Using Pain Sauce in Novels

90600956“Wondering how many powerful and heartbreaking novels would not have been written if there were no dysfunctional families.” Kris

The above was the Facebook ‘status’ of a dear friend (in real life and Facebook.) An artist of many genres, she’s one of the very best and constant readers I know. I do believe Kris could have a library operating just for her.

So, I’ve been thinking about what she wrote. Do writers of dreadful happenings all came from dysfunctional families? I wrote a book that begins with two sisters who witness their father murder their mother and goes on to explore the myriad ways this event shapes their lives. Did my father kill my mother?

No. But he tried to and my sister and I were there. My sister let him in (after being told ‘don’t open the door for your father’) and somewhere in the background I stood, a silent four-year-old. Did that shape my work? Oh, I am quite certain it did. Even though it is only my first chapter that holds any real family DNA, the ongoing emotional tenor and the themes are all ripples from my past: invisibility, abandonment, neglect—there is much that was drawn on.

How does this happen, this subtle weaving of truth and imagination? Does it always happen? One wouldn’t know without x-raying each writer’s past, but it’s a question I wonder about when reading a great book. What was that writer tapping into when they brought such depth to the page? Can a wrenching book be written without the writer taking a visit to their soul? In what ways do writers transmogrify facts into fiction?

For me, it’s not the individual events of my past that matter. I don’t want splay my family or me on the page, but I am certain I steal subject matter from the family tree and then, of course, blow things way out of proportion. A nasty-tempered uncle becomes the wicked aunt who abandons her nieces, just as one’s once-straying boyfriend becomes a larger-than-life monster of an adulterer.

Perhaps it isn’t that every writer of seething emotion needs to have experienced a war of family emotions, but that they need to be willing to access and admit (to themselves) the darkest parts of their lives. Then they must make it into a ‘what if’ intense enough to grip the heart. And then spill it back out for readers.

For me, it was only when life became calm that I could walk back into the storm. For others, I think it’s writing it down that makes them calm.

And the reader in me? She needs a hefty dose of other people’s words to get through the day and the best words are the ones that marinated in a whole bunch of pain sauce and then simmered down to the wisdom and excitement that makes me turn the pages.

And that’s a recipe for Word Love.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 31, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Nice post, Randy.

    This has me wondering about how pain shapes everyone, not only
    writers. Most people have some pain sauce in their cabinets, but
    how that translates into their emotional lives and interactions with
    others is what makes them spicy, or not, so to speak.

  2. Tammy Shropshire
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    I like this post, and what is explores. I write short stories, and I’ve found that sometimes the most difficult times in life give me the most creative fodder. Conversely, there have been times when the pain was so great, I could barely write in my journal, and time had to pass before I could go back to those times.

    I do agree that to write compelling work, an author must be willing to “access the dark parts” of their lives, own it, and then play around with how that can translate to a situation in their work. The emotions from those dark parts are what make the characters’ emotions ring so true.

    Great post!

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