Lately we’ve been talking a lot about what differentiates the decent stories from the ones that gut hook us and don’t let go. In my opinion the truly superlative stories stand out in one way. We are not only entertained…we are changed. We aren’t the same person we were when we flipped open to page one and decided to give the story a go.
By the end, through characters, trials, challenges, heartbreak, ruin and victory we are forever a different person. The story generates a chemical change, rendering us a cake that can’t be unbaked.
Great stories (and the authors who pen them) serve us fresh insight into ourselves and others, a different perspective on the world around us. They might reveal a darkness we never noticed or were to afraid to face or offer hope we didn’t know we could have.
Most vital of all, these stories provide perspective we could gain no other way.
Fiction is the only way we can step into the shoes of a broken, pathetic alcoholic (Girl on a Train), an aging heavy metal rock star burdened by false guilt who never truly escaped the sadistic father who turned his childhood into a hell (Heart-Shaped Box).
We can know what it is to feel like life is no longer worth living once we’ve outlived our usefulness even if we are young (A Man Called Ove). We can experience the gross injustice and humiliation of being a black maid in the American South during the 60s (The Help) no matter what color our skin.
Regardless of race, faith, gender, or background, stories allow us into a perspective to experience life, to encounter our own wounds (wounds common across all of humanity) from a different vantage point. We come to appreciate how seeing our pain worked out through another gives us the psychic distance necessary for us recognize then heal the pain that in real life we can’t yet touch…without screaming.
The Battle of Logic & Emotion
I find it interesting that scientists really don’t have a definitive reason WHY we dream. Is is the brain defragging? The subconscious mind revealing what we can’t see when we’re awake because the left brain rushes in with a logical explanation?
When left brain gets a vote, it’s all too easy to miss the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He wasn’t being mean. It was a joke. He’s right. I don’t have a very good sense of humor.
But fiction? Fiction is emotion. Fiction is primal and hooked directly into the right brain. Dreams are not ruled by logic, but they are extremely limited in what they can do once we’re up and have had our coffee. But, there’s another way…STORY.
Yet how do so many of us tackle our demons?
If you’re like me, you read self-help books about self-esteem, boundaries, forgiveness and healing and while these books can offer a lot of great information, (in my POV) they’re talking to the wrong side of the brain.
We can read all the self-help books about forgiveness, but what happens when we come face to face with our betrayers? When we have to be in the same room with flesh-and-blood villains who have zero remorse over the ruin left in the wake of their actions? The liars, pillagers, and plunderers we once supported, loved and trusted…who knifed us in the back and never shed a tear after leaving us like this.
I can tell you what happens when we face these folks.
We’re calm and composed and easily recall the breathing exercises, meditation, and self-affirmations spoken into a mirror. We stare into our betrayer’s face knowing we’re a better person who’s done a lot of therapy and exercises. We even composed long letters of how this person hurt us, burned the letters and let the embers fly away on zephyrs delivering our pain into the sky and to the unicorns.
And everything is okay because we know hurting people hurt people….and….
%$#& THAT $#!%!
Reptile brain rises up like a hidden viper threatening to sink its fangs into left brain’s soft gray matter if is says one frigging reasonable word.
While left brain is the calm, enlightened negotiator, reptile brain is Old Testament and Old School and believes an eye for an eye. Right brain is raw emotion and the one who’s closest to the reptile (brain) inside all of us.
What happens next in such a confrontation can be placed anywhere on a large continuum from getting in a shouting match spewing venomous words to ending up on an episode of Dateline.
Right brain is creative, thus good at hiding bodies.
Yes, self-help books and therapy, etc. have a place, but I don’t think they’re nearly as well-suited for healing wounds as story is. Why is that?
Because we cannot heal emotional wounds with logical poultices.
It’s like trying to halt a runaway MRSA infection with anti-depressants. Infection is virus and it needs something anti-viral, equipped to surround and dismantle the invasion.
Same thing goes for psychic wounds.
