Reflecting Life in Our Writing

I am never disappointed in The Writer magazine. True to form, when I paged through my December issue this month, I read another article that struck a chord at exactly the right moment.

I am finally – and seriously – back to work on my novel in progress, so much so that I named this draft “Signs of Life, for real this time.” It’s a story about a young woman named Gale, who’s mother is killed, and in losing family, Gale finds family – and forgiveness. I want to write this story with enough emotion but not too much, which has been one reason for procrastination: I’m afraid the story will read too dark and too heavy. I was relieved, then, to come upon David Harris Ebenbach’s essay in The Writer, “Writing Toward the Light.”

In his essay, Ebenbach focuses only on the short story, but many of his points can be applied to memoirs and novels as well. Ebenbach addresses his long-standing belief that, to be called “great,” a story must focus on “struggle and conflict” and pain. But, as he questions his own ideas and discovers several well-written and well-received stories that highlight a character’s “opportunities” instead of “struggles,” Ebenbach realizes that all writing must embody balance. He says:

“…[T]here’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about darkness…darkness is a significant part of life. [But], light, of course, is also part of life, and as writers that ought to mean something to us.”

While definitions of literary fiction (like the one on Writer’s Relief, Inc.) say that “[l]iterary fiction tackles ‘big’ issues that are…controversial, difficult, and complex,” I need to remember Ebenbach’s point, that “difficult” in fiction (or memoir, for that matter) doesn’t have to mean all dark, all the time.

As Ebenbach says, “[readers] want to see the real world – in all its richness and complexity – reflected in literature.” And, isn’t that the way life rolls: the serious and the silly taking our focus in turns?

I know about death, about losing a mother, about the heaviness that settles and then hovers for months after. But, I also know about moments that surface during those dark times, moments that propel a person into a fit of laughter when laughter doesn’t seem possible.

Like when an overweight and messy driver ushers a grieving family into the back of a limo and then cruises down the road, from the funeral home to the church, at a high rate of speed. It’s only when he slams on the brakes and tosses the family around like rag dolls that the tension breaks and laughter erupts.

Those kind of moments in life give us a breather from a harsh reality long enough to gather strength; they are the moments that have us rolling on the couch the next day when we’re hung over on emotion.

And, those kinds of moments can turn up for the characters in our stories, as they face struggles, as well.

Ebenbach’s stress on balance in our writing gives me a broader perspective as I tackle more of this new draft, as I rearrange scenes in the novel, add new details, and weave the dark and light of emotion throughout the pages. I can’t throw in a humorous scene for the sake of “a breather” — every scene must still drive the plot forward. Yet, I shouldn’t be afraid to see the lighter side of a character’s life, even a character in pain.


Ebenbach, David Harris. โ€œWriting Toward the Light.โ€ The Writer. December 2010: 15-16. Print.



19 responses to “Reflecting Life in Our Writing

  1. Christi, this is an excellent reflection on the article. Finding the “lighter side of a character’s life, even a character in pain” is important not just for writing, but for life. Good reminders for the beginning of a new month.

    BTW, I was soooo fortunate to partake in a focus group at The Writer’s publishing house in Waukesha last month! I have always loved the magazine. Its articles got me started in freelancing nearly 20 years ago (before it was bought by Kalmbach), and I still find just as much to use and love in it.

    Great post, as usual!
    ~ Lisa

    • Thanks, Lisa. There’s even more in that article that resonated with me that I didn’t include here – I just love it. And, how fun to be a part of the focus group. I look forward to my issue every month! I hope your writing is going well these days.

  2. I agree, you did an excellent job highlighting the points in the article and adding your own insights. The “serious and the silly” do live side by side, and your description of the limo leaving the funeral home is perfect.

    On a side note, I like that definition of literary fiction. I’ve seen many, but struggle when the definition focuses primarily on the language, because there’s more to it than that.

  3. Excellent post, Christi. I agree with you and with the writer of the essay that in the midst of deep trouble and dark days, shards of light break the monotony of sorrow by evoking laughter in our lives. Writing that reflects all shades of life is writing that is real. Blessings to you…

  4. A great value-add to a compelling article. And kudos to you for thinking to rename your novel draft in a way that keeps you motivated! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Good article. Reading what you write, makes me want to write!! I can’t wait till the book about losing your mom is published. I know about the dark times after that and having lost my Mom in 1983, I can tell you it improves but never goes away. There is laughter… lots of it. Thanks again for a great article

  6. There definitely has to be a balance of struggle and light. Movies use this tactic all the time; tragedy, and then comic relief.

    Also, good for you and the serious writing…a title means business! Best of luck — I’ll be rooting for you~

  7. Yes, yes, yes!

    I love this, and I totally agree with your excellent reflections on light/dark. When I wrote CeeCee there were some very dark moments that were necessary to convey her mother’s mental illness, but it was the “light” and the laughter and the humor that gave me joy in writing and lifted the story to where I wanted it to be.

    I really enjoyed your post!

  8. Excellent post, Christi. I haven’t read the article, but you’ve given me enough to think about. My next novel will definitely need light in the darkness, so thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  9. Christi,

    This is just absolutely perfect. I’ve been meditating on the heaviness of memoir writing and have worried it down. Only today I started thinking about the lighter side and how that needs it’s own telling braided in.

    And that limo driver, he may just have been a genius. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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