Monday, March 28, 2011

See What No One Else Sees

If you're a subscriber to our mailing list, you might have read my review of Haruki Murakami's After Dark. This book is short and relatively light, but it taught me the importance of seeing things that other people don't normally see.

After Dark takes place in the middle of the night, during hours where much of the people in the Japanese city where the story takes place are asleep and unaware. Murakami creates an entire "invisible" world here that seems to be right under our noses. Like the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia or the telephone booths in The Matrix, these magical places seem thrilling because they are at once so close at hand and yet so alien.

The same thing can be said for countless things that go on around us every day. What do our pets do when we're not home? What sort of negotiations happen behind the scenes at a museum? As writers, we have the exciting opportunity to uncover those things that no one else has paid any attention to.

This idea has really opened up a lot of story ideas for me. One sad topic that I had to confront back in 2007 was the death of my dogs, a brother and sister pair that were part of my life for over fifteen years. On the surface, this event probably doesn't sound that unique. A lot of people lose their loved ones and family members. But, when I reached an emotional place where I could actually write about it, I focused on the details of the death that people didn't ask about or pay attention to. It wasn't enough for me to write about the fact that they were dead, but I wanted to and needed to explore the events leading up to their death and the actual details of what happened when the deaths occurred. This led to my story "I'm Waiting For My Dogs To Die," which for me personally is one of the most emotional pieces I've ever written.

This concept of seeing things that no one else sees has become a really important component of my writing. In honor of my grandmother's death, I wrote a short story called "The Wild Grass." It's a piece that means a lot to me, but it was one that I had written BEFORE my grandmother's passing. When her death actually did come and I learned the details of it, my picture of the death was far less romantic than what I had created in "The Wild Grass." Because I felt that the real details were important and something that needed to be written down, I included them in another story of mine, Bread. It's strange to me now, because "The Wild Grass" is more obviously about my grandmother, but it is in this other story where I feel like the real unseen details emerged.

Some of the greatest authors have created masterpieces from observing something common in a very different way. Virginia Woolf delves so deeply into the mind of her characters during a fairly mundane day in To The Lighthouse. Leo Tolstoy follows a dying man to the smallest detail in The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. In Cinders, our very own Michelle created a whole story simply by asking what happened to a character after she reached her "happily ever after."

Often books and stories become popular because they transport us to an exotic location that we aren't familiar with. I think what's important to remember is that these strange places can be as close as our kitchen sink if we look at it with the proper mindset and the proper eye.

So, have you uncovered something before that other people don't seem to pay attention to?

27 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, Davin. I THRIVE on stories that take this angle. They are my favorite stories to read and to write, and I think this is where I find my true inspiration. I think of it as putting a magnifying glass up to things. All of a sudden there is a different, strange, and unique world, and it's a place I desperately want to explore all the time. I must read After Dark!

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  2. Michelle, I'd be really curious to see what you thought of After Dark. I was surprised by how much I liked it. It's bizarre and a bit dark and magical all at the same time.

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  3. Where is everyone today? Come on, fellow Labbers!!!

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  4. Michelle, After Dark is also a novella, FYI! :)

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  5. Great post, Dome. "Waiting for My Dogs to Die" was the first story I ever read of yours and it's still one of my favorites! Thanks for linking it here.

    Murakami has a way of finding odd angles and unusual details that bring his scenes to life. I haven't read anything besides After Dark.

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  6. D: I think you have a very broad notion of what a novella is! AFTER DARK is 244 pgs in the edition I own. That's a novel in my book! ;)

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  7. TJN, thanks a lot! That means a lot to me. That story was one of the first times I felt like I wrote sincerely and fearlessly. The fact that a lot of people liked it really helped encourage me to keep working in that mode.

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  8. TJN, ha ha, fair enough. I remember it being really short, though. Maybe the font is big? I would also call Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road a novella, so maybe I do have a broad notion of what a novella is.

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  9. Some of us have meetings this morning, ta awfully.

    If I'm going to be honest, I have to admit that everything I do in my writing has been done before and done better. I'm still working out basic craft issues, I think. Any time I think I've been clever and innovative I almost immediately stumble upon another writer who's conducted my fancy experiments.

    One thing I try to do is explore the uncomfortable bits of personality that people don't examine in themselves, but certainly there's a long tradition of that. So I feel most of the time that I'm following in the footsteps of great writers rather than striking out on my own. I don't know what "on my own" looks like, frankly. Which turns out to be one of the themes to Killing Hamlet, as it happens.

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  10. The Road is definitely a novella. Immense type to pad out the pagecount.

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  11. That kind of crap drives me batty. Why don't they just call it a novella?

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  12. Scott, maybe it depends on how much you are willing to generalize. I think a lot of people may use the same strategy, but maybe they don't apply the same strategy to the same subject matter or something like that. Maybe.

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  13. Hey, Lit Lab: congrats on 600+ followers!

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  14. Congrats on reaching 600 followers!

    Thoughtful post. I think what makes a truly great story is looking at universal experiences from a new angle--very good point--and also conveying your passion about that experience to the reader.

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  15. TJN and Anne, thank you!

    Anne, very well said. I think passion is really important, and I also believe it is something that comes through when you sincerely feel it for a subject matter.

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  16. Awesome and insightful post. I'm not sure I ever thought about writing this way, but now it makes complete sense that this is what makes certain stories so darn good. I'm going to have to keep my eyes open from now on. Thanks!

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  17. Juliana, keeping your eyes open also helps to prevent bumping your forehead against walls. So it's win-win!

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  18. Davin, this book sounds absolutely awesome. *scribbles the name down*

    Today as I read your post, I suddenly thought of an idea based on the last part of one sentence you typed: taught me the importance of seeing things that other people don't normally see.

    So of course it must be dedicated to the Lit Lab.
    Thanks. ;)

    Oh and I just finished reading Cinders not too long ago. Who'da thought about writing a book like that? Great idea, great writing.

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  19. Robyn, thank you! I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the book! :)

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  20. Robyn, I feel great knowing you got an idea from all of this. That's fantastic! Thanks for letting us know.

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  21. YES. Find the angle and perspectives that no one else thinks of. That's what people want to read. You just take an idea and spin it on its head.

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  22. The story about the dogs stopped me cold. I just kept thinking: "Bless you." Wonderful.

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  23. There's a bit of this in everything I write, but I think sometimes it's a bit arch.

    "Death, Be not Me" (from Genre Wars) was written largely as a different way of looking at death.

    Sublimation is a different way of looking at good, evil, and the self.

    A bit more long hair, I think, than what you're talking about.

    Then again, "Terminal Instar" is a different way of looking at insect spray and news stands.

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  24. McKenzie, Yes, I think people are always excited to learn and see new things. We like our brains to be working whether we admit to it or not!

    Liza, Thank you so much for the nice compliment! I really appreciate it!

    Nevets, I think in all the works I've read of yours you do seem to explore new ideas a lot. I really like and admire that you challenge yourself like that so consistently.

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