Sunday, September 12, 2010

How events shape our writing

I'm going to do my best to stay away from politics today, but bear with me if I wander a bit too close to the line. Yesterday was 9/11 and for so many Americans it brought up a myriad of emotions. I'm not going to write about who did what to whom -- we know what happened and we each have our own interpretations on cause and effect. What I do want to talk about is how traumatic events -- be they events that hit on a national level like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor or events that are purely personal -- affect our writing.

I don't know about you, but writing for me has always been as much therapeutic as it is creative. When I don't write for a long period of time, I feel it. It is that outlet for me in much the same way physical activity is. It is the one time I can be totally inside myself and let my thoughts and feelings come pouring out, whether it is in a journal entry or in writing a new book or short story.

But what really brought this home is a project I'm considering going back to. It's one of those toss it under the bed and let it mature or it will never see the light of day sort of projects. You know the ones I mean. It's that book or short story that insisted it be written but, once done, there is nothing you can do at that time to make it into something that can be sold.

Well, this novel is just that sort of thing. Not only is it waaaaaaay too long. We're talking goat-gagging length of almost 250k words. So massive editing needs to be done. Editing on the scale I couldn't have accomplished 2 years ago, much less 9 plus years ago. It is also a split-personality book. And that is where emotional reaction to a traumatic event comes in.

A little background. This book is a space opera. That's what it started out to be and that is what is remains -- even if it is a big, bloated space opera right now. Like a number of space operas, politics played a role in the plot. But it started out as being very much in the background, mentioned only to explain why a couple of things happened. Pre-9/11, it was a character-driven novel.

Then 9/11 happened and I suddenly understood the emotion I'd seen in my parents when they spoke of Pearl Harbor. The feeling of safety I'd known growing up, something the duck and cover drills in elementary school never took away from me. Sure, on an intellectual level I knew there was always the possibility of someone attacking us. You can't grow up during the Cold War and not have that drilled into you. But, you see, I never believed it would happen.

That belief was shattered on 9/11. While the images of the Twin Towers will always haunt me, the feeling I will always remember is that quick spark of fear, of breathless waiting as I stood in line outside the local blood bank that afternoon and talking with several American Airlines executives waiting along with so many others to donate blood. We'd been discussing how strange it was to see no planes in the air. None of us had realized until then how used we'd become, living as close to DFW airport as we did, to the constant sight of multiple planes overhead. Having an empty sky was unsettling.

Then a hush fell over the crowd -- and it was a crowd. At that time, there were approximately 100 of us standing in line waiting to give blood. All eyes had gone skyward and were fixed on a single aircraft flying much too low for comfort. No markings on the plane. All we knew was that it shouldn't be there and it was flying eastward, perhaps toward the airport or perhaps toward Dallas and its skyscrapers. Now, nothing happened and we learned later it was a federal agency plane doing a flyover. Still, that fear, that spark of anger at the thought the horror was about to visit close to home remained.

And it translated into the space opera. A third of the way through the book, it suddenly changed. Suddenly gone was the nice, almost light-hearted romp of approximately 100k words. In its place was a hard-hitting, political novel with too much of everything. But it was what I needed to help process and deal with what had happened that terrible day. And, because I didn't consider myself a "real" writer back then, I finished the novel and under the bed it went.

But it didn't disappear from my head. It stayed on that very back burner all these years, pushing forward from time to time, as if to see if I was ready to look at it again. Until recently, I wasn't. But this past week, those occasional pokes became persistent and I pulled it out. Somewhere in there, between the lame attempt at being light-hearted and the heavy-handed political response to 9/11, is a good book struggling to come out. I can feel it, if that makes sense. Now I have to put butt in chair and bring that book it can be out. That means reading the original and remembering all those emotions that were poured into it and then figuring out the best way to rewrite it. Most likely, it will be from scratch. That's okay. The original served its purpose -- or should I say purposes? -- in that it let me write the story and let me get out and process some of the emotions that ran so strongly through me 9 years ago.

So, do events, personal or national, influence your writing? How do you use your writing to help process or deal with these events? Or am I the only one this happens to?


