Monday, June 3, 2013

Dig Deep

It's June 3, and before we get to my post, how about a trivia game? There's a song from the 60s that makes reference to today's date. (It also happens to be my nephew's birthday, so happy birthday, Johnny!). If you can think of which song it is, well, you're probably not a Gen-Xer. But if you know the answer and are the first to post it, we'll send you a copy of our fun and whimsical Novel Tips on Rice recipe book. If someone does come up with the answer, I'd like to have further conversation about the song ...

I recently answered some interview questions for a blog I'll be a guest on in July, highlighting Unraveled. One of the questions was what my top three pieces of advice to writers would be. One of my points is for writers to dig deep to make their writing as authentic as they can, so that it might have the biggest impact possible for the reader.I know I've said it several times on this blog so forgive my redundance, but it's my opinion that the first job of fiction is to entertain. That said, I don't have the time or the desire to read what I term "fluff" fiction, or fiction that doesn't deliver something of substance. By fluff, I mean cotton candy, which has absolutely no substance. It's sickly sweet, dissolves with hardly any satisfaction, and typically upsets the stomach. If I'm going to give up precious hours of sleep time, because that's when I read for pleasure, and invest time in a novel, I want it to strike a chord in me, to cause me to reflect on something relative in my own life.

My next novel, The Color of Sorrow Isn't Blue, due out July 1, is the story of a woman's emotional response to losing a child. In writing this story I drew from my own experience in losing my son seven years ago, and believe me, the well of emotion continues to be deep and raw. But that doesn't mean I believe our novels should be thinly veiled autobiographies. I don't. At all. There's no rule against it, it's just my preference as a writer and a reader. (There are those who write memoirs in novel form, and that's a whole different subject.) To that end, this woman's story is not my story. She responds in a way completely different to how I responded. She doesn't lose her daughter in the same sense that I lost my son -- but loss is loss, gone is gone. And I drew on my experience and emotions like never before. Trust me when I say this was a painful story to write, and there were many days I didn't want to go anywhere near it. That was often hard to overcome. But was it worth it? I certainly hope so. One thing I can say unequivocally is that this is my best writing yet.

When it comes to your own emotional well, do you draw freely or would you rather stay as far away as you can from it? How does that decision affect your writing and the stories you tell?


Megan Sayer said...

First of all Sharon I'm a Gen-X-er, and a late one. I have no idea what song you mean :)

However, on the subject of drawing deep from the emotional well, yes, that's something I know about.
I've written (or attempted to write) three novels so far. The first one I was only fifteen, and is (mercifully) lost. The second, began when I was 23, I didn't finish. This is because, after pages and pages of beautiful symbolism and emotional excavation I realised it was, in fact, quite boring. Actually, the thing that really made me not want to finish it was the revelation that the most interesting thing in the story was...THAT. Then, some ten years later I started a third book, one I strongly felt the Lord calling me to write. I felt it had a lot of promise, and after two completed drafts I'd got a good sense of the story's shape and direction. In the beginning stages of draft three, however, something changed. All of a sudden I found the key to going much deeper than any story I'd ever written before, and it was good. BUT...I also realised that to write this book the way it wanted--needed--to be written, I needed to write about THAT.
I had a choice. I knew that. Unfortunately for me the choice was either abandon the project completely, or push through the mire of THAT and get to the other side. I chose to push through. Hardest. Thing. I. Had. Ever. Done. Turned me inside out. Ripped me to pieces. Took miracles to put me back together.
Now THAT is only one little thread of the final story, and certainly not the biggest one. Writing that makes me picture a tapestry, with a single human vein threaded through it with all the coloured cottons. I guess that's what it is.
I'm glad I did it, both for the effect that it had on me personally (I say that now, with the benefit of hindsight), and for the depth it allowed me to mine for the story. I understand what you say about some days you didn't want to go anywhere near the story. I was the opposite: desperate to get it finished to not have an open wound there on my computer every day. But, like you, I'd say it was my best writing yet.

I'm very much looking forward to reading your latest novel. One month to go? Yay!!

slfrykholm said...

It was the third of June, another sleepy dusty delta daaaay--Ode to Billie Joe

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I'm nearing the end of writing my second novel. This one was conceived in the room where my husband's grandma lay dying. Something inside said, "Remember all of this. All of this, every moment, is important."

