October 12, 2012

I Am Uncomfortable Writing This

At various times, I've encountered the advice to not shy away from writing the things that make you uncomfortable. Jenn Hubbard touched on this topic recently, posting, "You must write about the thing you must not write about."

It's good advice. I often set out to write a scene one way, and then I think, "Oh, well, instead I could have them do THAT. No way, that's much too gross/shocking/ethically questionable. Well then, I guess it's perfect." I'm not proud of the twisted things my mind comes up with, and writing them sometimes gives me an icky feeling, but I know if I can produce the same feeling in the reader, I've created something powerful. (Yes, that in itself is twisted. Frankly, writing fiction is a sadistic practice. Also, I was lying: I'm very proud.)

Some of the uncomfortable stuff I'm talking about is of the obvious sort. For example, my novel contains more vomit than anyone really wants to read about. Including on the first page. In the abstract, I don't consider this an especially good strategy, and I know readers may find it off-putting, because I find it off-putting myself. But I've given that opening vomit a lot of thought (the writing life is so glamorous!), and I have clear, non-gratuitous reasons for including it. It's uncomfortable, but I believe it's good and effective for the story.

Last week I was contemplating a scene idea that made me uneasy in a very different way. There's a definite individual element to many uncomfortable topics -- some readers may be even more bothered by this story event than I am, and others won't give it a second thought. The incident involves an apparently atheist character who, in an extreme moment, is moved to prayer.

The character's beliefs don't play a large role in the story, but I have established that he's scornful of the idea of religion or a higher power. He is not a person who prays, and he would never anticipate that he might resort to prayer in desperate circumstances. But he does pray in this scene, and while it doesn't lead to a religious epiphany or anything like that, it affects how he views the outcome of the situation.

In the version of the scene from the previous draft, the character makes his appeal to God even while thinking that he doesn't know if God exists. When I reached the scene again during this revision, I wondered whether to keep the prayer at all, because the whole thing was fairly weak and uninteresting. Then I imagined the character actually getting to his knees and praying in earnest. The image of him down on his knees feels unequivocal to me. I was uncomfortable with the idea that he'd do that, because he would be uncomfortable with the idea. My discomfort made me think it might be good for the story.

As always, I won't truly know if it works until I get feedback from critique partners (who I hope won't be too biased by this advance out-of-context analysis). But for now, I like it. Because I don't like it one bit.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rachelle Gardner explains the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing: "When you foreshadow, the reader usually doesn't notice it when they initially read it. But later they might have an 'aha' moment, remember it, and put two and two together. Often foreshadowing can't even be detected until someone reads your novel for a second time. It's that subtle." (Thanks, Livia Blackburne!)


Anna Scott Graham said...

I have written some squirmy scenes, not liking them either, for the very same reason you like yours; not liking it at all. Fiction is messy, in so many varied respects, but as writers we can't just excise what makes us uncomfortable for the sake of being at ease with ourselves. A great post!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks, Anna! Glad to know that my writing friends recognize this situation.

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