Thursday, January 26, 2006

PH: Upon Closer Examination

My son is blessed with an art teacher who is quite crafty in her approach to freeing up the young creative mind. She asked my son to go out into the school yard and find an object, preferably something that would not matter to him. My son picked up a chunk of concrete and brought it back. She instructed him to then take his drawing stick of charcoal and tie it to a long stick. Then he had to draw the object—from the tip of that long stick. He had to draw it numerous times until he began to really see the object, see all of its imperfections, the way that light fell across it, and how it cast a shadow. He was energized by the exercise and told me, “I didn’t realize how much I could care about something until I had really seen it up close, appreciating it for the space it takes up and the shadows it casts.”

I am reminded through my boy’s art exercise that the story is not likely to come to me. Story is commenced when the writer reaches into life and draws back a chunk of it. Do you remember when you first started writing how you wanted to talk about your story to others, maybe your mother or pastor or anyone who would listen and encourage you? But as much as you talked about it, the story stayed locked away. Like the art that was hidden in my son’s chunk of concrete, story will be revealed when the writer pays it close examination. The story begins as a clump of an idea. In an earlier blog post, “The Art of Milling,” I discussed the dreaded expositional lump. This is the story locked away in summary form. It is not yet art but it is the substance of it. As I wonder how many students had walked past Jared’s chunk of concrete without knowing it as he had known it, I speculate about the chunks from life I’ve overlooked as meaningless.

I have to stop and ask myself about the tangible elements of a particular bit of my story’s information that bears explaining in specific detail. Then in long hand I’ll scribble down what intangible element is locked inside the details I’m revealing. Is it something that can be shown as a character’s internal thought? Is it an emotion that I’ve passed over that might reveal the character’s flaws or their unreliability as a narrator, or at least hint at it? These are the kinds of details that can reveal the character in a showing manner.

I’ve referred earlier on to sentiment being unearned emotion. We don’t want to tell our readers what they are supposed to feel, but rather to evoke emotion and stimulate thoughts. My son was amazed at how a lump of concrete evoked an emotion in him when he gave it closer examination. If someone had told him, “You’re about to look at a blob and feel awe,” he’d have written them off as one brick shy a load. But looking at the object from all sorts of angles, he was able to draw his own conclusions.

He discovered that as he would draw, redraw, and redraw that he began to care about an object from an artistic perspective because of up-close examination. As we examine the layers of exposition in our early drafts, life begins to unfold as we’ve seen but not necessarily known until now. Those kinds of secrets are not revealed in a scene summary or locked inside an expositional lump. It’s a lengthy process that takes patience. But as our character becomes known to us—through actions, dialogue, internals, their response to setting, external and internal forces, and through the eyes of the secondary characters—our emotions are tapped and we become involved in the story.
Patricia Hickman has been writing “stories that stay with you forever” for thirteen years. Latest release, Whisper Town. Earthly Vows, Summer 2006.


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