The wounds created BY emotion (betrayal, abandonment, exploitation, abuse) can only be healed WITH emotion. Inner demons and wounds are by nature emotional, thus in the realm of the right brain (and limbic brain). This means the right brain is far better suited (perhaps even DESIGNED) to stop the “infection” and heal the damage.
When we read fiction and vicariously experience our hurts, failures, disappointments, betrayals through another set of eyes, it’s a way of facing our villains in life. We get a place to feel these emotions, but better still? Story shows us it is possible to come through the fire not only healed, but stronger and better.
By reading all kinds of stories with characters battling a vast variety of problems, we can experience far greater empathy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It’s also far more effective than coldly analyzing our baggage on a flow chart.
Mending the Broken
For me, my greatest AH-HA moments have come from fiction. Stories have allowed me another way of looking at myself and my pain.
The most recent example of this came from Heart-Shaped Box. Sure it’s a horror, the story of a vengeful ghost hot on the tail of an aging rock star. Yet, oddly enough, this story changed my perception of myself more than a stack of self-help books and years of well-meaning therapists ever did.
Fifty-four-year-old rock star (Judas Coin) is on the run from a vengeful spirit with his goth girlfriend (Georgia) who’s half his age. I could relate to Georgia, though our backstory is different.
She believes she’s damaged goods, worth nothing and grateful for the crumbs that fall from the table. She’s had a hard life filled with exploitation, pain, failure and shame and, as a result, chooses men she knows will hurt her because suffering is what she deserves.
The Lightning Strike
Judas and Georgia have a conversation at a Denny’s during a brief reprieve from the ghost who’s hunting them and end up on the topic of kids. She says she’s never had kids because she’s too afraid they’ll find out about her. Judas asks what exactly her kids would find out. This next bit is some of the most powerful dialogue I’ve ever read.
Georgia: “That I dropped out of high school. That when I was thirteen I let a guy turn me into a prostitute. The only job I was ever good at involved taking my clothes off to Mötley Crüe for a room full of drunks. I tried to kill myself. I been arrested three times. I stole money from my grandma and made her cry. I didn’t brush my teeth for about two years. Am I missing anything?”
Judas: “So this is what your kid would find out: No matter what bad thing happens to me, I can call my mother, because she’s been through it all. No matter what shi##y thing happens to me, I can survive it because my mom’s been through worse, and she made it.” ~ Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (page 171).
I remember this part of the novel hitting me like a bolt from the sky and I burst out crying, the moment of catharsis so raw and visceral. I once was Georgia (maybe a part always will be). Because of my life experiences, I too believed I was damaged goods.
Because I empathized with Georgia (similar demons) I could vicariously experience her breakthrough, that WOW moment when Judas completely reframes what she’s just said. She isn’t “damaged goods” at all. Rather, she’s like furniture that’s been battered and scratched that collectors pay big bucks for because it’s “distressed” and thus more interesting and far more valuable because of its damage and scars.
I’m sure a zillion well-meaning friends or shrinks told me the same thing. Probably read similar notions off faded Post-Its on the bathroom mirror, so why didn’t the happy, happy mantras stick? Why didn’t these affirmations melt me, undo me and remake me?
It’s because that left-brain approach is too sterile, and it doesn’t shove us face first into what we need to face. Fiction, on the other hand is ugly and dirty and raw. It provides intimacy and slams that psychic distance tight (while we still are technically “safe”).
Real fiction, the good stuff, reveals that the worthless “damaged goods” in truth, are valuable and maybe even priceless. The story shows the protagonist his or her worldview, their perception of themselves is faulty and through the crucible remolds the protagonist into what we call a hero. This is why I challenge all of you to be fearless in your stories, because if you can be fearless? So can your readers and they will love you for it.
What are your thoughts? I like good self-help books and therapy is important and often vital. But fiction really has a way of grabbing me by the scruff and shaking me. Have you ever read a book that completely revealed something about your own wounds? That helped you? Gave you insight? Helped you heal?
I believe all genres have the ability to give us tremendous healing and hope y’all will check out my Speculative Fiction Class where we are going to bore into the grit and heart of the dark stuff.
I love hearing from you!
For the month of AUGUST, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
July’s winner will be listed next week.
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