Encouragement, Coaching and Prompts for Writers
A monthly blog by Eve West Bessier, Poet Laureate of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico
One cold morning before sunrise, I was standing in the dark in front of the pellet stove enjoying the warmth of the flames. I was gazing sleepily at the bookcase on the opposite side of the room, when something interesting caught my attention.
The firelight created a craggy mountain range of shadows cast against the back wall of the bookcase by the various heights and thicknesses of the books on the shelf. The books were compact rectangular shapes but the shadows were tall, complex and jagged. As the flames in the stove expanded and contracted, these tall shadows danced in a sinister way.
This made me think of how shadows are larger than life. Ancient cave paintings and petroglyphs often depict human figures with elongated torsos, arms and legs. It’s fascinating that the artists chose to show human figures as they appeared in their shadows cast on cave walls by firelight, or onto the ground by sunlight. There is drama in that and humans love drama, to a fault perhaps.
At this moment in our collective story, isn’t it time to reassess the value of drama, the effect of hyperbole, the consequences of glorifying shadows?
As writers, we are called upon to face our own and our collective shadows. Without them our writing would be naive, but can we address the shadows without giving them our power? Don’t we want our power to come from our light not from our shadows?
What if we took the perspective of high noon in our writing? Remember high noon, that time of day popular with gunslingers for shoot-outs? There’s a reason to schedule a duel at high noon. No shadows to distract the eye, everything out in the open exactly as it stands.
The truest high noon happens on the summer solstice at midday when the sun is at its ultimate apex in the sky and things cast no shadows. Can we write at high noon on the summer solstice? In our poetry, fiction and nonfiction, can we write only the truth and nothing but the truth and trust that this is interesting enough and needs no embellishment?
By the way, truth exists as potently in fiction as it does in non-fiction. Sometimes even more potently! The truth has a reputation for being elusive and therefore subjective. So, follow the facts. They are objective and good guides to finding what’s true.
I know this sounds a bit clinical, like being under oath in a court of law. My mind has a litany of objections already. Won’t this make my writing boring? No. It will make it riveting. What if I’m writing a murder mystery, don’t I need to create more suspense? Reality has plenty of suspense. Just look at our history, both personal and collective.
Still, I understand why my mind rebels against this concept. This advice seems contrary to how the publishing industry has historically pushed sales, but I think that model is changing because the industry itself is changing. It’s getting decentralized. We are becoming the industry and we can start making new rules, if we have the courage to do it. The world is getting tired of hyperbole and thirsting for something more nourishing.
Let’s ask ourselves some poignant questions and see if we can guide our writing, and in the process likely our lives, away from the glorification of dramatic shadows.
To begin, here are five questions we need to address in order to write at high noon.
1. Can we commit to not adding melodrama for the sake of entertainment? There are a lot of three-ring circus shadows out there in the entertainment world. Are they really adding anything of substance and value, or are they just creating distraction? I’ll admit that distraction, especially when life is challenging, can provide temporary relief. Still, how distracted do we want to be? I venture to say distraction is a short-lived remedy and leaves us feeling empty and wanting more distraction. That’s an addictive pattern that can go on for years, lifetimes. We are the director of our own feature film. We have the authority to change the script.
2. Can we refrain from preaching our personal view of reality as if it were the universal truth? This is a tough one because our personal view of reality certainly looks and feels like the universal truth to us. It takes emotional maturity to recognize that it’s just our point of view, our opinion. We have a right to our opinion, but we don’t have the right to insist that others agree with it.
3. Can we write without the heavy overtones of self-pity? Wallowing in suffering on the page leaves the reader feeling morose without the benefit of being able to experience compassionate empathy. There are a lot of messy, murky shadows out there in need of a hot shower! I’m not saying we can’t be real. I’m saying that the messy, murky shadows are not real. In fact, they are often just a facade that keeps us from exposing what is real. Easier to be melodramatic than to be genuine and vulnerable. Unless we’re writing the onscreen subtitles for a vintage-style silent film in which melodrama is key, we might want to filter out the pathos.
4. Can we write without intellectualizing, without creating emotional distance from the shadow by never heading south from our brilliant thoughts and theories into the realm of our heart? I don’t mean we should get sappy. I mean let’s use our prefrontal cortex to access empathy in our writing. That connects our heart to the heart of the reader. Scary territory, perhaps, but magnificent ground for understanding.
5. Can we forego the adrenaline shot for the sake of the buzz? Does the ever more graphic mayhem in entertainment help us evolve into more balanced compassionate beings? Does it even make us feel good? Do we want to promulgate that kind of chaotic intensity in our creative work, in our lives?
I’m not advocating a Pollyanna view of reality. Writing at high noon does not mean turning a blind eye to the existence of shadows. It means writing about the core realities that cast those shadows, rather than writing about the shadows being cast. At high noon, we can scrutinize those core realities.
These are challenging questions, and this kind of exploration takes courage. It’s a soul diving expedition.
Demystifying our shadows is a prominent aspect of Jungian psychology. Jung doesn’t advocate that we indulge in our shadows, elongating our fear, anger, insecurity, jealousy, you get the picture. He encourages us to recognize and identify our shadow nature so that our subconscious motivations no longer control our conscious behavior. Solid advice and rewarding work worth doing.
Our writing can help us do that work for ourselves. It can also embolden others to do that work for themselves. This is a noble endeavor but it does not need to be a Nobel one! The hero’s journey is in our willingness to grow and change day by day in small ways that lead incrementally to positive transformation.
This month’s prompt is a high noon paintball shoot-out in search of an elusive target: the truth. Here we go!
Find an event that casts a long shadow in your life, or in the life of one of your fictional characters. Shift the focus of your attention from that shadow to its source and reveal the facts about that source without drama, preaching, self-pity, intellectualizing or added adrenaline. Describe to the best of your ability what actually happened, not the emotional avalanche it caused. This is not an easy task. We’ve all been raised on hype and hyperbole. The facts elude us because the ensuing drama casts such a long shadow. At high noon, that shadow can’t lead us astray. We can focus on the crosshairs and aim more accurately at what is true, and that makes for highly engaging, satisfying writing and reading!
Scroll down to About The Author for more information and check out Eve’s website at: www.jazzpoeteve.com.