The Art of Fiction Writing or How to Fall Down the Rabbit Hole Without Really Trying
by Emily Hanlon
Bestselling author and teacher
So you need some inspiration?
Try some RPC: Risk, Passion and Creativity
Being a creator is risky business. Don’t underestimate the tremendous emotional and psychic risks the journey demands. Learn to push ahead even when you are afraid. Learn to love the risk
Tip 4 from Emily's Ten Tips on Creativity
I have a theory that has been very successful in my teaching. I believe that anyone who has taken the trouble to find me and taken the risk of coming to see me much less signed up for a series of workshops or private lessons has a powerful Inner Writer. With that in mind, even if the person is a novice, I never experience him as such. Instead, I imagine I’m talking to the Inner Writer, who soaks up the teaching and, if allowed, guides the student into new and unseen landscapes and characters . The knowing beyond knowing is a place of comfort and excitement for the writer within. Sometimes in only one session a character never before dreamed of flies free. "But I’ve never thought about such things before," the writer will say, sometimes delighted, sometimes taken aback. "I didn’t know . . ." "Not in the conscious mind," I tell them. "But in the dream world and flights of dark fancy you knew." This method of teaching or dialoguing with a student’s Inner Writer has had results that I once found astounding and now muse over. Let me tell you about Jean Busatti, whose success is one of never-ending delight and inspiration not only to me but also to others in the class. Jean was an unassuming schoolteacher when she came into my workshop. She hadn’t written any fiction in five years, and her first months in class were difficult. Week after week Jean was sent back to the drawing board; the situations she wrote about had potential, but the characters were somewhat stiff and unbelievable. There was one character of more interest than the others; he was emotionally bloodthirsty and seemed to devour, suck out the lifeblood of those around him. I urged Jean to go more deeply into his dark emotions. This was difficult for Jean, whose Inner Critic basically wanted her to make nice stories, certainly not to write about such subjects as violence and definitely not sex. But Jean trusted me, and I sensed early on that she could be pushed. Why? Because she had such a passionate need to write. It is possible to sense a writer’s passion even if it is shackled. It rises off the page in bursts of unexpected electric currents; it is like a caged panther filled with a devouring hunger for freedom. Each week I pushed Jean further and further, driving her deeper and deeper into stories lying in her character’s past, exploring his motivations, finding out what makes him tick. In essence, I was pushing Jean to become this character. To forget herself and move into the skin, the blood, muscles and sinews of her character, to see the world through his eyes. This is an extremely subtle and important move—out of self and into the character. You never want your character to be you. Instead, you must become your character. This is truly a wondrous metamorphosis, and when it happens, you can feel it in your body, mind and heart; it is the moment when you cease being you with all your doubts, judgments, desires and Inner Critic yappings and move into the being of another. Then no matter if the character stands for everything you are not (and some of your best characters will), you have moved out of judgment, you are no longer writing from the left side of the brain and you have fallen not only down the Rabbit Hole but in love. You see your character’s flaws, but no longer judge them. You love your character despite his flaws, you love him for his flaws, you love, you are in love, and the real magic can begin. You no longer try to stop or change the character. You are passionately along for the ride. I could sense Jean was approaching this place. She kept on saying things like, "I don’t know why I like this guy so much. He’s mean, he’s brutal, he cheats on his wife, envies and hates his brother, but . . ." She couldn’t help smiling and her eyes lit up. "I can’t help loving him." Aha, I thought greedily. I have her. She’s mine! She kept on writing about this fiend, and although the writing improved, it still didn’t reflect the passion that Jean clearly felt. And then in the middle of a workshop, her emotionally bloodthirsty character transformed in my mind into a vampire and I asked her, "Do you like horror stories?" "I love them," she said as if that were a deep, dark, dirty secret. Jean’s eyes are always a dead giveaway to her inner delights. They sparkled as she admitted to what her Inner Critic surely thought was a sinister truth, and she laughed nervously. "So write a vampire story," I said. "Oh, no, I couldn’t!" she protested. "Oh, yes, you can. Next week, come in with one." She did. She wrote a cute vampire story, on the surface. Underneath, however, I sensed she’d hit a vein—so