Writing down the hurricane

Things come into everyone’s life at times and leave behind the landscape of destruction: death. Work. Travel. A child’s illness. Taxes. Deadlines. The list is endless – and includes positive things, too: a wedding. The birth of a child. Marriage. A new job.

Many come as dust-devils – small enough and short enough to deal with on a daily mode.

But the big ones leave behind a hollowed out core of exhaustion and pain.

It is all for naught, for a writer, if it isn’t captured, polished, and used in one’s writing.

Which is as it should be: what happens in a writer’s life – real or imaginary – is the primordial soup out of which we distill our stories. Lack of experience is the prime reason there are few – if any – really young novelists. A prodigy can practice music, and add that to the talent. A musical prodigy will experience more of life than her counterpart learning to jump rope – simply because of the huge influx of adults in her life with interests in her product. Likewise a figure skater. Or a diver.

But there is a paucity of novels.

On the other end of the writing spectrum are those who, in spite of what has happened to them (or possibly because of a need to escape it), write fluff. Insightful fluff, but fluff.

Actors can find that using their own material from their own lives and psyches before some distance is achieved (which could take a lot of time – I’ve seen the figure of seven years quoted for a major traumatic experience) extends the damage.

But it is their treasure – as it is for writers: the place where the words come from.

He who would use the material from the pit must ride the very edge of the wave: getting the thrill, and the power, but avoiding the overwhelming crash.

Why bother with this obviousness? Because the scale depends on the writer, and the size of the writer’s world. For me, a weekend with too many people can cause the exhaustion. But I still get the feelings, and I get to decide what to do with them, and when they are ripe.

A writer like Flannery O’Connor or Christy Brown can spin the straw of a tiny life, maybe, into gold wire to entangle the rest of us.

If I don’t write it down, I lose it. Pure and simple. The intensity follows the experience, and diminishes exponentially with time: I have to write it down when it happens, even if I can’t USE it right away. But I also have to recognize the feeling ‘this is important, this is worth saving’ can come from what, for other people, would merely be a busy weekend with a welcome guest. I have to pay attention. I have to ask myself, ‘How can this experience be transmogrified into a similar experience for a character I am writing?’ or ‘How do I take this gut feeling, and amplify it into a similar feeling with a hugely different scope?’ Jealousy is jealousy, after all, and love, love.

Fear is another good one – my experience of fear can be miniscule, but a loss can trigger thoughts of much bigger loss: the end of the world prefigured by a child leaving for college.

We all get experiences: the brain wiring is similar.

My life is constricted, tiny. My imagination covers worlds. All I have to do is figure out how to use it.


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