The Feeling of a Place

I’m a firm believer in the fact that places — places with import, places with history — have a feeling to them.  A feeling that reflect the emotions of that place, that reflects the experiences and realities, that reflects the truth.

And, no, I’m not going all New Age and hippy on you.  If you don’t believe me about the feeling of a place, have another look at the pictures I posted a few days ago of a burned stretch of forest.  Although a walk through a space like that is the best — and strongest — way to truly experience its eery, powerful presence, you still can get a sense of that through the photos themselves.  It touches you, a place like that.

Wait, what?  You still don’t believe me?  You still think I’m being overly, ahem, writer-ish?

Fine, let’s pull out the big guns…

In my travels, I have seen and done many things.  I’ve gotten the chills lighting candles to my dead sister in cathedrals across all of Europe…

I’ve been swept away by a true sense of infinity sitting at the end of a jetty at sunset, with nothing but water and fire and the end of the world in front of me…

But, most — and worst — of all, I’ve stood in Auschwitz…

Now, there is something about that place that gets to everyone who visits…and I do mean everyone.  It’s different for every person, of course, based on their own psyches and outlooks and life history.  For my brother, with a young daughter at the time, it was the display of children’s shoes.

For me, it was…well, there’s no way to sugar-coat it, it was the gas chamber.  The small, “test” chamber the Nazis built in the “model camp” to test and prove the concept of gassing their victims.  You can go inside that room.  From just outside the door it looks a whole lot like a shabby, beat-up gym shower.  A shower with a few strange fixtures in the ceiling that don’t quite belong…

Then you step inside.

Then the feeling hits you.

The terror.  The grief.  The pain.  The loss.  And, yes, the anger.

I lasted less than five seconds before I had to get out.

That is the feeling of a place.  That is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

AA80DA47-58C7-481F-AD43-39EFB0276E9ENot the grave of the USS Arizona, not the monument to Warsaw’s doomed young insurgents of the ‘44 uprising, not even the grave of a friend, has the power to bring me to my knees in the way that one small, cramped, dingy room does…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The power, and the feeling, of a place is very real, and very, very potent.

It’s a bit self-centered, but I’m going to give an example below from my own writing because we, as writers, have to understand the power of a place.  We have to feel the power of the places we write about, whether they are real or exist only in our own minds…if we don’t feel that power, how the hell can we expect our readers to do so?

Connor led Nat down a tight alley in the very corner of the hold, an almost-invisible passage barely wide enough to walk single file.

They turned the corner at the end and that alley opened into a wider passage. The emptiness felt strange to Connor. It felt very strange. That space didn’t belong, it didn’t fit; space in the Market was far too precious to waste like this.

On the walls, burned and twisted plastic had been artfully cut and shaped into subtle, stylized flames. The detritus of the fire, turned to memory. Connor slowed. The flames felt all too real. He wasn’t sure he was ready for this.

At his side again, Nat hugged his arm and walked with him down that forty-foot passage. The flames were just the beginning, and the closer to the end they came, the more Connor slowed. His throat closed as memory and emotion welled. The demons were coming out…in force. He knew he needed to do this, knew Oz was right, but he wasn’t sure he could pay the price.

There was always a price.

The Memorial itself was simple, in the way the most powerful things always seem the simplest. A bronze statue of a man huddled in the corner, knees drawn up and face buried in his hands. That was it. No grandiose inscriptions, no bright colors, nothing but pain and loss.

Connor could understand why no one stayed long, could feel his breaking point coming near.

He stood in silence, lost. Nat was still holding his arm, leaning against him. His whisper was barely audible. “That’s my dad, Nat. At least to me.”

“Your dad?” Nat’s voice was equally quiet, breaking with her own emotion. “He was killed…in here? He was part of the Riot?”

Connor knew she couldn’t see, but nodded anyway. “My dad was a drunk and a fool, but there wasn’t a drop of violence in him. He never hit me, not once, not even when I deserved it.” His quiet whisper held sadness, and a great deal of bitter rage. “I still don’t know if he burned in the fire, or was shot by the mappo. My life ended that day, Nat. All because my dad decided to go fucking shopping.”

That could be his dad, just sitting there, silent. Dead. While hers sat in luxury and comfort…the man who did this.

“He dreamed, Nat,” Connor continued, talking to himself more than to her. “He never accomplished shit, but he always dreamed. Always had some plan to make our lives better. I resented the hell out of him as a kid. Resented that he brought us here, resented that his dreams always failed. I thought I hated him, at the end there.” There were no tears, but his voice was almost inaudible, a sigh more than a whisper, “God, I miss him.”

