I didn’t think I was going to write a post this week. My husband and I are spending a couple of days at the coast, so I’d planned on a blog hiatus until next week, but somehow this evening – as I’m sitting in the living room at our rental, listening to the ocean outside – I’m finding myself inspired.
Time away from home can be a terrific way to recharge, but it can also be stressful, as I found somewhat to my surprise earlier this summer. I love traveling, especially with my husband. (Solo, not so much. 😉 ) Usually, I’m able to let my worries sit at home while we’re away, and let myself breathe freely while we’re checking out new places. This past summer, though, anxiety really got in the way of that kind of release during the couple of trips we took. These two days might be different. I’m hoping they will be.
I need some time out of my head and away from the worry. Especially, I want some time to re-ground myself as a writer. This summer was very challenging on that front, and I’m continuing to struggle with questions about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and sometimes whether I can still do it at all. (Anxiety is weird that way. You can prove to yourself a hundred times in a row that you can do something – write a few sentences, come up with a halfway-decent paragraph, brainstorm for a story – and anxiety will still insist that, when you try to do it for the hundred-and-first time, you’ll fail. All you can do is keep showing it, again and again, that it’s wrong. Eventually it’ll wear itself out and go away, or so I’m told.) Thinking clearly about the things I want to think about, instead of getting caught up in loops of panic, seems to involve a kind of end-run around that unwelcome “guest” in my brain. Not easy, but possible.
So tonight I’m listening to the ocean and thinking, again, about why we tell stories. Stephen King said that storytelling is “telling lies about people who never existed in order to learn the truth about ourselves” (paraphrasing a bit, but that was the gist of his quote). We create these imagined places and people; we as writers pour ourselves into our fictional worlds, and then we translate all of that onto the page and send it – hopefully – into the minds of other people who may never see or meet us in their lives. And somehow, through this work of the imagination, we create a real connection between people.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post here on the blog about how I’ve struggled with the value of what my imagination creates. I’ve worked through at least some of that, but I continue to ask myself what my work as a writer really consists of, or what I really hope it can achieve. It seems to me that writing can do a lot, it can have a great deal of power…but what, exactly, does that power look like in my own work? What am I, as a writer, seeking to do?
I’ve often thought about how writing can let me show a reader a perspective, a situation, a set of circumstances they may not have thought about before. Beyond a doubt, that can be valuable: show a reader a character whose life is very different from the reader’s own, and maybe you’ll help a perspective shift, just a little. But there’s another piece to this too. As a writer, I want my readers not just to follow my character through their his or her story, but know what it’s like to be that character. Inhabit that character’s heart and mind so deeply that, for a moment, those experiences become personal. After all, isn’t that why we love to read? To taste a different world and a different life, while the pages last?
When I work on any project, but especially a book, I have to have at least one character I feel in love with. That character becomes my motive power through the project and beyond, when it’s time to talk publication: if I’m in love with that person, I can’t let him or her down. I have to see the project all the way through until it’s out in the world. When I’m writing that character, I’m writing as deeply from the heart as I know how to. My hope, then, is that those words go straight from my heart to the reader’s. And when they do, I hope the reader steps into my character’s life and experience, his own heart and mind, and for those pages, actually tastes what it’s like to become someone else.
If that happens, is it valuable? I’d say yes. It’s actually a kind of magic. The reader moves into a place that never existed until I thought of it; the reader looks out through eyes that never existed until I imagined them. And – if I’ve done my work well enough – by doing those things, the reader has an experience that changes him or her somehow. Can you really go away somewhere and come back exactly the same as you were before you left?
I like to think not, especially tonight, by the ocean. I like to think I’ll come back from these couple of days changed, just a little, with something to help carry me along and maybe make it easier when anxiety gets up to its tricks. And I like to think, too, that my words on the page do something similar for the people who read them. That, having read them, they feel a difference – however small – in their lives and themselves, and that when they come back from the place where I’ve taken them, they’re changed, if ever so slightly. That’s what this work is all about.
Maryland photos by Kris Faatz; Maine photo by Paul Faatz