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Last week I posted James Cameron’s answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” Discussing Cameron’s ideas with the writer Bonnie Friedman – with whom I have an ongoing, percolating conversation about craft and creativity (as regular readers of this blog well know) –, I mentioned that I particularly liked his idea that “you have to take [your characters] on a journey – and then you have to make it excruciating somehow.”  Excruciating – such an intriguing word!  Bonnie agreed, as usual responding with nuance and subtlety to my own visceral reaction:

“It seems to me sheer genius to come at storytelling from this vantage point,” she said.  “So many of us begin from a thing in us that demands to be told and whose unleashed energy we hope will fuel us all the way along, rather than from this distant and perhaps more masterly height.  And that term ‘excruciating’ is somehow so validating.  Because one does find those sequences late in a film just torturously suspenseful.  So many romantic movies end with a chase scene, the main character running: The Graduate, Manhattan, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Up in the Air, Sleepless in Seattle, Casablanca, etc.

“It’s interesting to think about this in terms of novels.  Even in Great Expectations, a book that precedes the movies by half a century, there’s a grand, excruciating chase scene at the end.  When Pip finally discovers who his benefactor is, late in the story, he also discovers that it’s urgent he help his benefactor run for his life, with the grand escape via the river, the race to intercept a foreign ship — and that sinister mystery craft which shoots out of the gloom and pursues them.  The whole race and apprehension of the benefactor Magwitch has this very quality of the excruciating about it.

“It occurs to me that one effect of this is that the audience is left with fast-beating hearts and an upswing of energy, even as they are haunted by the final, grand, masterpiece-sized vision – and so instead of feeling exhausted by their long journey, they end up energized, and want to relive the thing or recommend it to their friends.”

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Last week Bonnie Friedman found out something big …

As soon as I finished writing my guest post for this blog last week about how “people don’t do such things,” I put the computer in “sleep” mode, stood up, and the answer to the question I was secretly asking washed through me.

Why couldn’t I really believe that people in the world do mean and otherwise outrageous things (things that, if I could believe in them, I could let my characters do, as well)?  Because my sister was mean and I couldn’t let myself know it. Voila! Also: not so earthshaking, since she’s my sister, not yours.  But here’s the part that likely does apply to you.  We all have blind spots — things that we can’t let ourselves know and yet which we write in order to find out.  And if we don’t believe what our pens reveal, we have to keep writing the same thing time and again until we do.

What does the blind spot feel like?  What does denial feel like?  It feels like a numbness.  It feels like the bloated anesthetized lip at the dentist’s.  It’s large, it’s tingly, there’s a temptation to bite it and bite it again until one’s mouth drips.  It feels like something is there, but you can’t say what.  It feels like being stupid — others can see what you can’t.  They even laugh at how obvious it is!  And as you become more acutely aware that you are in denial, it feels like needing others for a verdict on your own experience, as if you have to steer your car by looking in a series of tilted mirrors rather than by looking straight ahead at the truth.  There’s something there, you need to know it, but when you look it’s subsumed in fog.

Which is why many of us write.  We want to get at that thing suffused in fog.

Why couldn’t I know that my sister was mean?

Because I loved her, and she was suffering.  She was a bossy, dear, acne-stricken, wounded girl who shared my bedroom and who frightened me.  I thought she was right that my existence was an imposition on her.  She’d been alive six years before I was born, and that proved in both our minds that I was an inconvenience she should not have to put up with.  I cringed, I obliged, I believed I was a doltish, messy thing — as if I lived inside a gooey, disgusting jellyfish or as if the jellyfish was all over me. I was forever pressing my eyeglasses against my face, trying to see better through that jelly haze.  I believed what my sister said. She was a clever, shrewd, unobliging sort, quick to point out others flaws.  I’d gawp, astonished at what she’d illuminated.  And I felt sorry for her, because her suffering was obvious.  And if she were alive today I certainly wouldn’t be writing this.  She passed away four years ago, freeing me to articulate and understand what before I’d had to keep concealed in the slam book of my heart, where I inscribed, under my observations about her, my own verdict on myself: wrong, impulsive, prone to distortion.

