Today I want to indulge in craft, that mental space where we absorb new strategies and techniques for bettering our art. We can dream of hitting just the right note, transporting our readers.
In Dakota Blues, I wrote of a scene where, after a funeral in a Midwestern town, the guests assembled at a small clapboard house for the wake. Toward the end of the afternoon, after the potato salad and Jell-o and fleischküchle had been consumed, several women stood hip-to-hip at the kitchen sink, washing, rinsing, drying. As they worked, they laughed and gossiped. The camaraderie of that scene, the sisterliness of these women, reached my readers. I got a lot of nice comments about that.
As golfers say, even a blind squirrel will eventually find a nut.
Recently, I came under the tutelage of a superb, if entirely fictional, writing professor. Harry Hodgett exists only in the short story, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events,” by Kevin Moffett. Here are some of Hodgett’s tips:
- Never dramatize a dream. (Hodgett uses “dramatize” as in, “don’t make it into a scene or story.”)
- Never dramatize phone conversations. It’s too easy for them to hang up.
- Never write about writing (because, I think, we writers are the only ones who believe the process–indeed, the life–is so fascinating that everyone would want to read about it. In fact, the only people who do are other writers.)
- Never dramatize a funeral or a trip to the cemetery. (I’m guilty of both). They are too melodramatic, and too obvious.
- Imagine a time for your characters when things might have turned out differently. Find the moment a choice was made that made all other choices impossible. Write it.
- Never end your story with a character realizing something. Characters shouldn’t realize things; readers should.
I’m intrigued by #5. So much of writing is like a very cerebral puzzle. How can we tell our story within the constraints of X, Y, and Z? That challenges me.
Here’s something else: in this article “Sacred Carnality” by Mary Karr, the writer is exhorted to find the one sensory detail that will “be the key that unlocks the full internal psychic cinematic experience” for the reader.
For example, my first husband, a 19-year-old American native son, told me of sleeping in a rice paddy and waking up with leeches attached to his body. Leeches? In what universe is that normal? It’s appalling. It gets our attention. We can’t forget it. We’re horrified for him.
Have you ever thought about how much like a puzzle is the art of writing? What in particular intrigues you about the craft?