Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Musings of a reader turned reader-writer.

View from an overlook into part of the Red River Gorge of Eastern Ky. (c) Oct. 2011, by RLMT

     Where does one start in telling those stories hidden in time and catastrophic injury or illness to the soul? The beginning, chronological? At the end, resolution posing as introduction? ‘In media res’, or in the middle of things, as it takes place? Why? Just as the triggers for those stories are many and often cruel, so is the reasoning behind those stories. 
         In some cases, the stories have a wild desperation in their need to be told. In others, well, the horror story market is alive and thriving – just ask Stephen King. Writing stories is a catharsis and a catalyst too. All depends on that big key, perspective: it’s all ‘in the eye of the beholder’. A raging beauty or a brutal, gory mess? Both can and do work, and both have a serious commercial market. 

         We humans have a deep fascination, even a love, of hurtful things. We want to hear every scream or cracking bone, and every drop of blood spatter must be presented with vivid, sharp clarity. We are conditioned with this from childhood; this has been so for countless generations. Examples of this are in the Bible (“… and the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the twelfth generation…”), in stories our grandparents knew (Handsel and Gretel), and in modern media (various old-timey radio shows, anything popular on television, from classic westerns up to and including NCIS). 

         The characters in the best-loved stories are those who have the most tragic, awful circumstances and yet (like the aforementioned Handsel and Gretel) survive with aplomb laced with a strong sense of justice done. As in real life, the stories we want to hear are those that move us forward emotionally, even if the first glance at them drips with slime and lots of powerfully scented blood. We need, intrinsically, to love the victims and see ourselves in that same set of pitiful, beleaguered shoes. We need to identify ourselves as the triumphant victim. 

A wild variety of aster, commonly called "Farewell-to-Summer" in eastern Kentucky. (c) Oct. 2011, by RLMT

         Why? Because there are lessons in someone else’s mistakes.

         Lock your doors. Pay attention if your child is afraid around someone. Keep enough food, water, and medical supplies on hand in case of disaster or emergency. The list of preventative measures is as long as the list of horrors the human mind can perceive.
Humanity is a species of cruel, creative predator whose primary prey is … itself. We are what we fear the most. Conscious of it or not, we all know that a little too well. Beneath the designer clothing and glittering fancy, beyond the intricate electronic toys, the core of a wild beast lurks and that beast we must each face head-on. 

         The written word, commercial or not, is an attempt to communicate and teach. The poorest book or story encloses some message the writer wanted to pass on. The coherence of a tale told depends upon the skill of the teller. The rest is up to the reader. 

         Of late I have been often asked ‘why this and not that?’ There are many reasons I could give, yet Rule Number One applies in every case: “Write what you know.”  That makes sense to me as much as a reader as it does as a (granted, late-life) fledgling writer. I read something I can relate to, in each case, or I don’t enjoy it. It follows that if I read something written by someone who did not understand the grounds they were trying to use, I know it and put the book down because it makes no sense to me. 

        Writing what you know means that the writer needs to have a strong feel for the whole picture in progress, something sensual in some way, and yet woven entirely of frail, delicate words. A book is a movie in word pictures. No plot, no rich characters, no atmosphere/sense of place or powerful voice behind it… and it flops. It takes hard-won skill. It is not easy to do, requiring easily as much stubbornness and finesse as any other fine art or craft. 

         In my case, I know what the scent of sassafras is, either burning in a fire or when the highly aromatic traditional tea is made from the boiled roots dug in late February and dried for a year’s usage. I know what it is like to lay hands on a struggling, slimy newborn foal or puppy. Unfortunately, I am also familiar with the scent and sight of charred bodies; the aching deep cry of a rape victim; the anger of a child violated beyond all reason, its innocence taken away forever. Forevermore I will see and hear the unshed tears of soldiers who each did a job no one could envy and saw horrors brought out of people they thought ordinary for a little too long. I also know well what the scent of fresh application of manure on a garden, the enticing odor of frying, spicy apples on a wood stove, and the pure joy of a child romping in heaps of leaves or in fresh snow or mud, as the case may be. The scent of clean horses, fresh hay, molasses-heavy sweet feed, green grass fresh-mowed… if colognes smelled like these, I would buy the scent by the gallons just to have around. There are bits I wish I had not learned of, at times. Other parts still have the power to make me belly-laugh every time I think of them. Memories are like that.

A tree on the edge of Indian Creek, Red River Gorge of Eastern Kentucky. (c) Oct. 2011 by RLMT

         These things are a part of me, a part of the light and dark patterns that, at the deepest turn, clothe the psyche. It is the truth of what I know. My memories, experience, and yes, tribulations, are woven tightly into who I am.

          I do not know the bustle of city life, the proper assembly of the internal combustion engine, what an accounting office feels like beyond half an hour during tax time, or what it is like to cut open a human chest and take out the beating heart to repair it. To me, those are abstract truths. I may read them, I may sketch over them here, but I cannot make them ring true in the emotional depths they need to become vivid, as the written word requires even in works of fiction. 

          If you would write fiction, there are a few inescapable facts: Fiction is a lie, a not-truth. The best-told lies are true at their roots. You must therefore know what you write intimately to bring that work of fiction to its abstract and seemingly ‘real’ life. 
         And so I say, “Write the truth. The rest of it is his or her story.”  Write true. 

Colored leaves, Oct. 2011, (c) RLMT.