Even now it seems unkind and exaggerated to call her mean.  Surely she was merely outspoken. Surely she’d only spoken rashly from time to time.  The old denial wants to subsume me.

I could not see mean people in the world because I could not see a mean person in my bedroom.  And so my writing was hampered by a certain obligingness, a certain vacillating wateriness, a certain wishy-washy tepidity.  And it was only when I started admitting that certain people are bold and spiky and mean, or at least do mean things, and that I can trust my own perceptions, that my own world and writing acquired a greater clarity.

What would you see if you trusted your own vision? I ask myself.  What preposterous things would you know are true?   You are the person riding alongside the blind-spot girl.   You are the tilted mirror she needs.   Oh, believe the truth, believe it, I urge her.  Because in her other ear is the old whispering voice, still suggesting: You’re wrong.  You’re bad.  You don’t know what reality is.  Surely the truth isn’t as stark as all that.

This is the third in a series of three essays – including “The Novel Terminable and Interminable” and the above-linked “People Don’t Do Such Things” – that Bonnie Friedman has written for this blog this month.  Her book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, is a modern-day classic, and has been in print since it was first published in 1993.

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The writer Bonnie Friedman considers what it means to create ‘realistic’ fictional characters:

“People don’t do such things!” is the last line of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — words cried out by the scandalized judge after Hedda has shot herself off-stage.  His words echo in our ears as the curtain rings down and as the actors gradually emerge to take their bows, and as we shuffle out onto the street and back into our lives.

People don’t do such things! Well, if the blowhard who exclaims these words had actually believed it possible that the stymied Hedda might do what she threatens, maddened by the asphyxiating, conformity-bound society in which she lived . . . all might have ended differently.

Do people do such things? I’ve often wondered, reading about heroically outspoken or shockingly rude or tin-eared or laughably selfish or otherwise outrageous people in fiction. Yes, they’re great for the story, but do people in real life actually do such things?  I’ve often wondered about this because I wanted to write characters who confronted one another, who weren’t as nice as I was, who weren’t as cowed by convention, who had an edge, had bite – and yet it was hard for me to actually perceive such people in my life.  And I couldn’t write them if I didn’t believe in them.  I wanted to write realistic fiction.  Why couldn’t I perceive such people if they did exist?

One thing I’ve found about writing is that if you ask a question, the answers appear.  The main thing is to formulate the question.  Life starts supplying the answers.

In this case, I immediately heard a doctor say to a nurse, “You dress like a clown.  Don’t come to work dressed like that!”  I grabbed my notebook and scrawled his words.  I was sitting in a clinic in Iowa City.  I don’t recall what was wrong with me.  But I do recall thinking: “Oh, my gosh!  People actually do say such things.”  How could that doctor be so mean? How could he be so ridiculing?  What did he mean, “dress like a clown”?  Surely the nurse didn’t have a red rubber nose on (although in fact I pictured that she did).  Both were down the hall and my door was open.  A moment later the doctor appeared to treat me; he was a brusque, starchy person with a peremptory manner.  All these years – twenty years – later, I recall him.

And just yesterday I wrote in my notebook something else I wanted to remember because it, too, was so strange that my sense of reality wanted to subsume it, to deny it.  A man and his date slid into seats my husband and I were about to sit down in.  “Why don’t you see if you can move somebody else over?” said the man when I protested. Rather than argue, my husband and I raced to find other available seats, which were vanishing fast.  “What exactly were his words?” I asked my husband a moment later, and I wrote them.  This man was a handsome-ish man who’d stood near us in line, and had given away the whole end of “Up in the Air.”  Fortunately he’d said loudly, before doing this: “Did you expect that ending?” and I’d flung my fingers into my ears.   But the man talked on and on about the ending, while I pressed my fingers hard in my ears and hummed.  Now I thought: sociopathic people do exist!  And they are sometimes handsome, and obdurately oblivious or purposely uncaring of others, and they are real, and sometimes even steal your seat.

