Sex, violence, morality and other Scintillating-somewhat-scary stuff . . .

Déjà vu Thursday – In light of my last post, I thought I share one in a similar vein, written way back on October 12, 2009. Enjoy and as ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I spent a lovely morning reading and contemplating various writing blogs. Kathy Chung (of Kathy – Rambling—a new blog I will now frequent) wrote about questions of morality that she’s been pondering because of one of her characters.

Joseph Grinton (Writing about modern romance), also newly frequented by me, had thought-provoking words in How To Write Sex Scenes.

I didn’t come across a blog post that opined on how much detail should be given in depicting violent acts, or discussed how to write violent scenes realistically, or tackled realism versus gratuity, but somehow (and not just because I think Sex, Violence and Morality makes a grabbing title) the three things seemed linked in my mind. Writing about them (and similar high-octane subjects) demands a certain bravery.

In the early days of my fiction, I realized that I was guilty of writing in the same manner that I watched scary movies as a kid. Scary music cues something Awful about to happen—swoop, blanket over my eyes. Smack, hands over my ears to tune out screaming and howling . . . I’d actually ask, “Is it over yet?” and wait for confirmation that the most horrible bits had passed before I’d peek again.

In writing that avoidance technique looked like this: Write a hook or some great invocative scene that foreshadows emotional or physical (or better, both at once) danger to character. Insert # # # to show that time has elapsed. New scene starts immediately after Event deemed too violent, too sexy, too something-scary to delve into comfortably. Often, since the reader needed to have some knowledge of the ordeal, I would do some sort of recounting, usually in the form of a conversation between the sufferer of the atrocity and his/her close friend.

“I can’t believe you went through that.”

“I can’t believe it either. I thought I would die when Joe pulled that knife on me and proceeded to—”

“It must’ve been even more terrifying because it probably triggered childhood memories of watching your own mom be killed in front of you . . . ”

“It did—but I managed to summon the will to fight, because I pictured my own daughter Macy’s little innocent face—I want her to grow up strong, to not feel like being a victim is inevitable the way I always did . . . ”

(Okay, please, please note, my writing was never really that bad—or Gah, I hope it wasn’t! But if a person avoids showing events as they happen, unnatural, stilted summary scenes become necessary—and if you’re even thinking, “My summary scenes aren’t stilted. They’re graceful and elegant,” go slap yourself and delete/rewrite the scene!)

I’m still working through what I feel is a good balance between portraying life as it is really experienced and what is too much—a completely subjective line, I realize. And I still battle with self-consciousness and worry. What will people think of me when they see the things that make up my head? What will people close to me say if my stories don’t line up with their ideas of morality? GAH—I write sex scenes and have children who read—awkward! I keep returning to the fact that to avoid writing something because it makes me (or someone else) uncomfortable is stupid and goes against the very reasons I write: to explore the world I live in, to figure out what I think, to yell into space: I am here, trying to figure things out . . . And in the end, if I offend or make someone close to me feel awkward? Well, they don’t have to read me.

So how about you? Are there topics you “don’t go”? What scenes are (were) your Kryptonite? Have you found ways to overcome your inhibitions? Should writers even try to overcome a shyness? Maybe some boundaries are good things . . .

The Power of Story and Theme

Déjà vu Thursday This was originally published here on Write Here, Right Now on January 31, 2010. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things lately and this seemed a timely repeat. ~Ev

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I’ve known for a long time that I listen to, read, write, watch and tell stories for fun, yes, but also to help figure out what I think, to mash out how I believe I should live, to discover what it’s like, at least partially, to be someone else with different life experiences, to express things I feel that can’t be described in mere recitations of facts and statistics.

As a teacher, a student, a writer, I am always wowed by the power of story to create understanding, convey meaning, show relationships, and provoke thought. It’s not that I agree with every idea a story puts forth or even think agreeing is the point. The point of stories—what makes them so important and valuable—is how they provide glimpses into how people arrive at the places they do, how events shape other events, how life is perceived and experienced by another.

If you tell me war is damaging or that prejudice hurts generations of people, I’ll nod thoughtfully, because intellectually I know those are truths. If put me in a war via story or subject me to cruel indifference (or worse) because of prejudice via a character, I will know the truth on a whole different level, because I will have gotten just a bit of taste of what it must be like to suffer those things.

If you tell me that constant bullying can create a monster, I might or might not believe you (or I might start framing an argument for how people can’t just blame their circumstances on people around them). If I’m put in the situation as a fly on the wall, made to see the effects of one person of constant abuse over time, I’m probably going to be a rash of more elaborate things: a) less likely to bully b) more likely to recognize when something is mean c) more intent on being kind to people I perceived as being picked on d) less wishy-washy and permissive of mistreatment of others . . .

My own kids have shown me the power of even “little” stories. I was uptown with my son the other day and he was playing with a novelty pen that had a big rubber head with googly-eyes that bulged out, as if on springs, when you squeezed it. He was making it make weird faces, kind of chuckling. Then he stopped laughing and said, “Just like a hamster, right, Mom?”