Stephen Simmons said...

Short answer: In my estimation, we wouldn't be human if they didn't. Our Characters shape us, to some extent, while we are shaping them. And the world around us can't help but shape the worlds we are crafting. The anguish and rage I felt that day, knowing that I was mired in the shipyard with gaping holes in the hull of my submarine while the civilians I had sworn to defend were being slaughtered ... I didn't think of myself as a "writer" then, but the stories that spun themselves in my head even then used and sublimated that anguish, and helped me channel and manage that rage without going mad. And Characters I'm writing now are benefiting from my comprehension of that condition. The fourth-grade classmate who died of leukemia, giving me a grasp of mortality at a level that my grandfather's cancer death didn't reach ... thinking back now, thirty-five years later, I realize I "wrote stories" in my head about it even then. And that understanding is available to the characters I write today, as well.

Marta M. Sprout said...

Thank you for your thoughts. No you are not alone in this. I often approach writing exactly as you have described. All of the experiences of elation and bitter horror and the range of emotions that go along with living are stored like fuel waiting to drive a belief that all of our efforts mean something... and then I write. Last night I was looking at a novel I'd finished and at another one I am writing now. When I start a story it sometimes feels like I am rolling around in a tub of mud (plots, settings, character options are limitless), later it becomes more like shaping a pot on a potters wheel, and finally freed of excess bulk, it takes on its own form. The story becomes tangible, sleek, molded into curves and colors uniquely its own. When I allow my creative brain to just go without a critical voice, I find that everything I write has layers of meaning and there is always an over arching theme. When I step back and edit is usually when I am able to identify the theme.
I wish I could write like Dean Wesley Smith talks about one draft, edit, mail. But for me it is more like a dance. I think that putting the story away for awhile doesn't necessarily help the story,but it sure does help my perspective on the story. Stephen King says he puts his fresh novels away for two months (to age)before he edits. If it works for him, I guess we can't be too far adrift. Good luck with your "250K opera".
Best wishes, Marta

Brendan said...

I tend to turn the emotional and personal into bad angsty poetry. I do still put it away for later viewing since nothing makes me laugh more than reading some of the guff I wrote when moody or depressed.

I try not to put anything too personally emotional(be it politics, religion etc.) into my proper writing since no one wants to read one of my characters go into an unedifying speach that is a thinly veiled rant about whatever has got me upset at the time, and I am not good enough to hide it well within the narrative.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I was writing Any Man So Daring during 9/11. Half before half after. The split runs right down the middle. The same with HOL which wa written half about a yar before 9/11 and five years after. There are other things that have caused the same split. Having teenage boys, for instance. I've found reading some UFs with their -- sorry -- objectification of males sets me off, while I enjoyed them when the kids were too young for me to associate with "men". Now I go "ew, I hope no one thinks of the boys that way."

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Amanda. Very insightful.

There are some things we can't write until we are ready to write them. And there are some insights that come to us only after we have written our way through them.

Get stuck into that book, it sounds really interesting.

MataPam said...

I don't remember what I was writing nine years ago. I may not have written at all for a bit.

But having felt the way I did has certainly given me a better understanding of what characters should be shown feeling, when their homes are attacked.

Personal crises, life changing moments, happy or sad, give you a better understanding of humanity.

C Kelsey said...

Objectification of males sets you off Sarah? But we like! It's okay since we objectify all the ladies, y'know. :)

Stephen Simmons said...

I object!

(had to be done ...)

Chris McMahon said...

I'm not sure external events really penetrate into my writing - for me it's all about escape. Of course, things effecting me on a personal level always creep in, but more as general moodiness.

I know what you mean about old manuscripts - just looking at an old SF one at the moment. Sigh. Lots of work to do!

Have you considered making the change in the manuscript a reflection of the change in a character? They could take the journey with you. They could begin as as light hearted, then being transformed by some incident, start to see more deeply into the issues around them. Just a thought.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, apologies for being so late in responding. My first thought, when I read your comment about our characters shaping up, to an extent, while we shape them made me want to run screaming into the night -- in fear. My characters, on the other hand, laughed maniacally. Seriously, I think you're right. At least for me because they are my outlet many times for emotions and thought processes I might not normally talk about.