And, of course there’s a song for that…err, well…I’m gonna stretch for this one.  It is not as much a place as a time, but the memories and feelings are just as indelibly imprinted:

No Rebirth Without Death

I’ve talked before on this blog about about wildfires.  About how, unless you’ve experienced one, you simply cannot imagine the inexorability, the sheer malevolence, of a force of nature with a seeming mind of its own.  You can read one of those earlier posts here, by the way.

I’ve talked about expecting fires, and about watching fires.  About living through them, and about smelling them.  Hell, I’ve talked even about having to evacuate from them.  One thing I’ve never really talked about, however, is what comes after.  About the devastation, and the loss.  About, also, the survival and the rebuilding.

Now, one of the guys I currently work with is a retired fire chief, so maybe I should just sit back and let him write this damned post — that’s a man with scars and stories to cover just about everything you can imagine.

But…well…this is my blog, so it pretty much has to be my own thoughts.

I was hiking today, through an area devastated by a large fire about 8 years ago.  It’s an eerie feeling,* walking through a place like that.  It has a graveyard feel to it, a feeling of being surrounded by death and loss:

*Talking about eerie — just wait ‘til I write a post about Quake Lake, that place will most definitely get your hackles up…

Of course, the thing you have to keep in mind, even as you walk through devastation and destruction, is that life…adapts.  Hell, life — at least life up here — needs the devastation and destruction of wild fires in order to reproduce.  The seeds of the lodge pole pine are held inside the cone by a resin that melts only when the temperature is well over 130 degrees Fahrenheit.  That tree, just as one example, will completely die out without fires.  Even amidst the destruction, then, even amidst the detritus and scars, new life springs up:

It’s humbling to think about, in a way.  The destruction and devastation that is so fearsome to us, that is so hated and loathed, is in the longer term a vital part of the rhythm of life.  It goes back to the truth of an old saying: there can be no rebirth without death.

I honestly don’t know if the images above of the little bits of green growing amidst the blacks and greys of a blasted landscape are sad or hopeful, but I think that’s the way things are supposed to be — always with that touch of poignance, always with that mix of bitter and sweet, always with that knowledge of death and loss leavened by the hope of what is to come.

And that, of course, is why I write about the broken and hopeless.  Why I write about those with nothing to lose…because they have everything to gain.  Because they can be one of those little bits of green…

Who Do You Write For?

I was out hiking the other day, and I started thinking about audiences.  About the “how” and “who” that every writer is supposed to keep, at the very least, in the back of his or her mind as the words pour onto the page.

Hey, these are the kind of things I think about when hiking in the middle of a blizzard.  Wait…what…you’re surprised by that?  Shit, I write entire scenes in my mind as I hike!  Now, whether I manage to retain them or not is another question entirely…hence Rule #1: you write it, right away — you always write it.

Ahem.

So, audiences…

I suspect I’m not alone in my instinct to “just write”.  Just write the words…just write the characters…just write the emotions and thoughts and needs, and let the rest of the bullshit take care of itself.

Look, I’ve mentioned before the questions that irk the hell out of me — well, one of the biggest of those is, “Who are you writing for?”

I’m writing for me.  There ain’t no other answer in my little corner of the writer-ish universe.  In the words of my current protagonist, I write “for me, and for my ghosts.”

Why the hell should I worry about who?  Why the hell can’t I just write the damned story that lives in my head, and let the chips fall where they may?F35DD251-9923-4993-84FD-B837448F60E9

*sigh* Apparently, even writers have to adult sometimes…

Okay, so when I get over my artistic snit, even I have to admit that your audience matters.  A story written for my high school senior niece would, of necessity, be pretty damned different from one written for my brother…and different yet again as one written for my parents.

Your audience matters.  It matters to the tone, it matters to the plot, and it sure as hell matters to the characters, and how you portray them.

Honestly, I don’t think anyone who has read this blog for more than a couple of posts will be surprised by the fact that I’m nothing more than a big, arrested adolescent.  I’m a twelve-year-old with a car and a job, as a friend once told me.  And, believe me, I like it that way.  I also write that way…err, maybe not as a twelve-year-old*, but most definitely as an arrested adolescent.

*There is far too much abuse of booze and drugs in my stories for that, not to mention far, FAR too many uses of various versions of the word “fuck”…

I didn’t set out to write in the YA space, by the way.  Hell, I didn’t want to write in the YA space.  I just wanted to write stories about the lost and broken, about those ground under the wheels of progress and success.  I just wanted to write stories about the darker realities of life, and about the underside of the future that I see coming.  That those stories all center on the young, on those we would normally call “innocents”, is more an outgrowth of my own life and history than it is a coherent choice.

The problem is that as of now I’m stuck in that space, at least from the point of view of the publishing industry.  That means I have to keep in mind the norms of YA, and the ever-changing unwritten rules of YA.

