I wrote a short story last week that forced me to write outside my real-life comfort zone. My story was for an anthology being put together as part of the many commemorative events to celebrate Canada 150. The submission call was for an “immigrant story”.
I’m an immigrant. I came to Canada in 1982 to escape a country that had been embroiled in a civil war for more than ten years and which had recently gained independence. Unfortunately for my family, the other side won and leaving seemed the best option on many fronts. But this blog is not about that and I didn’t want my immigrant story to be about that.
The story I wanted to tell was how it’s the little details in a new life that are the hardest. Finding jobs and a place to live are huge, seemingly insurmountable problems, but they are expected hardships, things you can brace yourself for and work to overcome. But just when you think it is all going well, that you’re getting ahead, some small detail surfaces and derails you. That’s what I wanted to write about.
I’m a private person, not given to public displays of affection or emotion. I cry in private. But for this story, I wanted to zero in on an emotional moment and portray it without being melodramatic or cliché. But how to do that?
The emotional mirror
Most readers, even though they may not realize it, read to mirror their own lives. Have they felt that way before? What would they do in a similar situation? How is this situation different from their lives? A story about events of that civil war would be different from an average reader’s life, but would it connect with readers on a human, emotional level? The key to making my story work was to focus not the events the reader couldn’t relate to, but on the emotions the reader could relate to. The emotional mirror.
To resonate with the reader, I had to identify the emotion I wanted the story to illustrate and the reader to feel. In this story, I wanted to show the feeling of being out of control, disoriented and emotionally afraid when the logical mind tells you there is nothing to fear. All emotions that everyone has felt at some point in their lives.
Let it unfold…slowly
Peter Selgin, writer and professor at Antioch University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, gives his writing students an exercise: Write two pieces each about 250 words long. Piece One should rivet the reader; Piece Two should bore the reader stiff. Each student reads both pieces out loud.
“In almost every instance the result is the same,” he says, “The ‘riveting’ piece bores, while the ‘boring’ piece holds interest.”
Why? Peter explains that, “In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time; they don’t hesitate to lavish 250 words on the subject of a wall of white paint drying. And—to their consternation—the result holds our attention.”
So for this story, I chose a small incident that happened over a short period of time, but I slowed down the telling, letting it unfold moment by moment. By not hurrying, there was room for the emotion to build, for inner thought as well as outer action.
As I wrote, I closed my eyes and imagined the scene in my mind. What could I see above, below, to the sides? What people and things were in my periphery? What could I hear, smell, touch, what was the quality of the light, temperature of the air? What emotion was I feeling at each point and what did that emotion look like in gestures, actions and reactions? Show don’t tell.
Match style to purpose
Writers have two roles in every piece they write. One to tell a story; two to craft it well. Having decided on the subject matter and how to let the story unfold, I summoned up craft I’ve learned over time.
To heighten the feeling of disorientation, of not fitting into a new world, of being out of control, I edited to make the sentence structure disjointed in places, short and fragmented in others and even syntactically out of step at times.
I made sure to use smell and texture or touch where I could as these senses tend to be more emotionally charged than sight and sound. I used setting details to echo the atmosphere of the fear that the narrator was feeling.
Whether my story was successful, I won’t know until it’s accepted and published, but I felt good about it when it was finished and that’s always a good sign.
DID YOU KNOW
Among the workshops Writescape has offered is one on writing short fiction, “Does Size Matter?” Gather your group. Pick your topic and your date. And we’ll bring Writescape’s workshops to you. Choose from our Workshop Catalogue, or contact us to provide a custom workshop to fill your needs.