Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 25 May 2013

Learning From Experience

by Jennifer Young



Gone but not forgotten
Not that long ago I poisoned a cat. Not literally but literarily: I did it in a story. One reader, at least, liked it. I had tears running down my face, she wrote, and I’m sure you did too as you sat at your computer.

I was moved to think about the fictional Romy crooning over her desperately sick half-tabby half-wildcat, Willow, earlier on this week. I was at the vet’s crooning over my own desperately sick half-cat half-pudding Misty as fine brains struggled to find out what was wrong with her. And if course it crossed my mind that if I hadn’t put Romy and Willow through this then perhaps – just perhaps – we wouldn’t be here.

You see, I’m a timid writer - even a squeamish one. Generally speaking I steer clear of things that are unpleasant. I don’t put my characters through too much trauma because I really don’t want them to suffer. Other writers might create teenagers who turn to drink and drugs: I have them shut the door and suffer their misery in silence (but not for too long). They kill people violently, horribly and graphically: I ease them out of the door patiently and almost always offstage.

 Picture by Piotr Bodzek (from Wikimedia Commons
 


This dislike for pain and gore is one reason why I don’t write crime or thrillers (or watch Casualty). But it’s more than that: it’s a weakness. To be a successful writer you have to face up to some of the terrible things that happen to you or that might happen to you – bereavement, illness, catastrophic career failure or whatever else it might be. I’d rather not think about bad things that might happen and I certainly prefer not to dwell on the troubles of the past, even the small ones. I’d rather be happy in the present.

Good writers – great writers – turn experience into a tool. When something terrible happens I’m sure they think well, at least I can use this in a plot. Or they might look around them in some ghastly hospital waiting room and make a mental note: nurses war blue overalls, not green. Must change that. Real writers are optimists, seeing the silver lining to every cloud. I should learn from that and I will: I’ll try to make myself nastier, make more people suffer, not just pet cats.
 
Romy’s Willow didn’t make it, by the way, and nor did my Misty. But at least I know now that at the vet hospital they shuffle you out through a side door rather than send you through the waiting room in floods of tears with an empty cat carrier. Must change that.

9 comments:

  1. I think it's a difficult time to be a writer as
    there is a trend for violence and gore even in what appear to be 'gentle' pieces of writing. So stick with what you feel comfortable with, Jennifer. You have to be true to your own writing voice.

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    1. I've often thought about this but it's only this week that it's crystallised in my mind, I think. I wonder if I've been writing for myself not for anyone else...if a reader is crying out for something a bit more visceral and I'm not giving it to them. Is writing meant to be comfortable? Is reading?

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  2. I agree with Myra's comment, Jennifer. If you don't feel comfortable writing nasty stuff and making people suffer in your stories then don't do it.
    I do think, you are right in saying writers use experiences in their work. May not be conciously thinking, 'Oh, I'll use that in a story.' when we see something happen but I think it gets stored away for later use when the time and story is right.

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    1. Generally speaking I'm not bad for using situations in stories. The ytend to be quite 'soft' ones, though - funny or quirky or unusual. But I don't seemto have the inner strength to make them gripping, or to inspire intense emotions.

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  3. So sorry Misty didn't make it. Brave of you to write about it - maybe this is the start of you putting more suffering in to your writing? I htink, like you, I tend to steer away from it. You've made me realised I should perhaps reconsider (if it's not too painful, of course).

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    1. Thanks, Gill - I don't know if it was brave, though - cathartic, and probably a little selfish.

      I think in future I will try to be a bit more self-disciplined and make myself write things I don't want to think too closely about. Writers should be like oysters - you don't make a pearl without grit!

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  4. Really interesting post, Jennifer, and I'm sorry to hear about Misty (I've used that cat name in one of my novels to be finished!). We all have to write in a way which suits us, although it's quite good to sometimes surprise ourselves!

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  5. Sad post, Jennifer, but beautifully written. Sorry to hear about your loss, but all our experiences shape us as writers. You are right to hold on to the positive.

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  6. Lots to think about with this post, Jennifer. I honestly believe there is room for all sorts of books and we need to read them for different reasons at different times in our lives. And write them, too.
    I refuse to write about war......my trilogy will skip 1914-1918. So, my feeling is we have to be true to ourselves and then, hopefully, that truth will come through in our writing.

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