Friday, May 23, 2008

Details, details

Life settles into a familiar rhythm so quickly, into a yin and yang, moving to and fro, working, sleeping, eating, handling chores and the unexpected spills and quicksilver moments that bring tears, smiles, sadness and laughter to every day. It takes so little to interrupt the rhythm and leave a void, a feeling of confused bemusement.

The raucous birds argued and gossiped, their cries and conversations carrying through the windows to spear directly into my dreams this morning, to rouse me from a discussion about writing, about a particular writer whose work is good but doesn't go far enough because there are no veins opened. Depression is a good subject, one guaranteed to prick the emotions and set trembling the emotional candle flame but only when the writer digs deep, opens a vein and engages his heart, and thus ours. Nothing written is any good unless it affects the emotions, engages the reader in such a way the experiences become familiar, echoes of personal experience, even if a faint echo. It's not that difficult to learn the mechanics of writing: punctuation, spelling, sentence construction, plot arc, characterization, movement, etc. That can be taught. There is no teacher for reaching the heart of a story, for playing the emotions. It's the different between a violinist or pianist with technical superiority and one who fudges and slurs their way through the difficult passages and still wrings tears or teases smiles from the listener.

I've read stories that were technically bad and yet the story held my interest because the writing had heart. The author made that most painful of sacrifices and opened a vein on the page. And there are movies when the actors say their lines well, imitate the emotions like a mime but fail to inhabit the character or the scene, becoming two-dimensional and flat. That is not to say that bombastic gesturing and emotional fireworks are necessary to draw the audience in; sometimes it is quite the opposite. A soft voice, minimal gestures and sometimes the way a person holds himself, his body language more eloquent than any deftly delivered line is all it takes to make the character, or the writing, come alive. That cannot be taught. It must be lived, learned and internalized.

I've always been a technically good writer, but until I let down my guard, broke through the thick glass wall between me and the audience and opened a vein, my writing was nothing special. It's the same for many well known writers. Technical superiority and experience in writing confers the belief that anything can be good, but it is a false sense of superiority and it's fairly easy to tell. Unfortunately, most of the publishing world is unaware that technical superiority is no substitute for writing with heart, writing that engages the senses with characters that live and breathe as though caught in an unguarded moment. Anyone can write and just about anyone can be published, especially these days when publishing can be a cheap operation, but the shining literary moments when characters inhabit all dimensions are few and far between. Those are the characters and writers that become classics, regardless of genre. Think about it for a moment. Go back through your memory files and list the characters that leap forward. Then reread their stories and I'll bet you find what it is that makes them special. That is what writing is about. That is what writing should be.

I guess what kicked off this literary reverie was a surprise in my mailbox yesterday. I received a check for another anthology containing one of my stories. The book will be available at the beginning of July: Cup of Comfort for Cat Lovers. I drove over to cash the check and ran into a friend who surprised me with a gift, a housewarming gift: four wine glasses in four pastel shades, the very ones I've been eyeing for months. Serendipity. A thoughtful gesture from a caring and intuitive friend.

A moment like that can't be planned nor can the reactions. It's a magical surprise in the familiar rhythm of every day life with heart. The feelings of surprise and delight and the happiness of giving a gift to a friend can be manufactured and retold on the page, but it's the emotions behind the details that set the tone for the characters and the story. It's always in the details.

Like the sound of children going to school in the morning while the birds scold and chatter in the trees as the sun rises over the horizon and fires the trees with gold and crimson, when they're gone they leave a void, a sense of dissonance in the daily rhythms that something is missing or just different. It takes a while to define the missing element, to probe the tiny space where it once fit so securely, before a new rhythm falls into place. It is those moments between one rhythm and another, the emotional blip on the screen, that makes life special and surprising, and it is the writer who notices that transcends the mechanics and gets to the heart of the story and the audience. It's all in the details.

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