Shit, I write about drug addicts and prostitutes.  I write about hopelessness and depression.  I write about suicide and murder and nihilism.  I write, when you get right down to it, about the death and (hopeful) rebirth of hope.

Err…

Umm…

“Do your characters have to curse so much?” one editor asked me.

“The story is great, but can you get rid of the drugs and sex?” asked another.

Yes, the fucking well do.

No, I fucking well can’t.

*sigh*

So much for adulting as a writer.

I will prostitute the hell out of my soul for success in the writing game.  I will sell pieces of my anatomy, and of my family’s — little does my brother know, but his left testicle has already been traded to a publisher for a deal on a couple of articles! — but I won’t sell my story’s soul.

Well…shit.

When I set out to write this post, I wanted to talk about how we writers have to keep in mind our audience.  How we have to be like salesman in that we have to always tailor what we say to our audience.  Then my own pride — my own soul — proceeded to undercut the shit out of that argument.

Maybe that’s why I’m an EX-sales-monkey.  It certainly is why all my writing deals seem to be lacking the number of zeros that would truly make me financially secure…

But…well…shit…

My brain hurts thinking about this crap.

Shit, I’m a writer.  I just want to write stories.  I want to write the stories I want, the stories that live in my head.  However many — or few — folks out there who actually want to buy those stories is, well, secondary at best.*

*Sorry, Dad, but I’m just never gonna bring those old business and sales skills to my writing life…

Okay, I can hear the demands in my head — the following group of pictures were all taken in that famous blizzard-driven, winter praradise of JUNE:

 

Make Them Wonder “Why”

Uhh…let’s try things in the opposite order, shall we?

Instead of putting a song at the end of the post, I am going to put it here at the beginning.  Hit “play” and listen as you read…I was listening to this song (and more) as I wrote, and I am going to draw on that as I write…

Where do I turn to

When there’s no choice to make?

Think about your characters’ reaction to those lines…

What if I need you?

In my darkest hour.

Yep, think about them again…

Look, if you’ve read your Joseph Campbell, you recognize the “Hero’s journey” in those sentiments.  Who knew the Hero suffered from the same bullshit problems and depression as the rest of us?

Err…

He (or she) kinda has to.  A hero who doesn’t suffer like the rest of us, who doesn’t have the same problems and defects, is the purest bullshit.  Without those flaws, he or she is a nothing more than a comic book figure…a cheesy ‘50’s serial…a fake 2D caricature…

The only way for a person to learn, the only way to grow, is to have flaws and problems to overcome — and your heroes/protagonists are people, right?

RIGHT?!?!

From the next song on the album (something of a continuation of the first):

If we come back and we’re broken

Unworthy and ashamed

Give us something to believe in

And you know we’ll go your way

Uhh…yeah…

More than that — Hell yeah.

In one sense, that’s your audience speaking…but only in the shallowest reading.

No, there is a lot more going on there, for the writer, than just projecting your readers/audience into the words.  I’ve talked about it more than once, but it bears repeating: we’re all broken.  We’re all unworthy and ashamed, in one way or another.

And we all need something to believe in.

Our job as writers is to recognize those things.  To recognize them, to internalize them, and to use them in our words.

Look, I like a good “beach read” as much as the next guy.  I like fluff pieces of adventure and mystery, but they don’t speak to me.  They don’t mean anything.

If you, as a writer, want to mean something with your words, then you better damned well learn to write about more.  Don’t write about plot points, or settings, or events…write about people.  If you nail that part of it, if your characters are people, the other stuff will (hopefully!) fall into line.  You have to get the people right — you have to get the pain and the triumph, the tears and boredom and desire for escape as much as the celebration and excitement and contentment — if you want to truly speak to those who read your words.  If you want to give them something to believe in, if you want to have them follow you…

This is, by the way, another of those posts that ran away with me.  I sat down, listening to these songs, and thought I would be writing about “Idea A”.

Umm…

Err…

Okay, so Idea A may have to come in a future post…

What I did end up writing about, however, is something in which I believe very, very firmly.  I want you to think about those books that truly mattered to you, that truly meant something.  Think about the story, and about what the author wanted to say…and how he or she said it.

Was it with all the bullshit we talk about Lit 101 classes, or was it with the characters?  Think about what mattered to you — what made you think, what made you learn — then think about your on writing…

…then thank those authors that meant something.

For me, that means a list of books and writers that mattered to me that differs from the “list of favorites” I’ll often cite to new readers/writers:

Thank you, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn.

Thank you, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Thank you, Tom Wolfe.

Thank you, Somerset Maugham.

Thank you, Thomas Mann.

Thank you to every writer who made me think, who made me cry, or who made me scratch my head and wonder why.