Gack! I thought and got ready to launch into a momesque lecture. “That’s not a funny way to joke.”

“I’m not joking,” he said quickly. “It just made me think of about Uncle Wilfie’s birthday party and his poor hamster baby. I still use that story to scare little kids, you know.”

Just as I started an inner monologue, berating myself for telling that story where the intrinsic message was so obviously lost, he went on.

“You know, show them, especially – – – – , he doesn’t have very good control, the danger of giving into that I love you so much I wanna squeeze you feeling.”

Awww, I wanted to squeeze him. So I did, but just a little, cause hey, he’s 13 and I’m pretty fortunate that he allows me to be seen with him in public, let alone give him a half-hug—and besides, as established, hard squeezing can be dangerous.

Where am I going with all this?

Do I think every story should have a conceived lesson on behalf of the writer? Gah, no! (But I also don’t mind if there is one, so long as it’s done well and is integral to the story, and the story isn’t just some pale, whinging thing tacked on to try to disguise a lecture.)

Do I think fiction writers have a job to inform, reform and educate? Not in any calculated way, no. Do I think writers must have deep reaching themes that they set out to tackle? Absolutely not—not intentionally, that is.

I do think the best stories—the ones that stick with us, that we ask to hear again, that get reread and reread—contain ideas and situations that affect us in a far deeper way than being merely entertaining. They are about far more than escalating action, a wacky offbeat laugh-a-minute MC (or a deep, brooding one), the gruesome, vivid details, the ahh of perfect romantic love . . . They resonate—Yes, this is what it means to be human. Or they challenge us—This is what it could (or should!) be like to be human. They speak to us somehow about how we live, have lived, or want to live.

The trick to writing these “best stories” then—actually, that’s badly worded. It’s no trick—it’s the one aspect of writing where craft books and technique can’t help us, where the only “skill” lies in just being ourselves. We have to allow what we really care about, fear, ponder, hate, love, question to well up in our stories. Our characters are not us (usually), they’re not even based on us (again, usually), but they are people and people have universal wants, needs, fears, questions . . . Let yourself (and your characters) tackle those things and you will not only have a book that the reader won’t put down, you will have written a book with the power to affect, transform, challenge, affirm and encourage—

Intimidating, isn’t it? Yes, but I don’t know if it needs to be. If we write whatever story currently yelling in our heads, the best we can, letting ourselves “go there” (those places we want to shy away from because they feel too personally revealing), I suspect, without any intention at all, when we reread our first draft, we’ll see our theme emerging. We’ll be intrigued by, maybe even a little awed and challenged by, the emerging power in our story.

I know I was a little long-winded this post, sorry–I had no Internet for eight days, so I had lots of time for my words to build up! I’d love to hear about your thoughts on theme and how you approach, consciously or not . . .

Wherever you go, there you are . . .

Déjà vu Thursday This was originally published here on Write Here, Right Now on March 24, 2010. As I’m feeling overwhelmed by winter and daydreaming about moving to a warmer climate, I thought the topic was very apropos. It made me feel better to read it. I hope you enjoy it too. ~Ev

Photo by Ev BishopOnce upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting at the end of a wooden dock in the purple-not-quite-dark haze of a warm northern summer night with a dear friend. We were discussing places we’d been (or he was) and places we hadn’t (me, everywhere; him, it seemed then, nowhere). I confess I was expressing a bit of jealousy and at one point he looked out over the shimmering dark mass of the tiny isolated lake we visited, and his side profile was a perfect black shadow.

“Nah, you don’t get it,” he said. “Wherever you go, you bring yourself. After about two weeks in any place, you stop being a visitor and they’re just the same as anywhere else, because you’re the same person. So if you enjoy where you are in general, you enjoy the place. If you aren’t happy in general, you aren’t happy in a new place.”

It was a life changing moment, though I didn’t realize it then; it grew on me over the years as the wisdom in his casual words came back to me time and again, applying aptly to so many facets of life.

And just recently, a variation of its truth struck me in how it relates to reading and story. I was commenting on a short exercise one of my friends did called *The Iceburg. In her reply to my comments, it became obviously, embarrassingly clear that I had completely missed her intended “understory” and put my own feelings and sentiments and past onto the character and his motivations/feelings.

I felt kind of stupid, but then I didn’t, because I realized that’s what readers do. They bring themselves to the book. To the short story. To the poem. Despite our best and most skilled writing, despite our subtle pointers and sometimes even didactic scenes meant to reveal something specific, readers will immerse themselves, with their personal histories, their guilts, their persuasions, in your story.

So can you challenge readers whom I’ve basically just said come into your story with preconceptions, prejudices, set ideas, notions, etc? Absolutely. The power and joy of reading—and its value—is that through story, you experience a new or different world and can add others’ experiences to your own, enlarging your thinking and ways of seeing/perceiving the world.

