The Present

I was guest lecturing at a writing class recently when a student asked a question about one of my seven rules of writing: Feel first. Write Second. What, she wanted to know, should you do if you’re trying to write a scene but can’t seem to feel it? The first answer, of course, is we don’t actually want to write the scene, and our not feeling it is telling us so. More often, however, we do want to write a scene but are having trouble entering it. One of the best things to do in this instance is to find one detail that feels genuinely present in the scene – no matter how insignificant – and write it. The key is not to judge what you see. If you are trying to write a fight scene between your CIA agent and his nemesis but the only thing you notice is the pen in your agent’s pocket, write the pen. Perhaps the pen will be used in the fight; perhaps it won’t. Either way, it will serve as an opening, a crack through which you can enter the scene and then observe it, rather than try to make it all up from the outside in, to invent it with your thinking mind.

I thought of this the other day while having a meeting with my son’s teacher. It was a long meeting and there was a lot to talk about, not all of it the sort thing a father wants to hear. As the meeting progressed, my thinking mind, in its desperation to paint the world black or white and know with certainty whether this woman was capable of helping my son, began, as they say, to play tricks on me. One moment the teacher was a well-meaning professional with a heart of gold, the next a bumbling, taxed, depressed public servant just trying to get through a day without the children killing themselves.

Then I remembered what I had learned when writing, that I should never judge a scene through my thinking mind but behold it with my feeling mind, that it was my job to observe, not to decide. When I observed the teacher in this way, I was able understand, for reasons too many and too gray for my thinking mind to comprehend, that if she did her best, she would be fine.

It is the difference between a character and a caricature. The thinking mind must judge to draw its conclusions, but a true person is never all guilty or all innocent. You know this about yourself, and so you know it about others as well. The wholeness of life can never be known in thought. Yes, there are stories where certain characters, for narrative purposes, must wear their metaphorical white hat or black hat, but even here let the writer use these fictional poles to suggest what lies between. Whether we like it or not, we live within the wholeness of life – which is good news. A world without good or evil is the only place our heart will ever know peace.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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