I held her head as she died, talking her through it.

Writing this novel has dug so deep into me. I'm really grateful for the comic relief I've written in...otherwise I would be ruined by this writing. Oh. And. Nobody would read it otherwise.

Cherry Odelberg said...

"This is my best writing yet." - May we all affirm that, no matter what we are working on or have just finished.

When I draw freely from the well - and yes, my fiction WsIP always draw deep on the autobiographical well - there are two challenges:
1) So many rewrites to make sure I have not said too much, too little, or written with an anger / vengeful agenda
2) I have trouble writing the fiction - making up parts- because the inner me keeps saying, "that's not the way it happened," Or, "How do you know that is believable and realistic when that is not exactly how it happened?"

Cherry Odelberg said...

Can we talk about the song, please? What was it? What was it they threw off the bridge?

Sharon K. Souza said...

slfrykholm: Woohoo! Yes, it was The Ode to Billie Joe. (Okay, fess up. Did you know? Or did you Google?) For those who've never heard the song -- ahem, namely our young Aussie friends -- here's a link to Bobbie Gentry singing the song she wrote.

Megan, I'm glad you pushed through. But so glad for God's grace in your life.

Susie, what a touching experience. I look forward to reading your next novel.

Cherry: How do you deal with that inner voice as you write? In your tug-o-war, which side usually wins?

And, yes! let's talk about the song. 46 years later and we're all still wondering WHAT DID THEY THROW OFF THE BRIDGE??? Bobbie Gentry owes us an explanation by now. Don't you think? Does anyone have any reasonable idea? In reading up on the song, Bobbie Gentry said she wanted to show the disconnect between this family's everyday life in conection to the tragedy about Bille Joe. Still doesn't answer the question though. But every third of June ... that song is about the first thing I think of.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Oh, slfrykholm: use our Contacts page to email us your address. I'll get your Novel Tips on Rice in the mail! Hope you enjoy it.

Cherry Odelberg said...

I have only ever entertained two ideas about what they were throwing off the bridge.
1) An engagement ring (OBviously, the family does not think as much of Billy Joe as the singer does). I thought this when I was young and romantic and had never heard the term abortion...
2) Their baby.

Whatever it was they threw off the bridge broke Billy Joe's heart and drove him to suicide.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Cherry, wow, that would be sad. That idea had never occurred to me. I wonder the variety of ideas that have crossed listeners minds over the years. Any other thoughts out there?

Cherry Odelberg said...

Re: the inner voice when digging deep into the autobiographical well.

Nowadays, I tend to write a bit obscurely; to write in parable instead of plain language. Maybe I need the reminder to dig deep into the well. But, poetry is often obscure - and often profoundly moving just the same (Ode to Billy Joe is a great example).

Let me tell you a story about another song. The title was "Empty Arms," it was a quarter finalist at Christian Artist's Seminar of the Rockies in the early 80s. I wrote it out of my pain at losing an 11-year marriage. Yes, I knew, profoundly, the pain of empty arms. But the lyrics inferred loss of a baby - and soothed by reminding that God truly understands what it is to lose a child.
One of the reasons given for not moving the song entry on to the semi-finals was that it was too personal - not general enough. In critique groups the panelists trod delicately. Then, when they found that I myself had not lost a baby, they were indignant, "If you are writing this about someone else, write in third person, not first!"

In my opinion, loss of a person of any age is loss of a person; loss of future, loss of dreams; death of hope (for a season).

I had not thought of this song in nearly 30 years. The best end of the story is that a couple of cassettes of the song were passed on to some unwillingly childless young couples - friends of friends who found a measure of comfort in the music and words.

Megan Sayer said...

Cherry I'm ASTOUNDED that any group of critiquers would say that about any song! One of our absolute family favourite albums is Paul Simon's "Graceland", which is completely filled with obscure and/or personal lyrics. We sing along, all of us--even my little kids--with gusto. Another all-time favourite songwriter is Paul Kelly, who you may not have heard of. His song "Everything's Turning to White" is written in the first-person from a woman's perspective. Brilliant, brilliant song.
I wish I could go sing those songs to the judges in that competition and see what they say about that...