Emotion is the Lifeblood of Fiction

At the end of the movie Romeo and Juliet I cried like a river. Also at the very end of The Professional when Mathilda plants the plant that symbolizes the pure, childlike love of Mathilda(12-year-old Natalie Portman’s first movie) for Leon (Jean Reno ) in this dirty old world, I fall on my knees gushing with tears when she says, “I think we’ll be all right, now.”

Because I have this big heart that can love, be loved, and be hurt by love, I have the baseline blood for writing fiction. When I started out as a writer, I was told “open a vein” by Lawrence Block or some huge writer like that. I think that’s what he meant: You have the big heart you have to let it bleed on paper.

If you’re a rather even-tempered person who never fell in love, never was smashed nearly to madness by love, or if you never get too excited by anything, never hated anyone or anything, seldom blow your cork or feel the tremendous need to vent–I wonder what you’ll write about.

Fiction, yes it’s about stuff happening. But then it’s primarily about what the emotional response is to the happening. The blood must flow from the start and from the heart.

So if you’re a person with tremendous feelings, that qualifies you for fiction writing. You have the right blood. But can you put the blood, the emotions, on paper?

May the writing gods help you, help us all, that is the challenge of the job, the privilege, the glory.

Bless My Writing Block

When I was writing The Black Butterfly Woman in 2010 I sent a few pages around to various agents. And one, Jim Donovan, liked it very much and compared the directness of my prose to Thom Jones (The Pugilist at Rest), a very nice compliment indeed. He liked my story about a young soldier in Vietnam driven to volunteering for the most dangerous assignments. But (he said) the story seemed to end abruptly and he didn’t think he could sell it. Was there more? I immediately sat down to writing the second half of The Black Butterfly Woman, working very hard, and failing very miserably. Why?

I wrote a horribly contrived second half that, as Jim Donovan honestly told me, didn’t seem written by the same writer. I thought I had written well and was so devastated I went immediately into coal black writer’s block, a very dark place for most writers. It’s like finding out you no longer are able to make love.

Then, four months later I wrote an unexpected and, for me at least, deeply moving second half to my book. The story seemed as a gift from the sky. What happened?

Most writers don’t have a degree in psychology (like me), but many writers having a working relationship with their subconscious mind (a.k.a. the Muse, Inspiration, the Bright Angel) know that writing is not a purely conscious activity. Much good writing comes from a semi-conscious, dreamy fugue-state of altered awareness that resists description, much like trying to define God. Beautiful writing is divine, unexplainable, undefinable activity. That being said, here’s what happened to me.

After a really good agent from the real world of professional writing gave me wonderful encouragement to go forward, I began writing out of the limited resources of my conscious mind. The expression “half-baked” comes to mind. I was producing gummy dough instead of prose. I was trying to write-on-demand, which for me is like trying to be funny on command. And when I was told by a professional I was creating underdeveloped work, I collapsed because I had worked very hard to create that worthless gum. I became blocked.

Here is what I believe about the dreaded writer’s block. It is the refusal of the conscious mind to go forward with writing work without the help of the subconscious mind. Or, it could be the subconscious mind just shuts off the chattering conscious mind, just completely shuts it down. The command is: “Shut up”. And the writing stops. Just like shut valve.

My belief is writer’s block is good, a necessary thing, a blessing. Just as your stomach needs time for digestion, so the creative mind needs time for unconscious digestion. It is not thinking or willing. It is Zen. It is secret, unbidden, and beyond (or perhaps beneath) your control.

I get writing block once in a while. I no longer dread it. I’m not afraid of it. I accept writing block as a natural part of my creative process. I even believe writing block is the harbinger of great writing. So don’t be afraid of it. Writing block is a blessing. It means great things are coming to you. Let it happen. Bless the writing block.