Thursday, June 13, 2013

Good Writing Doesn't Flinch

Recently I was at a party and spent some time talking with and getting to know a firefighter. Given my early experience as a reporter, I'm comfortable asking probing questions of strangers.

Since this firefighter was female, I indulged my curiosity about the aspects of the job that require physical strength. She gave her height and weight: a couple of inches shorter than me, and only five pounds heavier, definitely not a thick chick. Yet she said she could deadlift 225 pounds, which just astounded me. (By contrast, I can probably deadlift forty pounds max, unless I have to lift a car off of a baby, in which case I would run like hell to find somebody with muscles.) (A deadlift is where the barbell starts on the ground, and you bend down and lift it with straight arms until your back is straight, which makes the bar end up around your knees. Lower it and you've completed one rep.)

The firefighter said that her strength strategy, to keep up with the guys, was to acknowledge that she couldn't lift as much as most male firefighters at one time, but she had trained so that she could repeat lifting heavy weights more times than most of the male firefighters. "So I can't lift as much, but I can repeat and endure as long or longer than they can, and a lot of the job is endurance, rather than explosive strength."

(OK, I didn't have a picture of a female firefighter. These guys work putting out flames in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Don't you love the Spanish word for them?: Bomberos!)
Then I asked the firefighter how she copes with the emotional vicissitudes of the job, thinking of the broken bodies she deals with, being that firefighters do a lot of EMT work as well.

Here is what she said: "We get there after it's over. We don't see the trauma occur, so we don't get that shock. We don't see the leg breaking, we don't see the stroke happening."

And I realized that that's a huge difference, one I never thought about. Certainly the job can be traumatizing, but it's not like I thought.

She went on, "And if somebody's dead, they're dead, and it's all over for them. Nothing's going on."

What about the survivors? I wondered how she deals with their grief and shock.

"We get in, we do our job, and we get out."

In other words, they don't stick around.

Because, really, the only way they can survive is to not become emotionally involved in the dramatic, often defining moments, of other people's lives.

What does this have to do with writing?

As writers, we must be like firefighters and we must not be like them.

We must be like them in that when the shit goes down, we have to jump in our truck and rush to it. But of course we must create the shit that goes down, and we must be different from firefighters. We must stick around.

We must be there for the tough stuff, we must be deeply involved in it, we must not gloss over trouble, agony, difficulty. We must be there deeply because we want our readers to be there deeply. So we have to show the leg breaking. The heart breaking. The bullet piercing the flesh, the fire licking the Picasso, the floodwater inching toward the nostrils. And we must show these things as vividly as possible, discomfort bedammed.

Of course, we as writers also get to indulge in the flip side: We get to be there for the ecstasy, and we must not only let our readers know it's happening, we must portray it as deeply as we portray the pain.

Sometimes this is even more a challenge than portraying suffering! Why is that? I think it's because suffering is drama, while joy is…well, joy is nice.

Which is why novels go like this: "Once upon a time, a dreadful thing happened. But they lived happily ever after." instead of like this: "Once upon a time they lived happily ever after."

Gotta have that drama, gotta have that suffering!

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  1. So true, Elizabeth. I don't write nearly as much volume as I would like to, but one of the things that I love (and hate!) about writing is working through the emotional fallout of the piece. I like to write about things that scare me, anger me and hurt me. Writing about it is like picking at a scab and making it bleed every day for three months. There are things that upset me so much I can't write about them yet (like child abuse).

    And yet, the writing acts as a salve once it's done. I have expressed how I feel about an issue (like religious intolerance, injustice, hunger, betrayal), felt the emotion, and grieved, but at the same time can look at it coldly and clinically to craft the expression in a way that makes sense in my world.

    I feel like it has developed the emotional muscles that allow me to conquer my fears in ways that I wasn't able to when I was face to face with them. It's like treating an injury after the trauma has occurred. I wasn't able to defend myself when it was happening, but the writing enabled me to rip it back open and dress the wound more efficiently, the way EMTs and ER doctors do.

    I do believe writing has enabled me to avoid becoming an emotional cripple, and for that I am truly grateful.

    Thank you so much for your post!

    1. Wow! Peter, I'm impressed with your insight and courage. I'd never thought about healing old trauma the way you just described: ripping open that dressing (or hey-cutting open the scar) and going in and doing the job of healing right. Which probably involves more pain, but pain that gets you to the other side.

      Thank you for looking in, and mega thanks for sharing your own hard-won wisdom. And best wishes as you continue your journey of healing and gaining strength.

  2. Hi, I’d just like to say thank you for writing “You’ve Got a Book In You”. I bought it some weeks ago – and I’m still in reading (and working) mode - and so far your book has been a great help and inspiration. So, thanks once again!

    1. I'm thrilled to hear from you, Carolisabella! Very glad you're finding the book worthwhile, and thank you for taking the time and trouble to stop in at this blog and tell me so. Write on, and keep me posted, OK?


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