The emotional core of the story part 1
Confronted with the unease within
When asked about my novel “A child made to order”, I would summarise it was a psychological drama/thriller about a woman’s inner struggle with her infertility. Upon this statement, I would mostly receive blank stares, followed by an uneasy silence, and the person in question would hurriedly skip to the next subject at hand. Anything which would brush over this anomaly.
Though sometimes, and maybe lucky for me, the more honest ones would spit it right out: “What (the fuck) do you, a 40+ year old male, think you know about infertility?”
Yes, what do I know about something as serious and life-debilitating as the Mitochondrial disease? A rare genetic disorder which renders a woman’s offspring crippled. But even more to the point, what do I know about the long-term repercussions this disease has on these women’s psyche?
Although this question stung right at my insecurites, being as uncomfortable as it can get, it was also necessary to hear it. This was not only a perfectly valid question, it was a question which struck right at the heart of what we storytellers are trying to do. It demanded answers, why am I doing what I do, writing what I write and telling this story, instead of any other story.
And ultimately it also pushed me further into a confrontation with something which most of all attempt to run away from. Our inner unease.
So with this in mind, I would like to circle around the following questions.
Should we write only what we know? Play it safe and approach matters that we have lived through. Or maybe it’s the other way around? We should only write what we don’t know? Take a wild chance, put everything on some wild card, anything to blast our way out of the safe and comfy shell of ours, out of our comfort zone.
And if we choose to go down this troubled path, why do we do it in the first place? What drives us into this great black, yawning chasm of this unknown? Why do we write about something which we have no emotional prerequisite to understand? Is it only naive curiosity driven by our sheer stupidity, or is it some random chance? A quantum crap shoot of the universe?
And then maybe, just maybe, it might be something deeper? Something which bubbles up from our subconsious, our heart(?), and attempts to tell us something, to comprehend ourselves better, to expand our inner cosmos?
“It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. What keeps me sitting at my desk, hour after hour, year after year, is that I do not know something, and I must write in order to find my way to an understanding. This is the essence of all writing, to find a way to an understanding.” – Marcie Hershman
Digging for the core
It is easy as a writer to get caught up in the bells and whistles of the story. The exquisite intricacies of the thrillerish plot, the suespenseful twists and turns, the amazing hook at the beginning, and the stunning revelations at the end. Or even the beautiful theme which might become the inititating point of the story. I certainly do it more often than not and get so fired up, it becomes notorieusly difficult to drag me down to mother earth.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying these skills manifested in our stories. All of them are able to add up to some nifty storytelling. They are the muscles, tendons, eyes, even intellect of the story told. But to get at the core of the story, that part which will not only flabberghast the recepient, but wrench their heart inside out, I believe we need to do some heavy lifting inside ourselves.
We need to dig for the emotional core of our story.
“We are all broken, that’s how the Light gets in.” – Ernest Hemingway
We are all broken
I used the better part of writing my novel to come to terms with why I was writing it in the first place.
There was the initial infatuation with the theme of the current state of Genetics. And it still is. After all, we have a revolution in the making. We are right on the brink of a mile stone in humanity’s history, a point where we will be able to rewrite the most basic fibre of our existence, our DNA. This theme sparked off the idea for the book. But this theme, or any other theme ofr that matter, won’t cut it for 80.000 words which have to push and pull the reader into a trance-like emotional rollercoaster.
So the writing process ended up being a journey, a self-ransacking. What did I have emotionally in common with such a protagonist like Viola? What was the resonating frequency between us? Or to be more exact, what kind of flaws did I share with my character? What conscious wants did we have in common? And what uncioncious needs overlapped in our characters?
And most of all, why did the writing process about such a woman come so naturally for me? What issues were bleeding over from my personality over to the fictitious universe of my protagonist?
From my experience, only through this uncomfortable digging into our own psyche, do we have a chance at creating a story which will reverberate in someone else. In other words, have a shot at becoming universal. Or to put it in in a different manner: The more I write, and make conscious why I write, the more precise and pinpointed my underlying message becomes.
There are some people, writers, artists, etc, who, in a self exclamatory manner, claim they’ve conquered their demons. They’ve become their own Supermen/women, the master’s of their own universe.
And it might even be true, I wish that for them. But personally, I believe this process, the confrontation with what’s inside us, is never finished. Not because I enjoy the anguish it brings, but because it carries with it a constant self-inquiry. And this is what makes us grow. This mental destress and misery is what pushes us to transcend beyond what we are now.
For me Ernest Hemingway’s words bring with them a deep psychological and spiritual truth. They strike right at the heart of the cracks which never quite mend inside us, but instead help us evolve and ascend.
The emotional core of the story part 2
Innocuous questions posed?
The questions that kicked off the story “The emotional core of the story” two weeks ago were simple enough.
