Saturday, March 29, 2008

Write with passion to overcome fear

If an author is not passionate about his or her book or story, people will not be passionate about reading it.  All my favorite books were written by authors with a purpose and a passion for a cause. Khaled Hosseini’s passion for the plight of Afghanistan and compassion for Afghani women  fill his book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and take the reader into the hearts, minds, and  emotional upheaval of the characters. He makes the reader care about them on a gut level. 

Barbara Kingsolver in each of her books, has a cause—and a passion for it—that is conveyed by the characters who lead the author and then us through the African jungle, the Cherokee nation, the Appalachian hills and valleys. In Prodigal Summer, we care about Deanna and the animal predators she wants to protect, about the dying mother, her children, the young widow, and each of the other characters as we learn what it is that drives them to be who they are. 

Marcus Stevens has us caring not only about a young white girl in love with an Indian, but also, the history of the Cheyenne girl whose body is accidentally exhumed in Useful Girl.  

In Jana McBurney-Lin’s My Half of the Sky, we empathize with the young Chinese woman whose life is controlled and mismanaged by her father who arranges a marriage in order to pay off gambling debts that threaten to get him killed.  Millions of books by authors who care about the plight of his or her characters, allow the reader to share their passions and convictions vicariously.

If you grew up in an age and similar culture as I did, you probably achieved the ability to mask and subdue emotions. Keep it all inside. Don’t let anyone see how you feel. Don’t cry. Don’t get mad! Be nice. Always. No matter how you feel. Never ever hurt anyone’s feelings. Feelings? Feelings became so taboo for me, that I grew up without the tools needed to identify any kind of emotion. And without emotion, it was very difficult to know what I wanted, or even who I was. As I grew older, I learned that it was easier for me to get in touch with how I felt about anything, and to express those feelings by writing, than it was by speaking. I was so afraid of emotion, that the more I felt, the less I could speak. The stronger the emotion, the more mute I became. That caused some very embarrassing situations. 

The first date I ever had was to  a hay ride put on by the FHA. Girls had to ask boys. I had a terrible, almost painful crush on a very cute boy in my class named Tad. I admired him from afar, never speaking two words to him. My older brother, determined to “help” me, insisted that I just call the guy and ask if he would go with me. “What’s the worst he can say?”  He initiated the call for me, and as soon as he had Tad on the line, stuck the phone to my ear. I gulped and somehow muttered the question. “Will you go to the FHA hayride with me?”  To my horror, he said, “Yes.” 

I was in no way prepared to deal with this situation. Fear paralyzed my vocal cords for the whole evening. Tad tried to start a few conversations. I wanted to answer but terror kept me from responding with more that a nod, a head-shake, a squeeze of the hand or a hug. Oh, yes. I wasn’t afraid to put my arms around him and hold on tight in a desperate effort to say, I’m sorry I can’t talk, but please love me anyway. 

It was our only date. I still idolized him from afar, knowing I had blown any chance that he would ever want to go out with me again. A few years later, I was informed that a car crash had taken his life. To this day I don’t understand my reaction. I giggled, an embarrassed and uncontrollable giggle. I was sad, shocked——and I laughed——an example of the confused emotional state I lived in then. 

I can think of dozens of other face-burning, spine-crawling, wishing-to-disappear-through-the-cracks-in-the-floor moments throughout my lifetime that resulted from my inability to say the right thing at the right time. The more I admired people, the harder it was to speak to them. The more I hated something, the more I avoided any subject that might require me to speak of it. The sadder I felt, the more I isolated myself. And if I couldn’t physically hide, I mentally withdrew, escaping behind a wall in my mind where no one could peek. 

Written words became a vehicle for me to explore the wilderness of my confused inner life. Words on paper took me places forbidden to my tongue. Through poetry and prose, I could begin to taste and try the suppressed emotions that haunted me. I could begin to find out what I valued; what disturbed me, what was important to me, and what was not. Why do I like to write fiction? I think it’s because a fictional character can take the passions and convictions and emotions that I hold deeply, and portray them in a real and meaningful way— a way in which I am still not capable of verbalizing orally, or fully understanding beyond the written page.


Janet Grace Riehl said...

"Written words became a vehicle for me to explore the wilderness of my [passionate]inner life."

You speak for many writers here. I'm glad you mentioned Kingsolver. I admire her 360 degrees.

Hey! Happy birthday!

Janet Riehl

Mary Cunningham said...

Is this your birthday?? Happy Birthday, Janet!

I think you expressed what many fiction writers feel. Lovely, thought-provoking post.

Angela Kelly said...

Happy Belated Birthday, Janet!

I enjoyed the topic today ... I believe many people, beyond writers, also relate!