We are drawn to writing to find truth we are sometimes afraid of uncovering. That’s why so much writing is weak. If we confront our fears we will discover, not only is the known less to be feared than the unknown, but that besides being a tool of discovery, writing is a means of release. For example, someone in a seminar last week asked me why I was attracted to the story of the midwestern couple expecting a child in Puerto Rico. She added, “You’re picking a setting, Puerto Rico, you don’t know anything about; and I’ve always been told to write about what I know.” Well, the model for the woman in the story was appealing to me. She had a Botticelli like innocence, yet was dependent on a guy who was likeable, but careless. I have to admit though, that the story became intriguing for me only when I located it in Puerto Rico. I saw it as a way of understanding (by comparison) the plight of foreigners unjustly facing hardship and prejudice here. A good answer?
Later that night the truth emerged. I, myself, was married overseas, and our first child was born in Germany. Ultimately my marriage failed, and this story is a way for me to re-experience it from a new perspective twenty years later. Do you hear what I’m saying? For the two years that I’ve been talking about this piece I didn’t realize what the real subject was. “Write about something you know?” My God, this is all I know! A therapist attending a another seminar told me, “In our profession we don’t treat the patient directly, we always deal with the metaphor the patient uses to understand his or her situation.” This is the basis of Principle #6, because it also is what the reader is looking for in your writing.
That doesn’t mean the result must be fiction or fiction based on actual experience. I can become intrigued researching the economic or political history of Puerto Rico (or more likely the cooking of that country) and one of these will be the topic of my article or book. But I guarantee the outlook I take on this subject somehow satisfies an inner personal need.
This book is nonfiction. Through anecdotes, I’ve given you my reaction to various “discoveries” about writing, using anecdotes so you might experience those reactions vicariously, yourself. I’ve used examples, and forced you into some role playing to “dramatize” the subject. I’ve progressed form writer, to subject, to audience (a change in perspective) in order to get you “involved”. The six principles are a “framing” device. After considering how to get your work published, we’ll look at “mirroring” and “discharge.” Fifteen years in advertising and marketing have taught me that whether you’re producing a brochure to convince someone to select your accounting firm or videotaping a documentary on mastitis prevention in dairy herds, to get an audience to accept what you are saying you must visualize it for that audience in such a way as to make it as real as their actual experience which you are about to displace. These six principles do this. But what makes one so-called “reality” more preferable than another is that it better meets needs which we discover only through the process working with that subject.
LIGHT AND SHADOW
Watch for something very specific in the three paragraphs of the next example. They’re about a woman torn between conflicting emotions. Halfway through the writer introduces a motif of light and darkness that carry the conflict. It reminds me of some German expressionist films of the thirties, in which you don’t need to understand the dialogue, the drama is portrayed through characters moving in or out of shadow. See how light and darkness in a concrete way embody feelings which are real, but less tangible.
The baby cried and she picked it up. Lisa cradled her daughter in her arms and swayed gently back and forth, speaking in a sing-song voice of “everything’s going to be all right.” In a minute, the crying stopped. The child slept in her mother’s arms. Lisa became aware of a small spot of peace lodged somewhere under her rib cage, pulsating to the quick even breathing of her daughter. It was something she never felt before Adrianna’s birth. At least not that she could remember. But there it was. The baby breathed in and out, and the rhythm worked its way deeper into Lisa’s heart.
A tug at her memory, like the gentle tug of Adrianna at her breast, began to pull an unfamiliar sensation to the surface. She was safe. She was cradled warm in her own mother’s arms, rocking. It only lasted for a moment before the more familiar arms of fear threw themselves around her again. Lisa shivered and tightened her grasp upon her own sleeping daughter. “No one’s going to hurt you, ever,” she whispered.
The light was fading. Lisa reached over and turned on the lamp beside her, then clicked it off again. It was too much. She could see that right away, glancing back an forth between her sketch pad and Adrianna, who lay asleep on a quilt on the floor. The light had been so perfect–when was it? A half an hour ago? She looked at her watch and was surprised to see it was almost seven. She’d been sketching for over an hour, and she hadn’t even meant to start.
Lisa was standing by the window clenching her fists when Tom’s car pulled into the driveway. The headlights lit up the garage door as it rolled upward. Then the car drove in and the door moved down again in darkness. She stood, as if rooted to the rug. And then Tom was standing behind her, gently encircling her shoulders with his arms. She felt herself relax against him, involuntarily, before pulling herself around to toss out the words she’d been holding close for more than an hour. “Where the hell have you been?”
We have explored how to tell a story directly (by having two major characters together in a scene), and also how to tell it in an indirect way (through the reactions of secondary characters). Mirroring is yet another option, a way of advancing the story by association. It involves finding something in the setting that symbolizes and develops elements of the conflict. I’m avoiding the use of words like “symbol” and “extended metaphor” because we need to think of mirroring as a practical technique, not a cipher to hidden meaning. Here is an example:
This is from the movie, To Catch A Thief. Cary Grant is a former cat-burglar of expensive jewelry. Grace Kelley is Grace Kelley, with low cut evening gowns and strings of diamonds across her heaving bosom. They have a love-hate relationship through most of the film which is the charm of the movie. That is up until a particular scene. In that scene the two are standing on opposite sides of a room. Cary Grant with his eyebrow arched. Grace Kelley’s beauty seeming to actually glow. The camera goes between the two and out on the balcony. It’s Monaco and as we look over the beautiful Mediterranean cost, ptuiiiii, ptuiiiii–a few fireworks are being set off. The camera pulls back inside the room, between Cary Grant and Grace Kelley. They are no longer twelve feet apart, they’re six feet apart…and there’s a different look in their eyes. The camera pauses for a moment then moves back out between them, onto the balcony again. Now it’s, KAPOWWWWWW, KAPOWWWWWWWW–major firework clusters light up the sky. The camera retreats back inside and the two are in each others’ arms.
What Hitchcock has done is to let the fireworks mirror a passion igniting between them. This is pleasing for us because it would have been unconvincing to directly show the characters going through such a drastic change, and this technique allows us to use our imagination. Here is the ultimate audience involvement: the director, or writer, giving an audience the chance to be an artist. There’s also a third advantage. A mirror brings the outside world into a piece, prevents a work from being “stage bound,” prevents its isolation from weather, news, the routines of daily living so woven into the fabric of human experience. And a mirror is fun. It’s saying one thing can stand for another, don’t take things only in their literal sense–that’s too limiting.