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Friday, November 7, 2014

Writing About Difficult Experiences Without Being Too Gloomy

I'm sure y'all are wondering about my title and thinking, "but aren't difficult experiences supposed to be gloomy and depressing?" I've always thought that was the case until I read this e-mail I received one day on from a newsletter I subscribed to 8.5 years ago:

I don't like roller coasters. Up and down and up and down – rather than enjoy the thrill, I feel like my stomach is stuck in my throat and that is not a pleasant sensation! The worst roller coasters are those that have too many “thrills” too close together. I still remember one I got talked onto; it had two loop-de-loops right after the other, followed by a double corkscrew. It was the double corkscrew that nearly made me lose my lunch. Never again!

There is a reason some people say that life is like a roller coaster. The last few months in my life live up to the comparison. At the end of April, I lost my grandfather. Then, I lost a beloved neighbour and friend. Now I am waiting for the dreaded phone call that my grandmother has passed away – I was told yesterday that the end is very near. There have been some good events in-between the deaths of my grandfather and of my neighbour/friend. I earned a distinction for my uni course work, and I've recently undertaken a couple of interesting short courses and done well in them. The short courses were more to keep my mind occupied and to distract myself, though, and a distinction obviously does not make up for the loss of a loved one.

In a similar way to how life can wear you out, so can tragic events in a drama novel or story. If a character has to suffer through too many tragic events, I, as a reader, feel worn out just reading about it. I've written about this in a previous Drama newsletter – our characters need a break, just as people need a break every now and then. Too many obstacles, too much loss, too much pain and suffering is not pleasant to experience, nor to read about. Especially when there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

Every novel needs a balance between good and bad, light and darkness. This is all the more important because reality doesn't always offer that balance. The experiences we share with the characters we grow attached to can give us hope, and a temporary relief of our burdens. I can't be the only one who sometimes seeks shelter in a story. Whilst the drama genre, by definition, may not be the best solution for those in search of an escape from tragedy, it need not be laden with gloom and despair. 

It reminds me of last year when I took a novel writing class for half a semester. The novel was going to be all doom and gloom until I had the first workshop and all the comments sounded like this: "is [your character] okay? She seems a little shallow still at this point. She has a lot of interests, anger, interests, dislikes and a few likes. She seems depressed and it's overwhelming." If I were to continue on with this novel, I would have had to find a way to ease her angst because let's face it, no one wants to read all about negative events. When we read stories, even non-fiction stories, everyone wants to read about some good events... the good counteracts the negatives. It doesn't have to be like a fairy tale, but it shouldn't be like a Lifetime movie either with all despair, gloom and doom. Life isn't like that and writing shouldn't be like that either unless of course you're writing fairy tales for children.

As most of y'all know, I've been working in a library since 2006. I see and read wonderful books all the time, but there is one book that I found in 2007 that has stuck out to me. I bought it because I liked the book. The author, Spike Gillespie, experienced the anger - too much anger - route early in her career. In her Pissed Off: On Women and Anger, she opens the book with her introduction that states, "I have written three novels in my life, none of which were published traditionally (although I did publish one online). In each, we follow the protgonist, Alice, as she drinks and smokes her way through one anger-laced scene after another. The writing improved with each new installment, but I never found an agent interested in any of them. I heard and heard again from agents who applauded the writing but felt Alice was just too angry and not sympathetic enough. No one wanted to represent the book because, I was informed, no one would want to buy a book about a woman who was so pissed off."

Over the years, that book has helped me and I love re-reading the memoir on how she learned to deal with her anger. In 2007 I e-mailed Gillespie and I wish I saved those e-mails (when I downgraded my account on, I had to delete them :( ) because she was very inspirational to me 17 year old self (a few months shy of 18). I remember her suggesting with my writing that I add some good events to the fiction stories and gave fiction tips on how to make a character more relatible. She was very helpful and I was so glad she was kind enough to e-mail back and forth for three months. I love when authors and musicians interact with fans.

One way to break up anger is to use some humor. I've been reading "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls" by David Sedaris and he's a great humorist. In his essay collection, there are several uncomfortable moments in his life, but he counteracts some of the sting with humor. For example, in "Think Differenter" after he talked to a telemarketer about the state of their lives while the telemarketer tries to sell Sedaris a newer phone:

"The iPhone 2 led to the 3, but I didn't get the 4 or 5 because I'm holding out for the 7, which, I've heard on good authority, can also be used as a Taser. This will mean I'll just have one less thing to carry around. And isn't that technology's job? To lighten our burden? To broaden our horizons?  To make it possible to talk to your attorney and listen to a Styx album and check the obituaries in the town where your parents continue to live and videotape a race riot and send a text message and stun someone into submission at the same time?

Doing it all while driving is illegal where I live, so I'm moving to a place where freedom still means something.  I'm not telling you where it is, because I want it to remain unspoiled. If you don't think a mental patient has the right to bring a sawed-off shotgun to the church where his ex-girlfriend is getting married, you're part of the problem.

Live with liberty, and your imagination can soar. If I had been born in the state I'm moving to, there's no telling who I might be by now - an oral surgeon, maybe, or perhaps the ruler of the whole U.S. countryside. Other kings would pay me tribute  with livestock and precious gems, but deep inside I don't think I'd be any different from who I am today: just a guy with a phone, waiting for the day when he can buy an even better one."

See how effective humor can be? I know in non-fiction that is used a lot to counteract the pain of difficult experiences. In fiction, humor isn't used as much, but instead we might add other characters and events. The examples are endless, but I can think of "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath, "The Catcher In the Rye" by J.D. Salinger and "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald off the top of my head. Next time you read fiction, see if you can pick up what the author does and what makes the book so enjoyable.

Before I end this entry, don't forget to use your own voice as you write. You are still the author and you should still use your own voice even when you try to make the piece not as intense. Your voice, in the end, makes the story yours. Maybe you can also apply these rules to real life - after all, we don't want to live all doom and gloom 24/7 either...

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