Saturday, April 5, 2008

Memory, Patterns and Pain

"I Remember the War" came back from the Lucky Labs with some great comments and lots of encouragement, so it's time to open that old chest, dust off the weapons, saddle up Longshanks and head off to the big city.  

I realized (how did I not see this when I wrote it?) that my newest short, "Strangers Think They Know Me," is not only also in first person (lately I've been writing a lot of first person--weird because I normally vastly prefer third) but also revolves around the past and memory.  Huh.  Do I have an issue I don't know about yet?  Am I trying to use the prose as a therapy whipping boy?  

The words have got to come from the heart, but there's a fine line at the edge of an abyss between standing on the solid ground of theme and story arch and characterization that's informed by life experience and plummeting into the realm of re-experiencing your own pain for the sake of 'true-life' drama or flogging the reader with political views/frustrations and so forth.  I understand the impulse, I really do, and sometimes it leads to great writing.  I would not want the world to be deprived of C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed because someone told him that he shouldn't write while he's in the midst of a traumatic event or right after one.  But writers ought to be cautious and remember the lessons of various authors who have written 'the divorce novel' or other such works.  

I suspect that works of fiction are particularly vulnerable.  They're very heartfelt and are written with passion when an author is under the influence of a crisis, but they may turn out to be tattered orphans that sleep under the porch and dig around the garbage cans for food while the rest of the children are well kept.  I've heard that when a writer goes through a traumatic event, editors are of course immediately concerned about the welfare of someone they've worked with and often bonded with, but that there's an accompanying dread that they may end up with a trauma novel on their desk.  

Maybe it's better to write about the experience as non-fiction if you're in the middle of it.  Then it's more... what?  I can't put it into words.  I guess the story isn't trying to be something other than what it is.  There's also nowhere for the author to hide (which obscures what's going on) and it's less likely that, if the author is in the middle of a trilogy, established characters will suddenly start acting crazy, accusing each other of infidelity or becoming sobbing wrecks that can't drag themselves out of their depression long enough to combat the Big Bad.

Anyway, for whatever reason, memory is on my mind.  It's possible that I'm just in the midst of a series.  Painters paint in series.  It's smart, actually.  You work with a certain palette and get good at a type of composition or a certain subject and run with it.  I don't think it works for short story writers in terms of marketing, unfortunately.  Editors, and readers, will want to see new and different things.  The closest writers have to a painter's series is the novel series and/or the themed short story collection, though I think that single-author themed short story collections are rare.  ?  Something to find out.  In the meantime, though, I don't have to worry about repeating myself.  Two stories revolving around memory isn't a trend, it's a blip.  Now if the next story is about memory in some fashion, then ...

Then I might start building a symmetrina (with thanks to Bruce Holland Rogers for writing such a beautiful and effective one for Polyphony, handily entertaining and instructing me in one swell foop.)  

I think it's a mistake to panic about something abstract, and so many of the rules and worries about writing that plague us are abstracts.  It's a safer bet to concern yourself with the concrete stuff--structure, grammer, narrative style, etc. than to flip out about what you're writing or why.  Save that for later, the kind of later that never comes around.  You know, the 'I'll start brushing the dog's teeth every day, but not right now" kind of later.  (Apologies to folks who brush their dog's teeth every day.  You have my sincere admiration.  I just know that I'm never going to do it even though I should.)  It's enough to be aware.  I'm aware I should brush my dog's teeth.  I'm aware that I should be cautious when I'm writing from direct experience if that experience happened to me recently or is happening right now.  But it won't stop me from writing about it, fiction or non.  I just might let it simmer a little longer on the back burner before I go to edit, revise and market it.  If nothing else, something that comes that deep from my heart deserves extra care.  Just in case this memory thing is coming from the storm around me, I'll keep this all in mind, but I suspect it's just happenstance.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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