Eureka

I’ve never blogged about the art of writing. I’ve talked about self-publishing and about progress on my own current novel, but never about the craft itself. I never felt like I had much to add to the conversation. I’m just this guy who’s sole publishing accomplishment is some bad junior high poetry, and I’ve got a ways to go before publishing a novel. But I’m going to share this revelation, if for no other reason than I learn a lot about myself when I talk through things.

In preparing the WIP for the terrifying querying and pitching process, I had a legion (read: 4) of early readers. Their feedback was invaluable, but all three of them aligned on one thing that worried me. They all fell in love with one half of my book, and felt disconnected from the other half.

See, I’ve written a split narrative. One half of the novel is the diary of a twenty-something Japanese girl. That’s the half people connected with. The other half is a thirty-something American guy told in third person. That’s the half people didn’t connect with all that well. But wait, I’m a thirty-something American who’s lived in Japan! How were people connecting with a wholly-fabricated Japanese girl better than the guy who was channeling my very existence and experiences?

I mulled and fretted and eventually ignored this and tried to clean up the American half as best I could, but it didn’t sing true. I wasn’t connecting with it either, and that’s when I knew I had to do something drastic. While I was in Japan earlier this month, I started reading A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway. There’s a scene in the first third of the book where the narrator experiences a shelling during the war. And that’s when I realized what was wrong with half of my novel.

My 3rd person half of the narrative was too far removed from the feelings and experiences of the character it focused on. He saw things happen, and that’s about it. He didn’t experience them. When I wrote the first person half, the girl naturally talked about how she felt, what she thought, how the experiences changed her and why she did what she did. When I wrote the American half, however, all that got left out. Maybe because I felt it so strongly within me, I read a lot of that feeling into the words on the page, not realizing that none of the words on the page really conveyed any feeling at all.

I didn’t want to switch out of a 3rd person POV, but I wanted to really capture that essence and so, with Hemingway firmly in the back of my mind, I set out to rewrite my first chapter–without referring back to the earlier draft. Went in blind, with a blank Word doc. The difference, to me at least, was (cliche alert) night and day.

Here’s the same “sequence”, before and after.

Before:

Chris squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for the cold, infinite void that never came. The tugboat tumbled past inches from his face. He smelled the oil and grease from its engines as it rolled by. Water sprayed up into his face, tickling his cheeks. A few pieces of debris found their way into his mouth and he spat them out, the taste wet and earthy, the sensation like chewing on dirty cardboard. Grit stuck between his teeth and he continued to spit, unable to get rid of it all. A mouthful of sand.

After:

The water reached his neck and his chest felt tight and he knew his heart was giving out and all he wanted was for the madness to stop. Breathing was hard and water pushed at his mouth and the currents pulled at his legs and his shoulders stretched and twisted and he screamed because the scream gave him strength to hold on as the world fell apart. He choked and spit and the smell of musty basements filled his nose.

The first one reads very mechanically to me. “This happened. Then that. Then something else.” There’s no feeling, no real urgency, too much telling and not enough showing. The second one captures that chaos of the moment better, the feelings, the fears, and something about those run-on sentences (please forgive me, Mrs. Boozer) helps convey the sense of urgency.

So now to go through and rewrite half my book. Hey, at least it’s not the whole thing, right?

How about the rest of you? What were some of your big “eureka!” moments where it all started to click and you found your way out of whatever hole you were in with your writing?

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Finding Your Voice In A Foreign Land

My knowledge of the Japanese language is entirely functional. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m functionally fluent. If I need to find a bathroom, I can do that. If I need to make special adjustments to a restaurant order, I can do that. If I need to tell my kids to stop chewing on each others’ arms, I can do that, too. I can converse in a rather verbose, if boring and stilted, manner. I cannot, however, write a story. I cannot string together a poem or express complex emotional ideas. I cannot weave a tapestry of words to evoke emotions, to encourage empathy, to fundamentally move a person and leave my mark on them.

And it’s frustrating when I’m in a situation where I have to do exactly that. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, struggling to find a voice in a language I have yet to master, overflowing with emotions to relate but unable to relate them in the right way.

At my sister-in-law’s wedding, they had a slideshow of pictures from the lives of the bride and groom. The first picture of the bride’s life was her as a baby in the smiling arms of my mother-in-law. As related in an earlier post, she died before I ever met her. My first trip to Japan was for her funeral.

All I could think when I saw that picture was how she’d never been able to hold any of her grandchildren like that. How my kids will grow up without their Japanese “ba-san”. How she will never be able to pass on to her daughters that special kind of motherly advice that can only come from one’s own mother.

The next pictures were of my wife and her sister growing up, going through all the various milestones kids go through, with their smiling mother by their side. All these things she’ll never see for her own grandkids, never be able to do with them. I was touched, but at the same time I was standing in the back of the reception hall holding my one-year-old son. I couldn’t break down–it was my job to keep him from breaking down.

But then the last picture came up in the slideshow. The family all stood together, smiling, with a caption whose beauty I can’t exactly translate but is best rendered as: “Her mother watches over her from Heaven.” And that’s when I lost control. I excused myself and walked out of the reception hall and over to the large windows overlooking the city of Nagoya.

It helped that my son chose that moment to go a little nuts, so I had some cover, but that’s not exactly why I left. I’m no stranger to embarrassment–you get used to that marrying into a foreign culture. No, I had to leave because I knew that if anyone asked me what was wrong, why I looked like I’d been chopping onions, I wouldn’t be able to express exactly how I felt. “I’m sad” and “I was moved” are functional phrases. They’re all that came to mind. They’re all I knew how to say in my functional Japanese voice. And they weren’t sufficient. They wouldn’t do the moment justice. So I hid away by the windows, watching the traffic in the streets below for a while to gather my thoughts and let the baby settle down.

As authors, sometimes we struggle to find our own voice. I’m discovering the same is also true when learning a foreign language. It’s my goal to someday be able to tell my Japanese family exactly how I feel in my very own Japanese Ben voice. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s for a good cause.

Family at the Wedding

Actually, five good causes.