Monday, 28 February 2011

The writer’s search for emotional illogic

Last night in Paris with my writing group one of my pieces triggered an intense discussion. I’d dusted off a short story written back in 2003 about survivor guilt and the depression that can ensue, including suicidal tendencies. Not exactly a comedy…

First, an explanation about how writing groups work. The ground rules are that everyone submits a piece (short story, chapter from a novel in progress, poem, etc.) and everyone reads it and makes notes/comments before the group meets. Each piece is then discussed in the group, and the author should not say anything, not defend the piece, nor offer any explanations. Why? Because if it was published the writer would not be able to. It’s tough, but the writer gets to see (unabridged) how readers interpret his or her work. It can be illuminating, funny, or devastating, sometimes all three at the same time. But it works.

So, my piece unchained a short but heated debate about emotional logic. Why should the survivor feel guilt and have these tendencies, especially as it was not a War-type or hostage scenario. It wasn’t his fault; he wasn’t there at the time; these things happen; etc. The counter-point was that sometimes people do react this way due to the strong bonds that can exist between people. We’re not always logical, we’re emotional. Further, if we were logical about everything, fiction would be pretty bland.

It was this last point that got me thinking, that it is exactly this difference between what a reader thinks a character in a novel should do, and what (s)he actually does that makes fiction worth reading. Of course the writer’s challenge is to make it credible. After all, as a cliché’d example, why does a woman alone in her bedroom at night, upon hearing a noise downstairs, go down armed only with a flashlight? Why doesn’t she turn all the lights on, call 911, or look behind her for goodness’ sake when she’s at the bottom of the stairs? Has she never watched a horror movie?

More complicated, and more subtle, is the resolution of ‘emotional illogic’. If someone suffering from survivor guilt is told by a friend, “Look, it’s not your fault, stop this nonsense now”, well, how would you feel as a reader if they simply snapped out of it, saying “Hey, you’re right, what was I thinking?” You’d feel cheated, and rightly so, because real life (aka good fiction) ain’t that simple. What sometimes actually breaks the spell, after enough time has passed, is something subtle, maybe nothing to do with the emotional causal link the person has made in his or her mind (or gut). The writer has to make that credible, too.

Write what you know is another golden rule of writing. Okay, so I’ve been there once. Not exactly survivor guilt, but with the same emotional checks and balances, and it got close. A long time ago. Still hard to talk about it, so I won’t go into the reasons, but the solution, the spell-breaker for me, was watching a bunch of wild ponies in the New Forest. Absolutely nothing to do with the cause.

Nature’s a good remedy. Reminds us that our personal fiction, the emotional roller-coasters we stitch together and call our lives, aren’t always as important as we think they are. Animals have more sense, apparently (though no fiction).

Well, time to take on board the comments I got last night, edit it and send it off and see if it gets published. It’s called ‘No Diving’. In it I try to walk this tightrope between credible action, and emotional illogic.

From a writer’s perspective, not all stories have to be read. Some, though, have to be written. 

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