Friday, August 17, 2007

Feeling It

Cross-posted from Wyrdsmiths:

R. J. Anderson has really interesting post over at Fangs, Fur & Fey today. S/he talks about how she used to write sceens that would make her cry or be otherwise emotionally entangled with her characters, but now she doesn't. She worries that this lack of empathy will affect her writing. She ends the essay with this:

And yet I know I'm not alone in this, and I feel sure that powerful, emotionally resonant stories have been written by authors in much the same situation -- people who for one reason or another just couldn't do the Method Acting thing. Maybe because, like me, they have young children or other needy family members to look after; or maybe because their brains just aren't wired that way, and they find it more natural to cook up a story intellectually than live it vicariously.

I would like to hear from those authors. How do you make your stories and characters come alive -- and what gives you confidence that they are working -- when you aren't "feeling it" yourself?

Or, if you believe that identifying closely with your story is essential to good writing, what techniques or tricks do you use to submerge yourself in the narrative atmosphere when your environment is full of distractions?

If I think about this question seriously, I am forced to admit that I, too, have written both ways. I've had stories that grab me by the throat and force their way out, and stories that I've been able to tell with an intellectual distance with an eye more on craft. It's hard to say if the ones I wrote full of passion and verve are more "alive" than the others. I am, however, reminded of the interview my alternate personality did with Neil Gaiman for Science Fiction Chronicle where he talked about how some days he felt like the Muse moved through him and some days it was like squeezing blood from a turnip (obviously I'm paraphrasing, even on the fly, Gaiman has much better metaphors than I.) His point, however, was that when he went back and read the whole manuscript, he couldn't tell the difference between the days that hurt to write and the days that it was a joy. It all read the same and with the same "magic" or passion, if you will.

I think a lot of people miss opportunities to write because they feel like they have to be in the mood to write, or that this kind of empathy that Anderson worries about has to be present in order to craft "the good stuff." I'm with Gaiman on this one: write when you can, even when writing is hard. It's the only way to get stuff done. In the end, you won't know the difference and neither will the reader.

I do think, however, the writer has to be passionate about the story s/he is crafting. The stories that I can't finish are often ones that I, as an author, have stopped caring about. This is different than the question of empathy, though, I think. I can care about a story that I just don't want to write TODAY. And usually, if I push through today, I get get back in the swing of things TOMORROW. Sometimes, too, I find that if continue writing even when I *think* I don't care about the storyline, my mind will invent something about one of the characters or the situation that I can get fired up about again and the story is saved.


Melanie A. Howard said...

I've actually found that the scenes where I felt totally emotionally connected and completely swept away end up being the scenes I have to revamp the most, because I was so excited, I didn't pay a lot of attention to technique or readability.

These scenes are matched in uck-ness by the scenes I write at 1 AM when I should have been in bed an hour ago and just want to finish this one chapter, crammit!

Though, in all honesty, the stories I write where the main character shares a lot in common with me tend to come out a lot better than the ones where the main character and I are quite different. That's where I run into the "write what you know" dilemma. It's more a "write WHO you know" dilemma for me. Who do you know better than yourself?


Zoe said...

This is the comment I posted there:

I'm often emotionally detached from my writing - and yet when I show it to others, they feel all the emotion that the scene is supposed to have. Despite that, I feel insecure about this sometimes - I do have stories get into my head and not let go, but my characters never take on lives of their own like other people say theirs do. My characters do what I tell them, and if I try to stand back and let them take over (a common piece of advice) they do nothing at all. I can't watch my stories unfold like a movie, and I don't feel my characters' emotions. I'm glad to know there's someone else who works the same way.

I agree with you that the story has to matter. The basic premise has to draw me in. Sometimes, when the writing is going badly, I'll feel detached from the premise as well - but if I wait a couple of days, I can see the kernel of coolness there again. That kernel, for me, is what's important. There has to be something in the premise that makes me think, "Ooh..."