to speak. Beneath the cute, the characters were bleeding. She didn’t sense this, but I encouraged her to write more vampire "stuff," to take more chances, go deeper, darker, bloodier. It was a process that took months, and Jean had to wrestle with some pretty powerful demons, but a year and a half later, she is nearly finished with the first draft of a terrific horror novel. The hero is a vampire who is as seductive as he is bloody; but the novel is also humorous, sometimes deliciously tongue-in-cheek and, at its core, explores what all good writing explores, the shadow side of the human condition, that confusing place in all of us where good struggles with evil, love dances with hate, lust rushes unbidden through our veins, and mercy, tenderness and forgiveness slip through our fingers again and again. And sometimes I think that best of all is that Jean is having the time of her life! Much to her Inner Critic’s dismay, she is a—gasp, gulp, heaven forbid—horror writer, and there’s not a thing the Inner Critic can do anymore to keep her off the path. In fact, she retired from teaching to write full time! That is a dream come true. The following excerpt from Jean’s book shows the lush sensuality of her embracing of the darkside. The vampire hero, Devon Ducayne, has just murdered an important politician to the strains of a chamber music concert. As the man falls lifeless, there is a knock on the door and his daughter enters. "Father, you are missing the concert. Bring your guest out. Let’s enjoy the…" A young woman, slender, tall, and attractive, stepped into the room. Devon recognized her as Frawley’s daughter, Mary. She looked with horror at the body of her father draped over the desk. She opened her mouth as if to scream when the vampire bounded through the air and hurled himself at her. She bounced against the wall with a loud sigh as the air was knocked out of her. Stunned, she dropped onto the floor and slammed her head against the edge of a cumbersome bookcase. Blood gushed from an open wound. It splattered over the floor and formed bizarre patterns on the white wall. A satiny red puddle next to the girl widened and glistened in the dim light of the fire. She was barely alive; he felt the warmth of her body; he heard the soft irregular breathing. He smelled the sweetness of the blood, saw vapors lifting from the pool. He felt his loins grow warm. He ached to feed. He felt the sticky texture of the fluid on her soft curls. Flicking his tongue in and out he licked at the wound and pressed his lips to the girl’s neck in eager anticipation. The music stopped. "Sir Henry! Are you there, sir?" The guests were out in the hall just beyond the door. They were milling about waiting for their host. Devon rose. "Damn you all to Satan’s fires!" he muttered. He looked back with longing at the girl. Life was draining from her body. "Sorry, my dear," he murmured as though they had been lovers who were interrupted in their mutual fervor. Jean took the risk to go to places her Inner Critic thought inappropriate; she released the passion—both hers and her characters’—and her belief in herself, in her creativity, flew free as a bat rising against a full moon!
We all have a face that we hide away forever. And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone. Some are satin some are steel. Some are silk and some are leather.
They’re the faces of the stranger But we love to try them on . . . You may never understand How the stranger is inspired But he isn’t always evil And he isn’t always wrong… From the Billy Joel song, The Stranger What is the face you hide from strangers? What is the unquenchable fire unleashed by this stranger within? Before we meet this stranger, it is important, as the song says, that the stranger is not always evil and not always wrong. Some are satin, some are steel, some are silk and some are leather… An example of the silk or satin of darkside came up when I was working with Laura Shore. A pair of lovers was emerging from her unconscious, but no matter how many times she rewrote the budding romance between Jen and Max, the scenes didn’t work. I couldn’t figure out why. Laura is a disciplined and passionate writer; she takes chances willingly; she will rewrite endlessly to get something right. But no matter how many times she rewrote, I couldn’t feel the love that was supposed to be growing between Max and Jen. I asked her, "What do you think of romantic love?" She looked at me as if I had just asked her what I thought of her drinking blood. "Romantic love! It’s stupid. Mushy. Melodramatic. It’s not what good writing is about." Look at those judgmental words—every one pure Inner Critic talk, and I smiled with the realization that romantic love for Laura was akin to horror writing for Jean. So I set Laura her task: write a scene between Jen and Max that grows out of the depth, tenderness and mutuality of their feelings. Write romance. Max opened easily. He’s a natural born romantic and dreamer; he easily admits to his love. Jen is a doctor, driven, focused