And yes, all those experiences shape us and shape our writing. They also help us understand how a character should react in a given situation. The challenge comes in controlling those emotions and thought processes as we write and not letting them control the writing. Otherwise, you wind up with the goat gagger like I did.

Amanda Green said...

Marta, first off, welcome to the MGC. I know that tub of mud very well. I have one novel right now that went from tub of mud to cement. So I've put it on the back burner for a bit to let it percolate in my head for a bit before coming back to it. Usually I push through but this one has a lot of humor in it and, when I push, it gets flat. Not good.

Like you, I also find I have more depth and layers when I just let the creative voice write and keep the inner editor gagged, at least during the first draft. And yes, I'd love to be able to write it once, edit and send it out. I just don't work that way and can applaud those who do -- even as I curse them.

Now, to see if I can turn the space opera/goat gagger into something marketable.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, I've never been brave enough to try the poetry thing...probably because I know it would be so bad it might do permanent mental damage to me as I wrote it ;-p

The key in channeling the emotion into my writing is not to let it turn into the long speech or rant -- unless that fits the character. Instead, I'll use a scene, suitably doctored to fit the current wip, and hopefully build it in a believable manner that suits not only the work but the characters involved. One example that will go into the book I mentioned above -- when I get back to writing it -- is a take on my father's funeral. That had to be one of the worst days of my life and yet there was so much that happened that day that was funny for all the wrong -- and right reasons. And it absolutely fits the tone of the book, assuming I can get past the current block.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, get used to folks objectifying your boys. Believe me, it happens and there is nothing you can do about it. Just make sure the guys you write don't resemble the guys - that way you won't get the "ew" factor, at least in your head [VBEG]

But I know what you mean...I think that is one reason, one of many, I don't enjoy the Twilight books and those like them.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, thanks. And you're right that there are things we can write only when we're ready to. I've known for a long time there is something good about the book. It's one of the very few of those banished under the bed and into the closet that keep coming back to haunt me, demanding my attention. But I also knew it had so many issues that I think I was scared to actually look at it. But now, as I read through it, I can see the potential. But it will require a complete reworking and, as I said earlier, probably starting fresh. Still, I think I look forward to it.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, exactly. The key is learning how to use that experience and that understanding in our writing. Both help us give depth to our characters and plot lines.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, that's basically what the main plot was -- and will be. The issue is it really did become an outpouring of all my emotions back then, good and bad, over the events of 9/11 and some other things that were going on at the time. The job now is cutting through all that to make it into a reasonable length and a story that makes sense and doesn't have wholes you could drive an entire fleet of trucks through.

Amanda Green said...

Chris K, we know you like....hey, why are you objectifying instead of writing????


Amanda Green said...



Al.X. Ross said...

I think what happened on 9-11 was a life altering event for a lot of people around the world.

For me an European it was the beginning of a drastic change.

I did not feel angry about what happened, I felt sad. Sad for the people, sad for the USA and eventually sad for what I feared was coming and did come.

At that time I was a young man, 23 years old, my girlfriend was pregnant.

I already started to look at the world more critical having a kid on the way. The tragedy om 9-11, the towers collapsing, the media coverage around the event and the politician (not only those from the US) using the fear of the population to do stuff they normally would never be able to do.

All that made me very cynical and distrusting of the world governments and mass media.

When digesting the news, I looked at more sources than one and I was much more critical, doing so I started to notice society for what it really was.

The knowledge filled me with despair regarding the future, a hopelessness passed over me that drained my body of the free and innocent soul I had. I felt depressed and in a way I gave up on life.

Eventually I crawled out of that nasty emotional pit, but I got out changed. I'll never be the naive, thrusting and positive boy I was.

All what I experience since that day, shaped me. I think this shows in my writing. My characters tend to be very conflicted within and the world they live in is a dark one, dangerously hostile.

The positive side in my writing is that despite the darkness I still manage to put some love in my story, a little light of hope.

Guess I still have some positive in me and for that I thank my wife and kids.