But equally absolutely, you will sometimes be surprised by what conclusions a reader arrives at about your story . . . hopefully not in too negative a way—my friend wasn’t offended—I hadn’t said anything offensive—she was just curious about how I’d gotten what I had from my read . . . and quite simply this was how: her character reminded me of someone I knew and I put all my “stuff” with that person on to her character.

So what does this fact that the reader brings him/herself to the story, thus colouring its reading, mean for us as writers? At least two things: 1) We should write our stories putting as much personal heart, care, and detail as possible. They are ours. 2) We should share our stories, knowing that once we do, they are ours no longer—or, at very least, not in the way they were, because now they are the reader’s. Precious and loved—or hated and scorned—perhaps for reasons we skilfully intended, perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do at all with what was actually in the story we wrote.

For me, it takes a bit of the pressure off—yes, I want to write stories that people love, relate to in some way, “get” . . . But if they don’t, perhaps it’s not me. It’s them. 🙂


* The Iceberg comes from a book of writing exercises that I recommend you buy: The 3 am Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.

If you’d like to try the exercise yourself—it’s a great one—here you go: “Write a small story or storylet that works with the idea of an iceberg, whose great mass is mostly below the water and therefore unseeable. Write a scene in which much of the actual story is not told. Let us feel the rest of the story that bobs quietly underwater, but don’t let us see it concretely. 500 words.”

If you do the exercise, I’d love to hear how it went, or better yet, let me read your resulting short story.

Déjà vu Thursdays . . .

I’ve been blogging for just over two years now—crazy!  It’s been great fun, not arduous at all as I had once worried that it might be.  The process is inspiring and motivating in terms of how it complements my other writing, and I’m delighted by the people I’ve come to know through the blogosphere. 

Scrutinizing my stats page recently, however, I realized that it’s usually just recent posts that get visitors. Past posts are only occasionally stumbled upon by the odd Internet search for something esoteric that one of my entries seems to fit. 

With 27 months of writing accumulated here now, that means a lot of unread words.  And I like some of my older entries.   There are themes I revisit—and the odd one that makes me think, Hey, I’ve moved on from there—or not. 😉 

Anyway, long story short and all that, I’ve decided to recycle some of my past posts. I’ll still post new content, of course (maybe even more regularly, as I’m aiming to have a new post up every Monday), but I hope readers will enjoy perusing past thoughts and not think it’s a cheat or anything. So without further ado, here’s this Thursday’s déjà vu!

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Souping It Up

Originally published here on Write Here, Write Now on February 24, 2010 – so almost a year ago. Must be something about this time of year (brrr!) that makes soup extra appealing to me!

I’m a bit of a soup addict. Whenever I’m stressed, inching toward depressed, or feeling blue about something, I make soup. Chopping and grating, bringing to a boil, simmering. . . tasting. The steamy aromas of mingled garlic, onion, occasionally ginger . . . Mmm.

There’s something Zen about cooking in general, and making soup from scratch especially. And like my aunt says, even if you can’t cook, it’s hard not to make great soup, so long as you use quality ingredients. It will sound corny, but I think she’s right only to a point. Something of yourself has to go into the pot too—your love, your affection, your hope, your well wishes . . .

Yesterday I made salmon chowder (from a Spring my son caught last summer) and while I consider myself a decent cook, I impressed even myself. I was wowed by the scrumptious creamy, savoury results. I used a recipe from Allrecipes.com, then modified it (as is my style) ‘til the concoction in my pot could never be recreated using the recipe card sitting on my counter.

As I cooked (and tasted!), my mind wandered all over the place, but especially back to the novel that I’m working on. In the last scene, written just shortly before I started dinner, my MC was making soup. And there were soup references in my last novel too. The books aren’t the type that will be marketed at gourmands, with recipes in the back (though I do love those). In fact, the scenes are very brief—I don’t know if a reader would even consciously remember them, but they are, I realized, symbolic.

Soup is the epitome of comfort food, belonging and home. Every culture has its own variations of the dish, and while soup can be whimsical, there’s nothing trendy or passé about throwing things in a pot to simmer and blend all together into something, always a bit different, always good. Soup, regardless of its name, is as old as the human race.

And what does my character want and crave, but not have? Family. A sense of belonging. A home.

Food and eating of all kinds (not just soup!) has weighty (no pun intended) positive and negative connotations for the character as an individual and within his/her relationships. What your character eats or doesn’t eat, and the way they eat—standing over the kitchen sink, or with wine and candles even when alone—says a lot about their personality, their desires, their family background, their financial situation and so much more.

The way characters prepare food (or don’t) also shows who they are, how they perceive themselves, and how they want to be perceived by others. I don’t know what this says about me, but when I make soup, I feel like a good mom. What does your character feel like? A house elf? A slave? A fortunate soul to be able to cook when so many people in the world can’t put food on the table?

We shouldn’t make every scene about drinking tea or buttering fresh baguette, but we should remember that all humans everywhere eat—or need to eat—and have strong feelings about food. Sneaking in small sensory details about this primal need can be a great way to reveal information about your character.

So how about it? Have you ever considered what the food references in your story might be saying about your characters? Would adding some details about eating somehow enhance your characterization?