and dedicated to her patients. Hurt by love in the past, she puts much of her energy into her work in the emergency room. In so doing, she unconsciously pushes Max away and grows frightened and acerbic when he calls her on it. Then, when he needs her most, instead of opening to her love for him, she falls back into the objectivity of the doctor. This was the basis of the scenario that wasn’t working. What we finally realized is that Jen represents an aspect of Laura’s darkside, the driven, focused side of her, the side that her Inner Critic wants no one to see. The Inner Critic wants Laura to appear as a soft, warm, fuzzy person with no hard edges, one bathed completely in light and love. The Inner Critic has done a good job convincing Laura that her discipline and ability to focus are detrimental to those she loves best. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Anyone who knows Laura knows she’s an open, warm, giving person. Besides being a writer, she’s a healer and rebirther. She guides others on their journey inward. It is her discipline and her ability to focus that allows her to be successful in this delicate work. But when a character emerged from Laura’s unconscious who is driven, focused, tender and capable of deep love, the Inner Critic balked—no way was he going to let Laura get such ideas into her head: Stay a warm soft fuzzy is his message. The battle inside Laura was fierce, and at times it felt as if she might lose. She was beginning to feel as if she wasn’t a writer—despite the fact she’s been writing all her life and has a novel published. When she phoned me, desperate, ready to give up, I told her, "Write from the point of view of your Inner Writer. Listen only to her. Let her tell you why romantic love is so important. Let her tell you why you’re writing this book. Write fast. Call me back in twenty minutes." She called back in fifteen minutes. She sounded lighter, hopeful. The Inner Writer had broken through; the tide of the battle had turned. Here is an excerpt: Jen deserves to have her story told. She is a woman who brooks no nonsense when it comes to medicine, but doubts herself in other areas. She needs to show me how it feels to be cherished and what it takes to let in that love, to really feel lovable. Jen is there to show me love can be mutual giving and nurturing. She returns it as an open-hearted partner. She and Max finally meet as equals in love. Laura began rewriting, and Jen’s voice, once harsh, cold and critical began to soften. Unshackled, Jen became a lover in the deepest sense of the word and the novel became, among other things, a passionate, romantic love story.
The Skeleton in Your Closet: Embracing Your Darkside
Our power as human beings comes from the blending of the light and dark, the gentle and powerful. Power can be used to create or destroy. Destruction can be seen as positive or negative. Darkness can be terrifying or magnificent.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible
Some Letter of that After-Life to spell And by and by my Soul returned to me And answer’d ‘I myself am Heav’n and Hell.’ Omar Khayyam, Sufi poet
Your Inner Writer knows that creating is a constant dance between heaven and hell, yin and yang, intuitive and rational, head and gut and heart, and in that dance there is no right and wrong, no like and dislike; there is simply being and dancing the passionate dance. It is this shadow world of the human psyche that becomes the grist for the artist’s mill.
Write down the skeletons of passion in your closet.
Star the one that scares you the most. List adjectives that connote darkside to you.
List nouns that connote darkside to you, for example, tidal wave, storm, blood and black rose.
List verbs that connote darkside to you.
List darkside colors.
Pick a person you dislike, preferably hate. This can be someone in your life or a celebrity. Write the name.
If this person were an animal, what kind of animal would he or she be?
Look at your lists. Pick one from each column that jumps out at you. You can pick two or three, but not too many. You should have an adjective, a noun, a verb and a color. List them.
In addition, you have the person’s name and a type of animal. Using all these words as a jumping-off point, fill this page with the beginning of a story about that person you hate. Let it rip. Take a risk. Be passionate. Have fun!
"We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world."
This article was excerpted from The Art of Fiction Writing or How to Fall Down the Rabbit Hole Without Really Trying by Emily Hanlon. In addition, Emily is the author of eight works of fiction, including the best selling novel, Petersburg. She has been teaching writing for over twenty years. She works with people over the telephone, in workshops and holds week long writing retreats, Writing, Creativity and Ritual:A Woman's Retreat. For more information explore her web site, Writing, The Passionate Journey at www.emilyhanlon.com or email her at [email protected] © 1999 Emily Hanlon all rights reserved