Should we write what we know? Or should we take a wild chance, put everything on some wild card, a complete unknown, anything to blast our way out of the safe and comfy shell of ours, out of our comfort zone.
These questions, although seemingly innocent, open up a slew of themes which beg to be queried.
Last time, I concluded at how important it is to arrive at a deeper emotional connection between us, the writers, and the characters in our stories. The true stuff of life, our hard earned emotional experience which has burnt its way into our subconscious, and made us into who we are.
This time around I would like to go deeper into the process of writing my novel “A child made to order”. Into my own experience of enquiry about the main character of this novel and the emotional connection I developed with Viola. A protoganist which was as far away from my own personality as I could possibly imagine. Or so I thought initially.
But more importantly I would like to break down my process of enquiry into some more manageable steps and conclusions. So others might hopefully take away something of value from this.
But first let’s look at the origin of the process itself.
Self-enquiry, its true meaning and ultimate goal
Self-enquiry is a well known spiritual process, used by Buddhists to arrive at deeper truths about what is hidden within us. The divine part which is hidden in us. It can be as simple as a prolonged focus on the question “Who am I?”. When done with scrutiny and vigor, it can uncover our ego and mind as illusions. Bear in mind, this enquiry takes an incessant effort and patience on our part. Think of this process not in terms of months, but a life-time.
The people who are familiar with this process in practice might object to it immediately. They would say it is not aimed at things in this world, not at our psychology, our wounds, and our subcouncious.
I think differently of this matter. I do believe that given a meditative mind, cleansed of the incessant chatter of our thoughts, we are able to uncover some groundbreaking truths about ourselves and the world around us. You might ask, what has this to do with writing? Surely spiritual practice and its immaterial rigor has nothing in common with the creative process.
Well, I think otherwise.
I believe most of us are already doing this process, more or less consciously. Regardless if we are a hardcore spritual practitioner or hate the mere thought of meditation.
Just think about it. Isn’t writing a very active form of meditation? Many artists describe the process of creation, the inspired flow, as a hyper-focused union with something so much larger than our own personality. As a blissful state, a place we disappear into. A swallowing of our whole essence into the immanent.
That’s why I think that by writing, we are able to arrive at these truths. The same way spiritual self-enquiry is able to do. Be it psychological or spiritual questioning. And by writing a lot, we vibrate ever higher with our mind, our focus, reaching for ever more refined and universal answers.
The protagonist’s fragmented psyche
With this in mind, let’s get more specific about my experience of this process. And how this can translate into our writing.
Viola, the main character of “A child made to order” is a 42 year old woman who has been through eleven gruelling IVF cycles. This emotional rollercoaster of high hopes and crushed dreams have laid her psyche in ruins. A short quote from the novel sums up the inner resentment and frustration so havily experienced by Viola and other infertile women.
It’s also an ample illustration of how many years of emotional battering can distort these women’s self-image and project their inner drama, and low self-esteem, onto others.
“Sara! Sara! Baby! Get a grip on yourself. Just listen to yourself. Just think about it. The one thing you were meant to do, that only thing we can do, you’ve failed at. And miserably at that. Remember who you are, Sara! And if you should forget, then just listen to your period. How do you feel when it comes around?” Marianne whispered to her. She knew Sara needed her more than ever. This wretched girl was lost, and it was Marianne’s duty to make her see this obvious fact.
“It’s what?” Sara asked, unsure if she possesed the correct answer. Then she focused her tear-filled eyes on Marianne’s face. And the blogger clapped at her like an obedient dog.
“It’s one cosmic joke, girl. And the last laugh is on you. What’s the point? That’s how you should feel. The period is a fucking taunt! And so is this man. Because when he learns the truth, that’s how he will think about you. Right?” She put Sara in her place. After all, what was that stupid little girl thinking?
excerpt from the novel “A child made to order”
Having done several months of research, collecting a mountain of notes, read countless recounts, and consulted with a psychologist who has dealt with infertile women, I chose deliberately to enter the story as late as possible, just about when Viola was turning 42.
This is the time, when given an opportunity to surface, the motherly instinct can overwhelm a woman’s otherwise completely rational life. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to have the protagonist go deeper into a off the rails.
An immense potential for engaging drama.
Enquiry as a process
With this character and the process of self inquiry in mind, I focused in on the classical model of the main character’s need and want. I also formulated a few simple questions.
What is the one thing Viola needs so most dearly in the world? The thing without which her world would never be complete.
I knew she wanted a baby, but I needed to go deeper than that. Was it the love which she would be able to give to her child? Or was it, more egoistically angled, the love she would receive from that child?
And did any of this resonate with my self?
I found out that the answers didn’t come at first. It was a struggle. Sometimes they didn’t surface for several weeks. This may be one of the the hardest part of our work as writers. To identify what is truly ours in our writing. Or why it is the way it is.
