Life In Contrast
Why is it so easy to read words on a printed page? Contrast. We put black letters on white pages to create contrast because you will always see a thing most clearly when placed against or alongside its opposite. Contrast is in many ways a writer’s best friend, for it is always our job to help our readers see clearly the value of what we have already perceived. I first observed this when I discovered the power of language. I had always wanted to write, but in those days I just wanted to get the story out as quickly as possible, and language was simply how these stories would be gotten out. And then I stumbled across The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and those famous lines: Water, water everywhere/And all the boards did shrink/Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.
There are a lot of reasons this couplet works so well, but prime among them is contrast. Water is everywhere, and yet the boards of the ship are drying up and shrinking; water is everywhere, and yet there is nothing to drink. Coleridge used the contrast of growing thirst in the midst of undrinkable water to capture the hellishness of the stranded sailors’ plight.
A story itself is merely an exercise in the contrast between conflict and resolution. Falling in love means more when discovered in the wasteland of loneliness; safety means more following the threat of death. As a storyteller, it can seem sometimes as if our happiness is inconsequential without suffering. As a storyteller, it can seem sometimes as if the suffering is almost more important than the happiness.
This is perhaps a misperception, though an understandable one. I have interviewed two authors whose careers, you could say, really began after a bout with cancer. Upon viewing their life against the contrast of death, these two writers saw with singular clarity what mattered and what did not. For these two authors, what mattered was telling the stories they had put off telling.
I cannot say that deciding to tell the stories they most wanted to tell cured their cancer. I am sure they would both say it was the chemo. But whether we are fresh out of the womb or lying wasted in a hospital bed, life will always be led toward and never away from. To know this is to find your way, to better see where you are going, and not stumble as if by accident into death.
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