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.”