|Photo by Cara Lopez Lee|
I had the privilege of listening to Ishiguro answer questions from fellow authors during his recent weekend with Denver's Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Ishiguro is the author of six novels, including The Buried Giant, Never Let Me Go, and The Remains of the Day, which earned him the Mann Booker Prize.
His comment that typing feels like a performance influenced me this past week as I faced a daunting rewrite. I chose to forego the intimidating task of typing-and-deleting, typing-and-judging, typing-and-regretting perfect little letters into my manuscript. Instead, I used a pen to slop whatever came into my head into a cheap notebook. I felt less pressure to perform for a "saved" document, which freed me to ponder wild possibilities that could be crossed out or crumpled without fear of leaving a blank page.
Here are three other Ishiguro thoughts I found worth noting:
"I deliberately leave space for feelings and emotions."
Here, Ishiguro was not talking about including emotions, but rather leaving space for readers to feel the emotions between the lines. It takes two to "tell" a story: once an author sends words into the world, interpretation is up to the reader. I often admonish myself to write with abandon, but Ishiguro reminded me of the value in restraint, knowing when to trust that I've sketched enough detail for the reader to feel whatever I've left unspoken.
How do we do that? I believe this is where intuition comes in. I need to ask myself: "Am I leaving space for the reader's emotional response, or am I telling the reader how to feel?" When someone asked Ishiguro how he knows when he has gone as far as he needs to go, he compared it to writing music - he's also a lyricist. Why does a musician in a recording studio pick one take over another? "It just sounds right," says Ishiguro.
"What I'm trying to do is just to share emotions."
Ishiguro called that his "humble goal," but I believe it's a profound aspiration. Emotion is what keeps readers up past bedtime: investment in the emotional lives of imaginary people. Exciting plots are important, but if we don't care about the characters, a plot with high stakes can still fall flat. We don't merely want to know what happens. We also want to feel what the characters feel. Their hopes become our hopes, their dreads our dreads, their losses and triumphs ours. More than that, as we empathize with these reflections of humanity - we all feel more connected with each other.
How does a writer do that? Ishiguro relies heavily on the concept of memories. He says that, for him, storytelling is about remembering, even if the memories are fictional. Memory leans on the kinds of images that stick with us because of the emotions attached to them. Memory is emotion.
"If I focus on relationships, the characters will take care of themselves."
No character is an island. Our entire lives are lived in relationship, not only to loved ones or enemies, but also to strangers, to home, to nature, to ourselves. If we didn't bump up against something other than self, we would not exist in any meaningful sense. So it is with characters. Characters have desires and fears, and when those come into conflict with the desires and fears of others, the characters make choices that reveal who they are.
How do authors make that happen? We don't. We allow it to happen. We observe and reflect human nature, including our own. We become curious about the way people relate to each other. We ask: How would he react if she said this or did that? Why would he react that way? What do these people really want that they're not saying? It is through discovering who two characters are to each other that they become real to us.
If we pay attention, we might even find out who we are, in relationship to each other, to the story, even to the author - as if he or she were speaking directly to us.
What wisdom have other authors brought to your craft?
|Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.|