Such people exist in my blind spot.  As do many other people so rude or infuriating I automatically tell myself I misperceived.  So now I make an effort to notice when I stumble across them or they stumble across me, and when I find them occupying my seat.  One of the uses of writing, it seems to me, is to broaden our perspective, to wake us up, to end our innocence.  And one aspect of this, for me, is to behold what a fabulous world we live in, with the most stupendous people living here with us, and grand stories springing up all around.  How dull to be confined only to what we expect! I want to keep finding out what lives in my blind spot, what I tell myself can’t be true, isn’t real.  How tired I am of my own limited vision!  How eager I am to allow myself to see the unacknowledged aspects of my reality, and, alas, of my own quite flawed, loud, offensive, mistaken self.

I make it a practice now to record the unexpected, what makes me want to gawp and say, “People don’t do such things!” Contemplate the indigestible, the it-can’t-be-so, the but-people-don’t-do-such-things, I tell myself.  Because I don’t want to be that conventional judge crying his verdict in amazement at the last instant.   It benefits my writing to allow such characters in, and it benefits, as well, my vision of reality.

This is the second in a series of three essays Bonnie Friedman is writing for this blog this month.  The first was “The Novel Terminable and Interminable.”

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Bonnie Friedman writes about the lure of (and cure for) the endless novel:

I just finished my first novel.  This isn’t the first novel I tried to write.  Before publishing a book of essays and then a memoir, I’d been a devoted fiction writer.  I’d written hundreds of pages of two vast novels, one when I was in my twenties and one in my thirties.  But this last one is the first novel I’ve finished.  Those other novels were a great pleasure and torment to work on — I got to explore internal states that haunted me, and I got to wander amongst skeins of gossamer prose sticky as butterfly wings, and I got to understand (among other things) aspects of my childhood with my sister, who had been a grand volcanic, wounded girl.  But I didn’t know how to finish either of the books I started.

They were all middle and no end.  They were all sprawling, surging second act.

I didn’t know that I was allowed to figure out where my characters ought to end up, and then explore how they might get there. I didn’t know how conscious I was allowed to be during the writing process.  I didn’t know that if I focused on one particular problem that a character was trying to solve, myriad others would snap into clarity.

I’d grown up reading experimental writers — Woolf, Stein, Barnes, Joyce — and really didn’t understand the least thing about novel structure. For me, reading a novel was a state of immersion.  I read slowly, savoring the serif type and the glow of the linen page (I’m thinking of a certain paperback of Mrs. Dalloway that I was given for my 21st birthday, and which I read munching Mint Milanos and sipping sweet instant coffee from a tin).  “How true!” I’d write in the margins with a coal-soft pencil.  I’d assumed that to write a book one must simply get immersed.  And I liked immersion.  It was less scary than decision.  “Discover, discover!” I told myself — the mantra of writing schools in those days.

I wrote in order to set on the page certain internal states.  I wanted to see what they meant.  I didn’t yet know how useful it is to give one’s traits to a character who is a bolder version of oneself.  I didn’t yet know that a novel must involve a character who changes by the end. At a certain point I recognized with this last novel that it too might go on forever accumulating pages and becoming less and less publishable if I didn’t impose a bit of discipline on myself.

I bought screenplay writing books, playwriting books, and even a novel-writing book or two — those dreaded texts I was convinced would flatten all my originality, what there was of it, to mere formula.  And all proved useful.  I hadn’t understood that the effect that a novel creates isn’t the same as the technique used to create that book.  Nor had I understood how entirely I merely loved the dream-state of adding to my novel.

Now what’s thrilling is pacing through other people’s novels and seeing how they’re hinged and braced.  Noticing the decision points.  And allowing my own characters to make decisions.

Gone — I hope — is some of that sticky enthrallment that kept me caged in mammoth manuscripts for so long.  Each writing temperament, I’m convinced, has its own perils.  The peril of mine was to remain for epochs in a prolonged inchoate state of mazy inconclusiveness.  The heroine of my novel altered, as did I by writing her.  Now I see a book as a device to discover more than one could have known beforehand.  And that acquiring technique is essential.  It is the artifice that, like eyeglasses, lets the world become clearer.  I’m all for it now, when once upon a time it was anathema to me.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of the Village Voice bestseller Writing Past Dark, Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, a widely anthologized book of essays.  She is also the author of the memoir The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy.  Her essays have been included in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, and the Best of O., the Oprah Magazine.

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