Saturday, February 26, 2011

Laugh and the World Laughs With You. Cry and You Cry Alone

That’s one of those little ditties we all heard growing up… and it’s kind of true. There are those friends who, when you’ve hit that rough patch, will move hell and high water to make you smile. Who can find joy, even in the worst of times and somehow let it rub off on you. We loves them. We aspire to be one of them. But you’ll notice that those friends are far and few between. Most people will scatter to the wind, and let you deal with your stuff on your own and come back around when your mood is better and the world is righted. Because no one really wants to stand ringside for the bloody massacre – and in their cowardly defense, when you wallow in it and can’t find your joy, you become a psychic vampire who drags everyone around you down to your dark place. And most people can’t function and find joy with all of that.

On the surface, fiction seems like it works differently. (Doesn’t it always?) We look for high emotion, we strive to infuse every page with conflict and, of course, conflict suggests more pain than joy. But dig beneath the surface. Yeah, man, put your character through the paces, make his world crumble and make a good portion of it through his own faulty choices. Make him squirm. BUT – don’t let him whine about it. See, there’s the balance. It’s not the fact that the world is crumbling that makes us read, root, breathe it in – it’s the fact that this character is so extraordinary that he never lets it beat him.

There were a bunch of people who complained about the fifth Harry Potter book. The character went in a new and darker direction. Some of the battles he had already faced started wearing on him, compounded by the fact that he was a moody teenager. I think it was well done, because really, there’s no way that character got where he was and didn’t show signs of wear – it wouldn’t have felt right, and I think it was a good choice for the author altogether. BUT – she’d earned our attention through four previous novels of building this world and our relationship with these people. THAT wouldn’t have worked in a first novel. We wouldn’t have known him well enough. We would’ve thrown our hands up and said, “Get over it already!”

When someone tells me that something I wrote made them cry, I have to admit I get a little jolt of happy. Not because I made them sad, but because my words moved them. It’s not easy to move people armed with little more than your warped thoughts and manner of painting in language. And that’s the whole goal for me in writing, to bring the reader in and make them feel something; to know they walk away with a new perspective, a poetic phrase, a blooming thought to be dissected at their leisure. I want to do for them what a million writers before have done for me. It’s a lofty goal when you think about it.

Where life and fiction intersect is the place I think you have to keep your eyes on to do this. Fiction is high conflict. You’re barreling into all of the things you’d avoid in your real life. But fiction doesn’t whine (which you’d likely do if faced with some of the paces your characters go through). You can’t root for a character who takes to their bed and sobs. For the same reason many a fair weather friend will take a powder when you hit that patch in your real life – I told you it intersected. We follow characters who are in some way extraordinary. They don’t get through it unscathed, but they get through it without losing their spirit. They do things that we would never have the courage to do in our regular lives. But sometimes I think pulling a little bit of that chutzpah from your fiction and adopting it for yourself wouldn’t be such a bad idea, either.

Thoughts? Where does fiction and life intersect for you? What rules don’t apply to fiction but apply to life… and vice versa?


Richard Levangie said...

Terrific post. I think you hit the nail on the head. (And my Mom used that phrase on me at least once a week).

Stephen Parrish said...

Interesting. Somewhere along the way I blurred the line. Most of my stories are based on personal experience but I no longer actively differentiate between fact and fiction.

I have to remind myself that there was no Johannes Cellarius (from my first novel) and he didn't float to the surface of a bog in northern Germany. However, most of the history and geography I wrote about is true. Likewise my next novel, a spy novel: most of it actually occured, but of course I embellished quite a lot, and I have to stop and think about what did and did not happen.

Where do life and fiction intersect? For me they overlap.

Sun Singer said...

In fiction, life doesn't happen in real time. We show it and, one way or the other, imply that more time has passed--or is passing--than the number of minutes it takes the reader to read a passage.

Done well, fiction highlights the sublime and the mundane. Quite often, though, its greatest challenge is highlighting just how heavy the time is--those long hours or tears, those long hours of trivial chores, those long hours of laughter.

I "feel" real life differently than the lives I read about in books because no matter how good a job the author has done, life on the page is always so brief.


Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks - my mom did, too... there's some wisdom in those old sayings...

Merry Monteleone said...

Where do life and fiction intersect? For me they overlap.

Well, that's the best kind of crazy... =)

Can't wait to read your next one, Stephen!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Malcolm,

The time thing is soooo tricky for me. You can't show everything but you can't just drop them from place to place, either... getting them from point a to b is often the hardest part for me... much easier to write through the exciting, forward moving scenes.

Jean Ann Williams said...

Great post, Merry. You always leave me thinking.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jean,

Thanks =)

Glad you liked it.

Peter Dudley said...

I know what you're saying, but I prefer to take the charitable view on those people who disappear when my going gets tough.* I don't think they skedaddle from everyone's troubles and woes.

They probably just have too much going on in the other circles of our giant Venn diagram to have time for me. I know it's true for me: I often do a lot to help others, to offer a shoulder to cry on, to give a ride when someone has let them down. But I don't do it all the time, for everyone. Which means that some people may get the impression that I'm not a helper when I really am. Other people might get the idea that I'm a saint when I'm really not.

What people get turned off by, especially in fiction, I think, is self-pity. That whole "woe is me" thing gets old. With Harry, the attitude was, "You all don't understand how hard I have it. So piss off." It was more than just self pity--it was that he felt entitled to others' pity, to the exclusion of their feelings. And the reader wants a hero there. Not a self-centered teenager who gets self destructive by pushing away his greatest friends and allies. He loses perspective. But that was part of the plot in this case, so it worked.

* I don't really have dark times.