(This was originally written as a guest blog and published through Bookworm Blues on Dec 7th of 2012 as part of a promotion for the Triumph Over Tragedy anthology created to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy. I'm reposting it here in case anyone missed it, and because I like to keep a copy of all my blogs in one place.)
When I graduated high school I had two career choices: artist or novelist. Yes, my mother was terrified.
Since I couldn’t spell and was awful at grammar, I took the art scholarship. In art school there were two types. Those who copied from other artists, photos or the real world—I called them illusionists, and those who could sit down and create beauty out of nothing at all. I deemed this to be true magic. I was never that good at true magic.
When I retired from art at the old age of 23, and began writing, I discovered the same sort of thing existed in literature.
I wrote stories that I made up. I constructed clever plots, colorful characters, twists and turns, tension and drama, but never did it seem…real. It lacked emotion. When I read what I wrote I was pleased. It was nice, but it wasn’t powerful. I didn’t know why.
Over the years I’ve read many novels that I found interesting, clever, even entertaining, but only a handful have ever hit me emotionally. Those are the books that stick, the ones I carried with me, and still do. These are the novels that made me cringe, laugh, and cry.
This was magic—real magic.
Somehow the authors managed to reach out from another time, another place and inject me with the exact emotion they intended. This wasn’t just communication of ideas—that’s easy—this was jacking right into my non-verbal gut and uploading sorrow, concern, terror, and laughter. I wanted to be able to do that, but I didn’t know how.
I stumbled on the means one day when I we trying to write a very simple scene. Instead of inventing something cerebral, I looked in myself and pulled out an experience. I remembered something—something painful. I was terrified to write it, to pour myself into the page. Such a thing was embarrassing. What if someone I know reads this? It felt as if I was stripping naked in public. I told myself, I was only going to write it and never show anyone. I just wanted to see how it would come out. The result was astounding. I cried in the writing. I cried in the reading.
What I never expected is that readers cried too.
I realized then, that in order to get emotion out of readers, the author had to invest part of themselves. There needs to be a sacrifice, a little bit of a person’s soul invested into the work and that dash of honesty results in a powerful recognition. Readers immediately relate. They know this isn’t faked, this isn’t illusion…this is true magic.
The more painful and embarrassing the memory, the more personal the thought, the more powerful the writing.
At first I expected the worst. I expected ridicule. Like kids in grades school, people would point at me and laugh. “Is this how you really feel? You’re such a looser!”
Oddly, it never happened. I was only the author. The events happened to a fictitious person, a character in a story, not me. I was the wizard behind the curtain, the hand inside the puppet that no one saw. It was my voice, my feelings set out exposed to the harsh glare of the bright lights, but I, as the author, was safe behind the mask. Instead of foolish, I was impressive.
People are fond of saying that pain fuels art. I many ways it does. Fiction is full of tension and conflict. The best way to prepare to write such, is to live it. Then reaching deep, you scrape out the honest truth, warts and all and put them on display. It isn’t easy. The process is often painful, humiliating, and depressing, but the end result is always stunning.
I think everyone—while not the same—are similar enough that we connect on the same levels, share the same feelings. When we read, or see something that registers so personally, so perfectly with something we would never share with anyone, then that becomes profound. In that understanding we see a tiny miracle. Someone else knows my pain. Someone else understands how I feel. I’m not alone, I’m like that character. This is what makes literature come to life, this is what makes Pinocchio a real boy. It is the touch of the Blue Fairy.
I call it magic.