And often, the answered remained elusive. Because the real issues, our own flaws, and wounds, they would do just about everything to stay concealed in our own subcionscious.
Still, if we keep at it, formulate the question, re-focus on this matter while we write, I believe our true nature surfaces sooner or later.
For me personally I learned that my inner being didn’t necessarily need a child like Viola did, but there was a deep need for unconditional love in my persona. In other words love which wasn’t asking for something in return. But was sufficient in itself and was rather a spiritual search.
I also found out that our needs, can often turn toxic. They can overwhelm us, and lead us to destructive behaviour. That is if we let them, and we are not mindful of ourselves. This is exactly what happens to my protagonist. And this is what happened to me in the past where my spiritual path, an uncompromising search for the transcendent, laid my life into a wasteland.
And if you think about it, this is what happens in every gripping story. This experience is the real ammo for our storytelling.
This was the case with Viola where her life goes off the bend when she suddenly gets the opportunity at the impossible. To give birth to a child. This spins her unquenched desire into an emotional storm which blinds her rationality, where she burns all the bridges in her life, fires herself from her own dream job, and puts her in an uncanny mental territory, where she is able to kidnap a stranger’s child on a subway.
The writing, the enquiry led me to the conclusion that even the most beatiful things, or maybe especially the most beatiful things in our life can be such a double edged sword. Being so crucial to our own existence, they also hold immeasurable power over us.
A power strong enough to derail our normal existence into an emotional war zone.
“Some stuff can be learned from others, some stuff can be read, and some stuff can be learned the hard way, through experience, but the deepest truths about ourselves, the universal truths about what it means to be a human, they are rarely arrived at by our mind. They are given to us by Grace. If we are willing to receive them. – Piotr Ryczko
Tapping into our psyche
I continued to tap into my emotional past. Not in a literal sense, I wasn’t writing a biography, but I pulled at the raw emotions of it all. A fountain of untapped feelings which gave the narrative the rawness it required.
I soon realised that although the research is critical, the facts aren’t so important as the raw energy of the emotions in the story. I wasn’t writing a clinical account of an infertile women, and this wasn’t a non-fiction book. What I was after was rather the vibrant and relentless emotional battering of the reader’s senses. And the best scenes were the ones, where the protagonist’s hurt, and pain overlapped with my own. Emotionally and metaphorically.
I repeated this process for other areas of the Viola’s character. And found such an interweaved web of character traits, mirror images which reflected back some fragments of myself. As the process became second nature, a fountain of questions welled up.
What is the thing that Viola detested most about herself? Why does she detest vulnerability so much? What did others to her? How far would she go to conceal her wounds? What woud she do? Would she be willing to sacrifice her relationship, even the most trusted people? And what would it take for her to break through that shell? To free her from her past.
These questions were aimed at the main character of the novel, but there was no escaping it, they were also always gunned at myself. To test what resonated and what didn’t. What my mind was bored by. What it was frightened by, or what it rebelled at. The rebellion and the fear were always good signs. The right direction.
I also found out that the hardest truths about ourselves, our flaws which cause our most destructive patterns, are the ones which are the most elusive to our own mind. And when you think about it, they are like our blind side, right in front of our nose, staring right into our face, and so obvious for everyone else, except us. Rarely made conscious by our own eyes and mind.
And that is also the reason why self-enquiry is so challenging. Maybe the most challenging part about writing. To keep at it, and uncover hidden, often painful truths about ourselves.
But on the other hand, it is also why this process can be so wonderfully fruitful, because many times we won’t have any clue why we write what we do. But in due time, with patience, some consideration for our neurotic nature, something deep wells up from our inside. It opens up, and makes us conscious of what is inbetween those seemingly empty lines – universal truths about ourselves.
I believe that to tap into this well, launch into this self-discovery, can elevate our writing, from the mundane to the sublime.
Lastly, we do this not only so we can write better drama, but also so we can hopefully become just a little bit more human. Towards one another.
Piotr Ryczko is the published author of the London based publishing house “The Book Folks”. His first novel, a Scandinavian psychological thriller “A child made to order” was released on Amazon Kindle and Paperback. It placed itself amongst the 100 best novels in its category. The same publishing house plans to release the novel PANACEA at the end of 2017. His short films have won quite a few international prizes. They can be seen here: piotr-ryczko.com/shorts/
Born in Poland and raised in Norway, he loves both countries, but has a soft spot for his hometown, Oslo. Piotr loves to hear from readers and writers and can be found on Storygeist where he writes flash fiction, html5 stories, non-fiction and screenplays for his films. He is also an avid photographer which he does as a hobby, as well as a means to communicate his visual ideas during the filmmaking process. www.facebook.com/RyczkoPhoto/
Education: Polish National Filmschool, Master of Fine Arts – Film Director. Wajda Film School – Directing Master Education “Studio Prób”
Cover image: Photo by Linda Cozzarelli