“…if you’re going into a very dark place…then you should take a bright light and shine it on everything.
If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?”
Full Dark, No Stars
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of my go-to books when I struggle with my work. He is a prolific writer, but he takes the crafting of his fiction very seriously. I have recently glommed onto the Year of the Short Story (YOSS), reading as much short fiction as I can to try and improve my own work. I’ve studied recent releases by Zsuzsi Gartner, Alexander Macleod, Sarah Selecky, Teri Vlassopoulos and Darcie Friesen Hossack. I’ve also gone back to Carver and Chekhov and O’Connor in hopes of unearthing the secret to what works when crafting a spectacular short story. Especially since the next one I have to complete is for the course I’m taking from Joseph Boyden at UBC this summer.
The above quote did provide a flash of illumination (sorry!). Shining a light into the dark is a great way to describe what a writer does, but the second part of the quote is why we do it. We carry our lanterns into the dark night because we know something IS there, not because we know something IS NOT. Somehow, this has escaped me, leaving me with stories that lack the heart I know they need.
I am always so impressed by the women I teach writing to at a local non-profit support agency. These women, many who are recovering addicts and/or former sex-trade workers, have lived that darkness, and the stories they write are more compelling and real because of the people they’ve encountered and the hardships they’ve experienced on their journey. Once they start writing, their honesty hurts. They hold very little back, and what they shine their light on isn’t always pretty. That said, their writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve read. In his afterword, Stephen King goes on to say “Bad writing is more than shit syntax and faulty observation; [it] usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do.” The women I work with, shitty syntax or no, tell stories about what people actually do.
The lesson? I think I’ve been wandering around with a flickering candle trying hard to find the big scary things that aren’t there. That one idea that will amaze(!) my classmates and instructors. I think I need to just relax and pay attention to the things that are right there in front of me—ordinary people and what they say. And what they don’t say. Start with the characters and make their interactions and reactions as genuine as possible.
I’ll take my lead from the award-winning and award-nominated writers above. And from my inspirational students, who’ve shone their light on the demons in the dark only to find out that they are people…ordinary people and how they behave “under dire circumstances,” as King says.
The stories will flow from there.