Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lost In Translation: A practical guide to bleeding on the page

I can't tell you how many times, both as a writer and as a reader, I've come across the phrase "Bleed on the page". I know what it means... it means using your emotions to help you build richer, more detailed, more engrossing characters. But how? I've struggled with this myself, so I decided to share what I've learned with all of you.

Firstly: You & Your Emotional Well: Get to know yourself. Believe it or not, this will not only help you become a better writer, but a better person in general and that's not a bad goal to strive for. Get in touch with who you are and be HONEST with yourself about it. I'm going to admit, right here on a public forum, that I am overly sensitive, I dwell on things, I haven't developed a very thick skin, and maybe I never will. But that's OK. It may not be great, but it's part of who I am as a person and as a writer. That doesn't mean that I won't stop working on those things, but it does mean that I'm acknowledging and accepting them as they are right now and what's more important, I'm developing ways to use those attributes to my advantage. It means that I have a very deep emotional well from which to draw, whereas someone who doesn't let things affect them as much might have to dig a little deeper to bring those feelings forth. That's fine, those people have their advantages as well. In my case, the main drawback is that because I am so very sensitive, I tend to lose sight of what it is I'm trying to do (namely, experience certain feelings to help surround myself with the right mentality to write a certain character in a certain way) and I tend to get stuck in circles of beating myself up over whatever the issue was in the first place. Pay attention to how you react to things, get a feel for how you will likely respond to certain situations, and learn from that.

Secondly: Taking the You out of Using Your Emotions: As I mentioned above, I have a tendency to beat myself up. A lot. It sucks, because quite frankly, it's a waste of time, it's not at all productive, and all it does do is end up making me feel bad, which has the sort of ripple effect I'm sure you've all experienced. One of my characters just made a horribly insensitive comment she meant as a joke, but someone took offense. Ok, that's happened to me before, how did it make me feel? Like hell, in a word (Ok, that's actually two words). But let's dig deeper than that... let's get to the root of it... and along the way, let's remind ourselves that this is about OUR CHARACTER, NOT US. Yes, we had those experiences, and yes they were unpleasant, but rather than getting caught up in that mess and remembering exactly how that coworker/friend/guy on the street looked at us and how it made us feel like Hannibal Lector crossed with Ted Bundy's evil(er) twin, remove yourself from the equation. Sometimes it helps me to visualize someone else entirely taking my spot in that particular interaction, usually it's my character. I push my brain into replacing things in the scene, slowly rewriting it to make it my own. Instead of me standing there with my foot in my mouth like some sort of contortionist, it's the character. Instead of my boss/pal/cute boy, it's a character from a movie or TV show. Instead of a conference room, it takes place in a pool, or a circus, or some other ridiculous, silly backdrop. The reason for this is that it sort of tricks my brain into seeing the situation in a new light, one that falls outside of me and my emotions and helps me look at the situation more objectively and shift the focus onto the feelings and reactions in general, and thus apply them to my character without getting caught up in that whirlwind of negativity. As an aside, and sort of a self help-y thing that I've found beneficial in general, I may spend a minute or two reflecting on the situation, what I've learned from it, and how I could have handled it better or would handle it now that I'm beyond it. I know that hindsight is 20/20, but it does sometimes help me put the issue to bed, at least for a little while.

Thirdly: Real experience is gained through trial and error, and I find that I learn more from my failures than my successes. It's this experience that takes your characters from one dimensional, flat lifeless things and helps you transform them into realistic, three dimensional, beings that show all the emotional qualities of a living breathing person. This vastly improves the believability of your work, that "suspension of disbelief" thing we're always striving for as writers. How many times have you been reading and stopped to say something along the lines of "Pffft, people don't act like that!" or "That's not realistic..."? It interrupts the flow of the story, doesn't it? You don't want that. Ideally, what you should be striving for is a story that holds your readers engrossed from beginning to end. When people call things into question, not only does it lend a bit of negativity to the atmosphere in general, but it causes them to be sucked out of the world you've created and be simultaneously thrust back into the one in which we all dwell. Not good. Essentially, there's more to a good story than just plot, characters, and conflict. What takes a piece of writing from good to great has a lot to do with how easy it is to lose yourself in the world the author has created for you. Bringing your own experiences to your writing helps make that possible. I'm convinced that the whole "Write what you know thing" relates to this concept. Being able to give depth to your environments, your characters, your situations is a skill that comes with time and practice, honed by translating things you know and things you've experienced into things your characters do and say and how they react. It's just that simple. Your own emotions and experiences become the paint by which to color your world and all of the creatures in it.

Lastly: This one has more to do with you as a person than as a writer... It's OK to let stuff go, alright? Easier said than done BELIEVE me, I know... but all told, definitely worth working on. Not everyone is going to love you, like you, or even tolerate you, not even your friends and family will 100% of the time (Unless they're robots, in which case why are you reading this instead of taking over the world with your robot army?) but that doesn't mean they don't like you, and it doesn't mean you suck. It may mean that you have conflicting opinions, it may mean that they don't see where you're coming from or you don't see where they are, or it may just be that one of you is in a shitty mood (Remember in the "Secondly" portion when I talked about that ripple effect?) Try not to take things personally, ok? Learn from your mistakes and try to be the best person you can, and in the end, be proud of yourself for what you've done well and forgive yourself for the things you haven't. As I'm struggling to get through my own thick skull, no one is perfect, and those that are close weren't born that way.

Do you have tips/hints/suggestions on any of this? What strategies have worked for you? Leave comments in the section below.

As always, thanks for reading!

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