at all; but for the main characters, the ones the reader has grown to care about, there will be at least hope, if not a certainty, of a less conflicted and happier life. Otherwise, why am I writing, if not to connect with the greater good of humanity?

In my work, emotions run the gamut. Characters love, and hate, both themselves and others. In my stories and novels, in some aspect or the other, at least one character is emotionally crippled, and another character becomes their salvation; but only because they are both in need of each other- they draw upon each other’s strengths. Nobody is perfect. Everyone is flawed. There are villains, less well rounded in their character development, and the reasons for their heinous acts are not necessarily explored. My concern in these stories is how the main characters will access the altruistic side of their own humanity, in order to transcend, helping both themselves and each other. (This does not occur in a manipulative sense- it occurs out of the circumstances of the story- In the initial draft, I don't know where a story will lead me, but I have learned, in all their various ways, that my completed works resolve in this direction.)

The main thing I believe is that it is the responsibility of the writer, to give a reader a choice. Prepare them, either through a general description; or through your skills as a writer, through the sentences that lead up to a disturbing thought or image. Yes, we can all surprise our readers, and it may have great dramatic and literary effect- but don’t give them tabasco sauce, when they are expecting vanilla ice cream. (Sorry- that is an awful twist on an old cliché!)

I try to remember, that reading about trauma triggers a reader’s memories of their own trauma. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I want my readers to have the choice, of when and where they will address their own issues. If I am skilled enough to make a reader feel vicarious pain, don’t I also want my readers to choose whether pain, and its resolution, is what they want to experience, in that moment? Doesn’t a reader have the right to say, “No, not now- maybe never,” before it is too late?

I think there is a difference between fiction writing, both novels and short stories; and creativity that results in published poetry, personal essays, and autobiography. In a work of fiction, though we want the characters and their story situation to extend beyond the text; still, there is a sense of resolution by the end of the story or the book, a resolution that cannot apply to real life, because real life is a “work in progress.” In poetry directly expressing the self, personal essay, or autobiography, I think it is enough for the reader to know that the author is asking questions, in the very fact of asking questions moving toward discovery and ultimately peace; not that the questions have been resolved, or peace has been achieved.

During the time that I was taking the first creative writing class, and my short story was critiqued, I wrote a poem that is not the best, but when I wrote it, I considered it to be a personal revelation, and a guiding light:

Writer’s Code

All writers risk
Foisting violent image
Provoking agitation
Toying with emotion
Subverting inclination
Just Because they Can.

Why not counter
desolation? Balance
authenticity with peace.
Don’t leave a frightened child
gnawing a fist in the void.
Be a Guide.

© 2007 Annie King

And then there was this initial version of the poem, when my reservations about the short story I’d written were most acute:

Writer’s Code

It’s finally struck me
all writing is coercion
and manipulation
Be careful what you write
Gauge the response
Shut up when you should
Scream when you must
In the end, all things
are private, misunderstood
The reader brings
what they know, takes
what they choose
Make sure it’s a
healthy taste you’ve
left in their mouths
so you can sleep

© 2007 Annie King

In the end, protecting a reader is protecting yourself; so you can feel good about what you’ve achieved, taking pride in the substance, as you keep working on improving your skills as a writer.

Will I change anything about that first short story? I wrote it honestly; there is nothing to change. It may be the best short story I’ll ever write, exhibiting depth and an intuitive literary technique that succeeded. And I definitely learned- never cut a story for word limits. There are other reasons to cut a story or a novel, but cutting for word limits alone, may cut something essential out of the “fictive dream.” I’m proud of that first short story. It fulfilled all of my personal requirements.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Emotion and the Creative Impulse


I read an article in a professional journal that made me temporarily question everything I do when I write creatively. The article proposes that people who’ve experienced childhood trauma are motivated to write creatively out of a desire for revenge. Though the article describes this desire as a beginning, and not the means or the end, reading the article prompted me to consider these points: Must there be a motive for my writing, beyond the desire for connection, and the wish to express who I am? Must I now analyze whether I seek revenge, when what I value is altruism?

Last Saturday night, after feeling troubled for days, I wrote out these notes, when it came to me that creativity does not start with the desire for revenge; creativity starts with a strong emotion and the overwhelming need to define it. Having suffered trauma as a child may increase our sensitivity to this desire and the complexities of human emotion, making us more apt at expressing them. When we feel acute pain, physically or emotionally, we are more sensitive to its opposite: joy.

Creativity is a coping mechanism with an amazing side effect- creating something “alive” that exists in this world- a poem, a painting, a song, a book- out of our need to define for ourselves, exactly what we are feeling; so that we may feel better. And other people, by accessing our emotions made evident, can identify and be in league with us, and feel better, too.

Naming a thing involves untangling emotions. Ultimately, as humans, when we access those emotions, through creating or experiencing a creation, our perception goes beyond the words or the music or the image. We are not what we think; we are what we feel. So, if we create something that defines an emotion, we have made something that can be experienced as an emotion, by others.

Creativity starts with a strong emotion- often hurt, but it may be love- prompted by the desire to love and be loved, and to be treated as we deserve. Creativity is an assertion of the self. It starts with a nagging something that must be defined. If we bury it, we bury an aspect of ourselves. If we bring it to the “light of day” we have made something either tragic or beautiful that may exist beyond our lifetimes. It begins with a benevolent impulse to share: this is who I am- this is what made me- this is who I wish to become.

The desire for revenge is a legitimate response to trauma. But creativity born of hurt does not have to say: I hurt, and I want you to hurt, too. It can say any or all of these things: I hurt, and this is what I’d like for you to do about it. I hurt and this is what I can do to help myself. I hurt and I don’t know what to do to help me. You hurt and this is what I’d like to do for you. You hurt and I don’t know what I can do for you. You hurt me, and this is what I deserve instead. You hurt me, and this is how I will transcend. Creativity born of love is a celebration.

As we create, we decipher for ourselves who we are and what we feel and how we wish to proceed. We learn about ourselves, and celebrate “me,” accessing the universal, because truth begins and ends with an emotion, and emotion goes beyond circumstance. Details may differ, but emotion exists outside the details, and it is access to that emotion that makes it universal.

In creating, we state emphatically, I am a worthwhile person and I deserve good treatment. That is not the desire for revenge. Born of hurt or love, that is the desire for respect and recognition and fulfillment. It is the desire for connection, because it matters to us whether we are loved, and that we can give love.

Does creativity begin with the desire for revenge? Sure, it can. But it can begin with any strong, or complex emotion; and I believe that it begins with every emotion we can’t name or untangle, until we’ve made the thing we are prompted to create. Creativity will begin, every time we need it.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Poetry of Trees



I live my life
in tones of beige and cream,
accents mild and shimmering-
The color of the sea, aqua
is my favorite fade to peach.

Yet, in the wild,
it’s not forest green
I crave- It’s yellow green
backlit leaves, shadow and
variegated shade, bright veined
red and startling yellow, the russet
stripe of butterfly, bird, rock and branch,
- the saw of palmetto, the surprise of air plant
Leaves rustling sturdy beneath my feet.

The undergrowth
is the under-story, the sky
the fateful backdrop- Give me
Gaia’s spiralling chaos, nature’s
replicant, the comforting
reach of trees.

© 2010 Annie King 5-5-10