Monday, May 31, 2010

Seven Days of Joy

The first story in my collection of stories is about a sixties housewife who loses her mind and chases a swarm of bees through a cornfield. In another story, a twelve-year-old boy--a misfit among middle-class middle-schoolers--is hit by a bus. A pregnant teenager is abandoned along the highway in a snowstorm. A tender young mother is electrocuted in her own basement.

Just after the book's publication, I was interviewed by a newspaper guy who observed, "You seem like a cheerful person in real life, but your stories are so dark." Though this wasn't really a question, it seemed like something I needed to respond to. I was at a loss. I'd never thought about it in those terms. I didn't think my work was particularly dark, though, of course it was, it is. And I have never considered myself to be all that cheerful. I mean, there are things I enjoy, things I get excited about--such as a person who has read my book and now wants to ask me questions about it. Even kind of dumb questions like, what gives? Why do you--such an ordinary-mommyish-teacherly sort of person--write such morbid stuff?

I'll take a stab at explaining myself here. When I first started writing fiction, I believed everything profound and interesting and artistic and true had to be full of despair and angst. I couldn't muster up an ounce of joy that didn't feel contrived. I think maybe I've seen too many very special episodes of Little House on a Prairie and, worse: Full House. I want grit, edginess: I want beauty in sadness. I want the stark, perfect ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I want that moment at the end of War of the Roses where Kathleen Turner's character uses her last bit of strength to push her husband's hand off her shoulder.

But now, I'm starting in on a new draft of a novel I've written about a dying factory town's last hurrah. Not the most heartening subject, but I do mean to include a bit of hope in the story, and now my editor is very wisely calling for a little more joy. This is not the biggest change she's asking for, but it might be the hardest for me to carry out. I've grown up enough now--as a person, as a writer--to see that my inability to make a happy moment feel complete and organic is a failing as a writer. It's a matter of deepening the emotional tenor. And, I think it will serve the book well: weaving in few instances of carefully crafted happiness will (hopefully) make the story more authentic, not less.

I'm up for this task. I can buckle down and get happy. I want to chronicle it here, in my comfy little blog. I will begin like I begin any huge writing task: I will look to Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard. Richard Yates. Elizabeth Strout. I will even call on Cormac McCarthy, who wrote my very favorite desperately bleak novel.

I will begin tomorrow. Seven days of joy for the first week of June. Watch for it here. And, please, please, do for me that thing every writer needs from time to time--cheer me on. Console me and inspire me with times you've seen it done--joy as a believable, non-hokey emotion in film, literature, or real life. Show me such a thing is possible.


jessica handler said...

Sometimes I think that phrase " very special episode" has ruined the confidence of a certain generation of writers. It's given us some odd kind of anxiety of influence. I feel like the novel I'm working on, in its worst moments (or mine) has unintended characteristics of "Laura Ingalls goes to hell." ( A very special episode.)

Dark is good. It's our yetzer ha ra (in Hebrew, bad spelling) our yin/yang, the conflict in ourselves. We can't be all good, otherwise where's the character conflict?

Susannah said..., my...what timely relief I've found here. After reading your boldly encouraging response to my comment in your last post, I found myself thinking yesterday, "Okay, so maybe it's just a dark story. Maybe, just b/c it has a touch of family-of-origin-biography in it, doesn't mean that I have to sweeten it up just to make it palatable...Your other stuff - you know, the stuff you've never finished, haven't even looked at in a while - well that's fairly much on the dark side too. And from such a 'happy Christian' person...what will they say? What will they do?"

And then I come here, my dear Susan...You are writing to my heart - 2nd time now - with precision.

So how's this for encouragement...Thank you for what you're doing with your life's art - God is using it to speak directly to me about where He's leading me with this 'art'; authentic (one can hope) in all its shades & hues of darkness & light.

Press on, dear Mrs. Woodring! and thank you!

Susan Woodring said...

Jessica, I think you're so right about how our generation has been influenced by television: nobody wants their book to sound like an afterschool special, though I have to admit, I think I'd really love to read about Laura Ingalls going to hell.

Dark is good: absolutely. You know, when I started going through some of my favorite books, looking for tiny moments of joy, what I found is exactly what you're talking about: yin/yang, dark/light. It's about the texture we give our fiction when we add a little contrast. I remember a writer one time saying that the most interesting, complex scenes in fiction are those where there's more than one emotion at work. I'm more conscious of these kinds of contrast in the second draft, when I go back through and try to think about what subtler, under-the-surface feelings/motivations might be at work here

Susan Woodring said...

Susannah, I'm so glad you're benefitting from my blabbering on! One thing I've learned about this is: you write what you right. And, I think that you have to be really, really, really free in that first draft. If it's dark stuff, let it be. Don't sweeten.
Trust your instinct. Trust the process. (Btw, today, I could use a little of my own advice. Sigh.)

Susannah said...

Okay, so I decided not to 'sweeten' it. I took your advice & read something with the 'tone' of what I'm writing - a notion of my brothers. I went back & actually read a post I'd written about those raucous boys several months back. It was then, this morning, as soon as I read my own words that it came to me...what this story is about. Its essence leapt to me from gut? my subconscious? from God (yes, of course)? out of thin air?...but it came to me, like fluid magic. And now I know what I'm writing about, and why. And now I know why my response has been 'just a little too much.' And it's all fitting - in my mind anyway. How glorious, this process!

Now, let's see if at least a slice of it translates...

sherylmonks said...

Susan, you continually impress me, not just with your writing prowess which is remarkable and growing moment by moment, but with your willingness to reassess where you are as a writer, to never settle with where you are, to recognize new challenges and to face them squarely with cool resolve. It's not really a matter of lightness or darkness--we can write whatever we want. What you're really getting at here, I think, is dexterity, which is something we must all strive for. I tend to have a hardened stance toward my dark writing. I like it and don't want to change it--although I often worry about venturing into melodrama and realize I do need more contrast. Thank you for making me see that there's a whole range of muscles I need to develop if I want to grow in a healthy way as a writer.