I was at a writer’s conference this weekend when I fell into a conversation with an engineer husband of one of the attendees. While an avid reader, he was not a writer himself, though he considered himself creative. In fact, he had made a point of this when a writer-friend of his wife had expressed surprise that he had scored high the creative end of some personality test.
“Of course I’m creative!” he’d explained. “I’m an engineer. My page starts out just as blank as yours.”
He couldn’t have been more right. It is easy sometimes for the artist to overlook the creativity of the scientist or the mathematician or the engineer. As he said, their pages begin more or less as blank as the writer’s. Each problem the engineer solves has never been solved before. How is that anything but creativity?
There is an important difference between the artist and the engineer, however, a difference the artist must never forget. The engineer solves problems entirely intellectually. Emotion plays no active role in the putting together of jigsaw puzzles or building bridges or solving mathematical equations. I have sometimes sought relief from my own emotional life in the puzzles of the world, the Sudoku’s and video games and even the tax forms—anything to occupy a restless mind in search of a focus.
The creative writer, meanwhile, designs bridges from fear to love again and again and again. The intellect becomes the heart’s loyal servant, hefting the stones of logic and language and placing them in an orderly fashion. The intellect has no idea where the bridge began or where it will end. In fact, the intellect doesn’t even know why the bridge exists. Nothing you can hold in your hand or eat or measure is gained from it, yet look at everyone on earth crossing that expanse, look at every soul rushing through the gate only the heart can open.
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I am told that in dreams water usually means strong emotion. As a writer, this makes sense to me. In stories, and particularly in films, water is a sure sign that our characters have reached a moment of emotional release. How many romantic comedies have ended with our hero (or sometimes heroine) racing through the rain to reach his (or her) beloved? How many “I love yous” have been confessed through rain-streaked lips?
It just works, doesn’t it? However, add thunder and lightening and the rain becomes a threat. Now we find ourselves in the emotional storm, buffeted by winds, cowed by sudden, heavenly crashing. If you put a character in a storm, he or she is in trouble. If you put that same character in a lighted house by a fire while a storm thunders outside, he or she may be safe, but trouble rattles at the windows.
It is probably futile to try to write against these tropes. Rain alone is a bit more flexible, as it can also mean boredom to the child home alone, or irritation to the businessman ducking into the laundromat—but it’s going to mean something. Pity the sun so taken for granted. If no weather is mentioned, it is more or less sunny. Wind at least means change.
The sun will perhaps always be taken for granted because it is that against which change and action is written. As Einstein said, darkness does not actually exist; it is merely the absence of light. I think of this sometimes when I am with friends suffering in their own darkness, or raging in their own storms. You don’t have to look hard, no matter how black their mental night, to see the sun within them. I know this seems Pollyanna to some, but when someone begins ranting about a hurt that will never heal, I feel as if I am listening to a child who has stepped out into the rain for the first time, and cries because the sun has been taken from the sky.
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There’s a great scene in the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer in which Josh, a chess prodigy, is studying a problem created by his mentor, played by Ben Kingsley. As Josh stares and stares at the pieces, struggling to unravel the puzzle, Kingsley’s character becomes increasingly impatient until he finally sweeps all the pieces off the board. He instructs Josh to solve the problem without seeing the pieces, a technique Josh later uses to win the film’s climactic match.
I often think of Ben Kingsley sweeping the pieces off the board when I find myself tangled in a part of a story that isn’t working, particularly if I have revisited the troublesome scene over and over again. In my experience, the more I have tried and failed to write a scene to my satisfaction, the harder it becomes to do so. Just like Josh, I find myself staring the pieces, at the characters and all their possible moves. I begin to believe if I just stare hard enough the correct order of events, the perfect string of dialogue, will emerge.
This is when it is time to sweep the pieces off the board. That is forget who is in the scene and what they must supposedly do. Instead I focus on where the story is before the troublesome scene, and where I believe it will be after, and I imagine what it should feel like to get from one place to the other. The point, after all, is not really the characters or what they are doing, but what it feels like when they do what they are doing. The feeling is always the true reality; the events are just metaphors to allow that feeling through.
Inevitably, after I have swept the pieces aside, they begin to come back one by one, as what works is often not all that different than what was not working. But I can never find a scene if I begin treating it like a jigsaw puzzle. After all, a jigsaw puzzle begins as a complete picture and then is cut apart so that we can have the pleasure of reassembling it. That picture revealed in the completed jigsaw puzzle is a portal to feeling. Your unwritten scene, however, is only a feeling looking for a picture. Feeling exists before all the metaphors we use to share them; to write disconnected from the feeling of a scene is like playing chess without knowing which piece you must capture to win, the pieces moving constantly but without purpose.
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