The Bright Side of the Dark Side

2.16.07 | | 10 comments

In September 1999 I attended a “Writing from the Land” workshop sponsored by the Entrada Institute, the first workshop I’d been to in almost 20 years.  At the time, I was finishing up my novel The Pictograph Murders and decided to take Levi Peterson’s fiction class to help with that process.  At one point Levi advised the class, “Write from the other side of your inhibitions.”  I was doubtful.  What was meant by “inhibitions” in this case?  I asked; the question was a class-stopper.  Everyone began explaining what inhibitions were.  “Behaviors adopted by society which make society possible,” “Self-imposed restrictions on one’s behavior,” etc.  Levi himself kept silent. I listened to my classmates’ helpful definitions a moment then said to Levi, “I see — unleash the dogs of unresolved anger upon society.”  Levi came back at me: “Do you have any unresolved anger in you? 

I laughed.  Class members drew their own conclusions: “What does that mean?” “I guess so!”  Me, I came away with Levi’s admonition to write from the dark side stuck in my head.  I’m not an angry person but I wondered: What would happen if I did have unresolved anger?  Certainly there have been times when I’ve felt angry — or frustrated.  What had I learned from those times? 

So as an experiment I tried writing from my villain’s POV.  I found it surprisingly easy.  On top of the texture that writing from his perspective added to the story, I had some real fun.  Thus a villain was more fully born.  Up till then he’d had no real voice.  His function had been restricted to that of a storyline prop.

But besides the fun and narrative intrigue the bad guy’s POV provided, something else happened as I wrote from the “other side,” something more personal and revelatory.  When I started writing the climactic scene, the cave scene, I had a particular outcome in mind.  But partway through this scene the conflict between the “good” character and the “bad” character swept me up and I lost control of the writing.  It felt as though the story itself grabbed the steering wheel and took off in a completely different direction.  Engaging in what I now see as an archetypal experience where my “bad” side encountered my “good” side, I experienced my “good” character’s epiphany and emerged from that cave with my good character, both of us changed women.  To put it in religious terms, as I wrote this scene I experienced a mighty change of heart. 

Writing about evil is an endeavor laced with temptations, but maybe not those we might expect.  I never felt tempted to commit any of the crimes that my villain did.  No, the flaws I confronted emerged in my “good” character, the one I imagine myself to be nearer to in temperament and experience.  Like me, Alex believed she had it all figured out.  She knew what evil was, and it lay “out there” — someplace other than in her own soul.

I remember way back when sitting in Jim Faulconer’s class while he told about going to see a “Jason” movie with one of his kids.  (That’s Jason of the hockey goalie mask.)  Jim’s take on the movie went something like this: The brand of evil Jason represented was so monstrous, so incomprehensible that the dangerous behaviors the teenaged victims engaged in — a little drinking, a little fornicating — looked innocent by comparison.  Jim suggested that this might be one of Jason’s purposes — to provide a distracting reason not to look too closely at our own behavior: “Huh!  So that’s evil!  Gee, I’m not half bad.”  In the arts, such philosophical sleights of mind conjour up flamboyant, even outrageous scapegoats — scapegoats we have no problem driving off into thematic wildernesses or, better yet, blasting with high-powered explosives, shooting several times with gigantic weapons until they stop moving, running over with semi trucks, pushing off cliffs into raging rivers, setting on fire, etc.  Once we have destroyed the incomprehensible, then – whew! — the danger is over and everybody can get back to the party.

So I’m thinking that maybe the greatest temptation in writing about evil isn’t that we writers will be lured into recreating those awful crimes our characters commit but instead that we might fall to manipulating our narratives, locating evil “out there,” “not me” — in the opposite direction from where holy scriptures and other genuine stories direct our gaze.  Some tales about evil might actually enable readers to avoid personal responsibility.  Some storylines might actually be little more than rationalizations of the writer’s unwillingness to engage in self-examination.  Some narratives about defending good might actually be elaborate schemes to avoid encountering God. 

I don’t remember how my original plan for that cave scene went, the new version so thoroughly became the version.  But I regard that part of the book the same way someone else might look at a room where he or she wrestled with a personal demon, or a stretch of road where he or she had an adventure that sifted his or her soul.  When I revisit that stretch of narrative, I feel a thrill in my soul.  The sensation resembles the rush my eyes feel when I emerge from a dark interior into the light of day.  I think (I really do), “As much as any of the pilgrimages I’ve made, as deeply as any of the surprising conversations I’ve experienced, as dramatically as any challenge I’ve faced, this place changed my life.” 

10 comments: “The Bright Side of the Dark Side

  1. Darlene

    I really appreciated this essay, Patricia. Avoiding the “dark side” is my biggest weakness in my own work. It’s hard to shake my training. I ask myself what it is that I fear–cynicism? hopelessness? But where is my faith if it is based in a refusal to see? I suppose there’s a difference between probing wounds and turning on a brighter light. I feel that in order to take the next step as an artist, I need to be willing to do some real soul-searching and, as you say, be willing to risk in order to have a change of heart.

  2. greenfrog

    “Some narratives about defending good might actually be elaborate schemes to avoid encountering God.”

    Good stuff.

  3. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    Darlene,

    Cynicism is something to be feared. It’s the dark side of sentimentality. Sentimentality is also to be feared. I don’t want to get started on sentimentality, so I’ll stick to cynicism. Cynicism is among the lowest grades of irony, but there are many higher grades of irony that you might find valuable for taking your next personal and artistic step. If you haven’t looked at my posts on irony, you might try them, see if they offer you anything. Here’s part one: http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=222

    Here’s part two: http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=240

    If anything strikes you about these posts, I’d be happy to chat with you, on or off the blog.

