Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing What Isn't the Other

I'm a newcomer to emotions. Most of my life, until some time in 2008 as best I can recall, my emotions were loud and messy and confined largely to happy/sad and not a lot of wiggle room. I had highs and lows and mediums, but my emotions were not complex. They were surface.

In the last three years or so, I've started figuring them out. I don't much like them. I find them inconvenient, even messier, often painful, sometimes frightening. Happiness that's not surface but is complex? Damned scary.

But with regard to the writing, they started there. At a workshop in early 2008 in Lincoln City, Oregon, I turned in a SF story about a new virus on Earth doing devastating things (I don't suppose a new cold virus would get anyone's attention, after all.) My main character was a veterinary virologist who was on the right track (she wasn't alone, there were large organizations tracking it, she was just my main character) and it hit home for her when her teenaged stepson contracted the virus.

OK so far? But this scientist, she attacked the problem as I would have. She expected (or I as writer expected) that everyone around her would understand the best course of action was to find a cure, work day and night, and solve the problem. She expected everyone knew that she loved her stepson and that she didn't have to stop the action and make an announcement.

She and I were wrong. My readers in the workshop wanted to know that she was emotionally impacted by her son contracting the virus.


So later that year, in another much more intense workshop with a lot less sleep to go on I wrote a novelette that concerned itself with suicide and alien invasions and humans being much more inhuman to each other than the inhuman aliens landing here and I let it all in - the emotions, twisted and confusing and messy. And it met with the best of compliments from one of my instructors - looking for the place she could say I lost her and she put her editor line on the page and stopped reading, she never stopped. She read the entire story, which was the longest one of the 20 turned in (they all had to be over 10,000 words, and we had three days to write them).

The point of the story is, having been awakened, the emotions aren't leaving. They seem to be dragging truth along with them and the lot of them show up at inconvenient times. I was recently writing what I considered urban fluff. My own category. It was a silly little fantasy story, not meant to be long, not meant to be important in any way. It was just FUN.

And then, as I looked about for where the story was going, the emotions showed up, and truth, and they brought with them a theme, and they all set up camp. The story got longer, the writing got harder and one minute I was writing and the next I was out of the zone, wide awake and playing solitaire. Why?

Because I'd just tapped something from myself. I'd just tied into a theme from my own life and wrote my own emotions or at least some semblance of them, mixed up with truth. It was alarming and I shot out of my comfort zone and some time later when I described the story to another writer friend, she said, "That's FLUFF?" "Well, not anymore," I admitted.

So today I was supposed to have lunch with a friendly acquaintance I haven't seen in a long time. We set up the lunch weeks ago at her suggestion and I didn't email her yesterday to ask if we were still on, a habit I've been in for a very long time, just a short, quick, "Hi, we still on?" Didn't do that. Got to her office and she wasn't there. She wasn't anywhere. And because I've lately been stressed and tired and sick, I wasn't 100 percent sure I had my date right, or that I really was supposed to meet at her office (though I clearly remembered her saying "You can see my new office!" I was willing to doubt my own sanity). Plus I had never been to the restaurant she'd proposed we walk to from her office, and hadn't gotten the full name or the address. So unlikely I was supposed to go there.

Still, that niggling what have I done wrong feeling plagued me. And I wondered, as I called her cell and finally went home and emailed her, how do you write the other when it isn't? I was not particularly emotional about the event, and it wasn't an event to be particularly emotoinal about. Turned out to be a case of missed connections and her virtual calendar failing (and my not-so-virtual smugness that my paper calendar rarely crashes...) But had I missed a connection, had I showed up at the restaurant after calling her and determining that was whwere I was supposed to be, how do I write the embarrassment of that, writing an other that's actually a me? And how do I write what I haven't experienced?