Monday, April 28, 2014

The Pain in the Heart

I've been pondering this post for a long time, trying to get the words right. 

Ironic, considering my chosen profession. Sometimes I think we become writers because we see great beauty and sorrow, and need to find words for it. Even if those words aren't always easy to come by.

This idea of mine is something I've long felt about writing, since I was a teenager and just starting to think about writing as a craft, and not just the stories I told myself at night, but not something I had words for.

A few weeks ago, I was reading DEAD SET by Richard Kadrey (so good!), and the feelings I've been trying to articulate came into sharper focus. The story is about a teenage girl dealing with the death of her father. She and her mother have to move into a shabby apartment, and she's struggling in a new school. She wanders into a record store one day, and finds a special room. The room is filled with records made from people's souls, her dad's among them. She travels to the Underworld, battles dying souls, and copes with the death of her father.

Kadrey has a light hand throughout the book--thank goodness. It would be easy to make Zoe mopey and depressed all the time. It would be easy to harp on how much she misses her father, and how she wishes she could be with him again. It would be easy, but the book would suffer for it.

Instead, Zoe's grief rises and falls like the tide. Sometimes, like when she discovers her father's soul at the record store, it rises. Other times, it's way underneath the surface. Not just as subtext, but as something hinted at in the spaces in between. In the words, and the scenes, and what's there, and what's not there. 

Kadrey is a good writer. So good, I'm going to assume he knows the chestnut about showing and not telling. He's very good at showing. Light on the telling. 

The obvious emotion running throughout the book is grief. Zoe's loss of her father. Her strained relationship with her mother. But in order for Kadrey to be able to sustain that sort of undercurrent all the time, he had to have been feeling grief himself. Not just emotion forced on the page, but a feeling that wells up inside you and pours out onto the page.

You feel sexy when writing a sex scene. You feel witty and clever when writing humor. These emotions are part of the larger book, but for me, the best books come from a place of pain. Of disquiet. Unrest. The main character needs something. Something desperately. Whether it's a sandwhich or true love, told well, we feel this yearning through the entire story, as something even deeper than subtext.

I believe that is where the words come from. The inspiration. The pain we feel in our hearts. The unrest. The easier we can tap into this feeling and just let it flow, let is simmer, the better our writing will be for it.

I'm not just talking about the subtext or surface emotions. I can think of a happy memory and feel happiness, but it doesn't last. For this other, more elusive feeling, it simply is. It just bubbles up from you--whether it's grief, or lust, or sadness, this is a state of being. Curiosity, a sense of justice. It's like a secret heart, beating inside the novel.

It then occurs to me that many writers were famous for being tortured. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Plath. It's not that you can only be a good writer if you're borderline suicidal, but that these people have obviously had horrible things happen to them, and this infused their work. 

I think you can be perfectly well adjusted and still feel disquiet. Or curious. Or rail against the injustice you see. And these feelings will then lend themselves to words, because it burns inside you to tell it.

I still don't know if I'm explaining myself properly, but it's the best I can do for now. In the meantime, I hope you all mine your own emotions, if only to exorcise them on the page.

*I totally stole this title from the name of a Bones episode, because it fit so well.


  1. Yeah, I get this. Writers can be quite emotional and I think to be real, it has to come from somewhere inside. Interesting post!