The school of real life


Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.



Vive la difference

Posted on June 7, 2013 by Helga Bolleter


The sun is out and street vendors in downtown Vancouver enjoy a brisk business during lunch hour. Lineups start well before noon at Japa Dog and others. Enticing smells waft through the entire area of what Vancouverites loosely refer to as inner city.

Line up with dozens of others to grab a fashionable Japanese hot dog with all the trimmings. It’s the best hot dog you’ve ever tasted. Bar none. But isn’t that a contradiction? Japanese, and hot dog? How can these totally different food cultures exist side by side?

Quite well, it seems. Just like genre fiction and literary fiction. Both can combine to create something quite enticing. The problem only arises when one of the camps claims superiority – usually the literary fiction camp.

The debate itself – which is fierce by the way and ongoing – doesn’t concern me. But it does challenge my reading preference as well as my writing style to the point where I am sufficiently confused. When I am questioning if I’m really cut out for the ‘profession’ of writing fiction, because I can’t decide on what kind of story I want to write.

It’s as if two opposing voices try to be heard, try to cheer me on to this side or that. Sounds very abstract, I know. Here is the nature of my dilemma.

I love a good, fast read. A book with lots of action that makes my heart pump as if it wants to jump out of me. Something I only put down with great reluctance way past midnight because I know I have to get up early next morning. Something that makes me put sticky notes on scenes to remind me I should try to write something similar, with that kind of tension and suspense.

But here’s the rub. The moment I read ‘the End’ after neck-breaking speed, I close the book and ask myself, was it really worth it to spend all these hours on ‘This’?  I feel empty and in some way cheated. I expected more. And I’m referring here to books that promise a fantastic read on the back cover and start out with a spellbinding plot in the first two or three chapters, but don’t deliver in the end. When I’m done, the book feels like a five-day  party balloon. And me like having gorged myself on fast food that gives no nutritional value and leaves me hungry after an hour.

So what’s wrong?

The characters. Boring. One-dimensional. People I don’t want to meet in real life, because we have nothing in common. The worst books have protagonists who seem only concerned about their own problem. I call them ‘me-me-me’ characters. It’s like they live in a bubble, totally unaware of the world around them. And they don’t seem to suffer from something called human emotions or feelings. Or perhaps the author has been hiding those from the reader because he/she was too busy chasing a villain or running from the antagonist.

So what else is wrong other than the characters?

The way the story is told. The style. The voice. The dialogue. In other words, a book written without respect for words and prose. Perhaps the author isn’t interested in those aspects of writing a book. What never ceases to amaze me is how much crap is published, how many poorly written books have found a publisher.

‘So what do you want?’ you might ask. First, I don’t want to sound like a snob. Maybe it’s me who has the problem. Readers do have different standards. I don’t want to convert anyone to read the same books I do.

What I would like is to write in a style of authors whom I respect and enjoy. And here is rub number two. Because sometimes, or perhaps more often than not, the style I so admire is the focus of the book. So here we have the conundrum: what do you prefer: plot at the expense of diction, or beautiful prose without a plot.

If life were only that simple. Maybe I am greedy. I want it all.

I read a book review recently about a highly respected writer. The reviewer said, “I’ve never enjoyed a book as much as this, where hardly anything happens.”

Hmm. I do want action. But I also want good prose. So what about the middle ground?

There are many examples of books that have both: a clever, sharp plot, written in awe-inspiring prose. Brilliant books that stay with you for years after you read them. I count John le Carré’s novels among them, and Dennis Lehane, and many others. Some are in the no-man’s land between genre and literary fiction, some leaning more towards one way than the other. Either way, if they cradle both, they tend to be a satisfying read even for ‘picky’ readers.

Take Lehane as an example: His tense and unnerving psychological thriller, 220px-Mystic_River_poster is not just a fast read you won’t be able to put down, but also an epic novel of love, loyalty, faith, and family. In other words, he has it all. Here is a snippet of one of his dialogues:

“Life isn’t happily ever after… It’s work. The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your love is. Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves that burden of it, either. You’ll be let down. You’ll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of real sucky days. You lose more than you win. You hate the person you love as much as you love him. But you roll up your sleeves and work – at everything – because that’s what growing older is.”

Great writing in a fast-paced thriller. Or this brief excerpt from John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man:

“A half-starved young Russian man in a long black overcoat is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse around his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa.”

Who could resist reading on? And the prose just gets better by the page.

And then there are those novels that delight, firmly in the genre fiction category, without the literary bend, like John Connolly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. His sure-handed writing on a subject he knows much about makes this a most satisfying read for even the most discerning reader:

“You know what my father said about innocent clients? … He said the scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client. Because if you fuck up and he goes to prison, it’ll scar you for life … He said there is no in-between with an innocent client. No negotiation, no plea bargain, no middle ground. There’s only one verdict. You have to put an NG up on the scoreboard. There’s no other verdict but not guilty.”Lincoln-Lawyer__span

Perhaps not quite in the literary camp as purists would have it, but immensely satisfying.

Imagine being able to write suspense novels with unforgettable plots in great prose. To me, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a thriller, with lots of conspiracy and intrigue, maybe political, perhaps with some historical background, with real people I would want to know in my own life. All cleverly and eloquently told. Fast-paced, but not rushed. Sharp-witted, but not snobbish.

A tall order. But I’m greedy. If I, (or anyone else), devote days of my life to reading a book, it better be worth it. By extension, I would like nothing better than to carry that over to my own writing. Maybe I am reaching for something my arms aren’t long enough for. Like Sara Errani playing against the unstoppable Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the French Open Tennis. Not that it stops me from trying. But it takes a lot of time, and lots of research. And still, it may lead me along a path that has only a follower of one.

Then there is the related topic of being able to write with abandon. In my last post I talked about Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. She made an interesting observation about the freedom to write what you want to. The story that’s inside you that has to be told. Winning the coveted prize has cut Hilary free:

“For the next few years at least, I can write what I like, just as I could before I was ever in print. I wrote for 12 years before I published anything, and in those years I felt a recklessness, a hungry desire, a gnawing expectation, that I lost when I became a jobbing professional.”

Writing what you want to write, what is, for the writer, the ultimate truth, is the privilege of those of us who have yet to be published. Smart advice from literary icon Margaret Atwood (from another post):

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself.’

I love her bold wisdom. Not easy to follow though, especially now that my measly half novel is in the hands of my four writing buddies as we speak. They are poring over my words with abandon and an eagle eye, as we all do for each others’ manuscripts, until we meet in just over a week from now for our critique retreat.

Every one of the five intrepid writers has written a novel in a different genre. Every one of us has preferences. And all of us have put their best foot forward to writing the best we can about what we feel passionate about.

The field is wide open. There’s room on the top for us all.