  4. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    greenfrog,

    Always delighted to see you swing ’round.

    BTW, last summer, I caught a big green frog. I inspected it and let it go. I hope that wasn’t you. If so, please accept my apologies for the intrusion.

  5. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    Very nice pond, greenfrog. Now that I know where it is, I’ll come wandering around.

    “Receive
    Embrace
    Honor
    Release”

    Last night at writer’s group we talked a little about how trying to control a reader’s understanding of our writing leads to unfortunate contortions in the writing (I didn’t use that word, “contortions,” though). In my own experience, I’ve struggled to learn to “release” my text to readers and trust that they’ll make something meaningful of it.

    “When a subject and object look at one another, which is which?”

    Gee, thought you’d never ask. When a subject and object look at one another, there is no subject and object, there’s only relation, the scope of which extends beyond either creature’s ability to fully grasp it.

  6. C. L. Hanson

    The cave scene is definitely a memorable one. I went back and re-read it the other day after reading this post.

    What’s striking in your post, though, is your description of how at one point the story took over and developed a life of its own.

    All of your explanation about wanting to create a story that doesn’t “locate evil ‘out there, not me'” is perfectly reasonable and makes sense. However, I get the strong impression that this is analysis that you the author have done after having written the story, in order to try to understand why you wrote what you did.

    These sorts of scenes (which I will call “involuntary stories”) are absolutely fascinating. There’s something very similar over on Chris Bigelow’s blog here where he does a bunch of self-analysis to try to figure out why he portrayed Mormon sexuality the way he did in his novel.

    I’ve had a similar experience (with one short story in particular) where I felt like the story just took over. And then after it was written, I said to myself “Uh-oh, people are going to object XYZ to in this story — why did I even write it that way?” Then I came up with a bunch of perfectly reasonable analysis to explain the themes of the piece. But the interesting thing is that in this one short story the analysis came after — as with your cave scene — I didn’t start with a theme and then write the story to illustrate it.

  7. Tatiana

    I liked the cave scene. I remember being surprised and interested at how it went down. One thing that I wanted to show to the protagonist early on is how easily she dismissed people, for instance the immature LDS boy, or the lady in the camp who was seeing the antagonist when he first came on the scene. (Sorry, have forgotten all characters’ names.) I think the protagonist didn’t notice these people’s full reality as complex beings and children of God in the beginning. She seems to dismiss them completely, and consider them somehow beneath her.

    Perhaps the cave scene was the start of a greater awakening for our protagonist, in which she rethought her understanding of more than just the antagonist (with whom she’s clearly engaging as an equal at the end, probably very unwisely), but possibly of all the other people she has dismissed as inconsiderable in her life, because they lacked some gift she had been given, such as maturity or intelligence.

    I think Levi Peterson’s advice to you turned out very well. The cave scene as it played out was one of the most powerful parts of the book, for me. (That and the character of the dog, which was so well done.) A wise friend once taught me that the reason evil exists out in the world is only so we’ll learn to recognize it, that we may then do battle with it in the one place we can really fight it, within our own hearts.

  8. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    C.L. wrote: “However, I get the strong impression that this is analysis that you the author have done after having written the story, in order to try to understand why you wrote what you did.”

    C. L., I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

    I have had the sort of thing that happened in that scene happen to me many times in life and in other pieces of writing, enough to recognize what was happening once the juices started flowing. While I don’t engage in overt analysis while in the throes of such creative outbursts, I have already indulged in considerable analysis before these surprises occur. I think I can say that, often, previous analysis has led me straight to these moments of change and heightened consciousness.

    Bottom line: I understand very well what happened to me in writing this scene, even though it surprised me. I am experienced enough with this process to trust it. I understood how I had changed when I emerged from the experience, and I was grateful for it. I actively court these moments and have found the narrative process fertile ground for cultivating their emergence.

    “Then I came up with a bunch of perfectly reasonable analysis to explain the themes of the piece. But the interesting thing is that in this one short story the analysis came after — as with your cave scene — I didn’t start with a theme and then write the story to illustrate it.”

    No, you can’t deliberately set out to write such scenes, except in the way that when one sets out on an adventure one expects exciting things to happen, though nobody can predict for sure what those things might be. I’m still not sure, though, that I’m catching your point, which is …?

  9. Patricia Karamesines Post author

    Tatiana said: “One thing that I wanted to show to the protagonist early on is how easily she dismissed people, for instance the immature LDS boy, or the lady in the camp who was seeing the antagonist when he first came on the scene. (Sorry, have forgotten all characters’ names.) I think the protagonist didn’t notice these people’s full reality as complex beings and children of God in the beginning. She seems to dismiss them completely, and consider them somehow beneath her.”

    Tatiana, that’s an interesting take on those elements of the novel. I suppose another way to look at those characters might be that they themselves didn’t yet recognize their own full reality as complex beings and children of God. Another way might be that the protagonist liked them all well enough, but the antagonist had what it took to challenge what protagonist thought she knew and provoke new levels of consciousness in her. Probably, there are as many ways to imagine the nature of fictional characters’ relationships to one another as there are readers.

    “A wise friend once taught me that the reason evil exists out in the world is only so we’ll learn to recognize it, that we may then do battle with it in the one place we can really fight it, within our own hearts.”

    Nice thought. The inverse might work well, too: We can only recognize some kinds of evil out in the world after we have done battle with it in the one place we are most responsible for it–our own hearts.

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