Sometimes I have the thought, “I have lost my way.” It always alarms me. It suggests that at some point in my life I must have had a WAY so perfect that if I had only continued to follow it without straying, it would have led to eternal bliss, infinite wisdom, or enlightenment.
At times I may have the thought when it is not really called for, when I am only having a bad day. But there have been times in my life when I really did lose my way, times when I moved away from who I really was and toward some alien substitute which left me desperately unfulfilled and confused.
The first time I lost my way, I was a chronically confused nine-year-old who had been repeatedly teased for being shy.
My short story “The Age of Erring” would not behave.
I had ordered it to be a short story, but it tried to become a novel. I wrote at least 50 pages with no end in sight until I realized that the story was mushrooming out of my control. To contain the explosion, I reduced it to about ten pages. In the end I was happy with it, but it took me so long to write that it delayed publication of my new story collection by almost two months.
The collection, which I released last week, is The Age of Erring and Other Tales.
I used to write my novels defensively. I was terrified of there being any page where the reader might possibly be confused at any moment, so I would try to cram in as many explanations in as short of a space as possible: my terminology, the history of my world, cultural idiosyncrasies, and geography, for starters.
I wanted to show readers I had done my homework, that I had created a sensible world, that I had fortified it on every side with unassailable logic. As a result I felt less like a fiction writer than a graduate student defending a doctoral thesis.
I forgot that I was not on trial, and that my primary goal was to make readers feel. Information does not need to be rushed, and information not directly related to the story can be omitted altogether.
A famous quote of advice by author Stephen King is “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little heart, kill your darlings.”
In other words, cut passages of writing, even the ones you love, if cutting them benefits the story as a whole. Cutting superfluous text can help writers achieve a leaner, more focused, and more interesting narrative.
When I first read “kill your darlings,” I did not like the advice, not at all. I was fine with cutting passages I considered truly abominable, but parting with passages I loved and had worked hard on felt like cutting off my arm. If a passage worked on any level, I was reluctant to let it go.
When I first began writing fiction, my characters tended to be too passive. Horrible things happened to them, but they never knew exactly what to do. When they did react, they reacted too little.
A student in my college creative writing class had the same problem. His story began with a father losing his toddler son to a senseless murder. The next scene skipped forward a couple of years without ever showing how the father reacted emotionally to this harrowing event. The father, adrift, focused on other things. The father only occasionally thought back vaguely to the “bad years,” with parsimonious allusions to the shattering event that must have transformed his life.
To say that the author wasted an opportunity is an understatement. When characters suffer emotionally, readers sympathize, and sympathy builds an emotional bond between characters and readers.
A common complaint about novels is “too many descriptions.” As a reader I have made the same complaint in cases where I was eager to see what happened next in a story, only to end up entangled in a painfully detailed description of some bucolic farm setting.
Question: Please, tell me, does the baby whose stroller is teetering on the edge of a three mile high precipice live?
Answer: Shh, not now. Here. Look at this grassy field. It has a cow. And grass. Did I mention the grass was green? Emerald green!
Before social media, whenever I would get home from school, I would be all done with socializing for the day. The world was outside my door and all I had to do was lock it for my privacy to be secured – not just physically but mentally. Indoors there was a feeling of safety and comfort. The world was out. I was in. I could relax completely.
In contrast, social media makes me feel that outsiders are with me at all times, even after I lock my door. I essentially am carrying legions of pixelated people around with me on my smart phone – which stays with me all day. When the people who “live inside” my phone talk to me, my phone chirps an audible alert. Someone is talking to you. This is a very big deal. Respond, respond and do it now or…or…
Or what? Or I will be thought rude? Or a mega-ton asteroid will shatter the moon into billions of fragments which will pound, pummel, and obliterate the Earth into space confetti?
The problem was, I could never say no, not to anyone. I even struggled with saying no to my cat.
My life reflected my assertiveness deficiency. At age 26 I was deep in debt from lending money to desperate friends. My schedule was cluttered with activities I dreaded. As a result, I was having trouble sleeping at night and seeing a therapist I could not afford. My life was going to hell.
However, one night something changed me. Tired of tossing in a pool of sweaty tangled sheets, I extricated myself, got up, gathered my plush pink bathrobe from my closet, and crept into the living room where the fireplace was crackling. I had found that watching a fire could make me sleepy.
Sometimes when I do something embarrassing I have a powerful impulse to withdraw into the shadows and disappear. Sometimes I withdraw to a place of imagined safety until I remember that safety can be a death trap far more dangerous than exposure, criticism or ridicule.
Specifically I remember “Field Day” in the sixth grade. Some context: The sixth grade was the year I was bullied. The girl who led to bullying was wildly popular and conscripted her friends in her school-wide campaign of abuse.
During that year it seemed I could do nothing right. Everything I did was ridiculed; the way I talked and walked, the clothes I wore, and my shyness; when I did speak anything I said became fodder for group mockery. My bully and her cohorts would ask me questions just so that they could make fun of my answers, even if my only answer was only “hi.” I literally became afraid to exist.