Monday, July 29, 2013

Writing From Your Emotions: Old Dogs, Children, And Watermelon Wine

By Mark Young
Writing draws from a writer's emotions and experiences. I’m talking about that part of the brain that stores up memories and experiences like a sponge. That allows a writer to squeeze those memories onto the page and breathe life into a story. To weave words and memories together to create a world that is comprised of the fabric of our emotions and our life experiences.

I grabbed this title—Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine—from a country song written and recorded by songwriter/singer Tom T Hall to help illustrate a point. I remember when this song came out years ago. It touched me. The words and the way Hall sang and played this song made me feel like I was there beside him in that bar listening to an older “grey black” gentleman telling him about the meaning of life. It resonated with me, particularly two lines of the song that summed up love and innocence:

 Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes,
God bless little children while they’re still too young to hate.

Now, I’ve never indulged in watermelon wine, but I love watermelon and I could imagine what watermelon wine might taste like. But, more importantly, I can feel and experience the other aspects of that song—a dog who loves you without question, without judgment, and children before they grow up in this fallen world and lose their ability to see everything through innocent eyes. I can close my eyes and picture that gentleman as “uninvited he sat down and opened up his mind” about life. I have been in places like that bar in Miami, and I can paint a picture in my mind just how the place would look.

As a writer, I could sit down and write a scene about this song based upon sketches and wisps of memory from my own life. That is how Hall reached me because he touched that part of my memory that is filled with similar experiences and emotions. This is what writers must do: They must make that connection between their readers’ world and their own.

Hall did this masterfully. If you have ever had the joy and frustration of owning a dog, you know what Hall is writing about. You could be the most cantankerous person on this planet, but if you fed and cared for a canine with any semblance of compassion and love, that dog will reciprocate with love one hundred fold even if you are an ornery old cuss. A dog will love you without question, without judgment. Hall used that emotional tug—a dog’s unquestioning love and a child's innocence—to grab at your heart and play you like a fiddle.

Writers do the same in a story by using experiences and memories to create a connection between writer and reader, much like playwrights creating a connection between the actor and the audience using the spoken word and stage props, or as Hall did with lyrics and music to guide usinto that bar. Certain words, certain stage props are used to carry the audience into another place where the playwright/author/song writer lets our minds do the rest of the work

In my first published novel, Revenge (A Travis Mays Novel), I
take the reader up into the Idaho Mountains and along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers. The story is about an ex-cop-turned-professor, trying to hide from the world in his cabin, who reluctantly agrees to help a Native American river guide find her missing brother. Much of the story centers along the two rivers, federal lands, and the Nez Perce reservation. It is a place I like to go to fly fish, and I have many memories—and frustrations—searching for the elusive steelhead along those waterways.

In my novel the land is as important as the crimes that the main character must investigate. I try to use my love of the mountains and rivers to create a world in which the reader sees and feels this place the way I do. Near the beginning of Revenge, Mays begins a journey down the river in which he sees something that his mind can’t seem to identify. He enjoys the river but he can’t shake that feeling that something or someone is out there in the forest watching him. The way he describes the river reflects his uneasiness:

Fingers of sunlight painted the river’s canvas with shades of green and sandy yellow until overhanging trees cast a foreboding net of darkness across the water. Like a dividing line between the seen and unseen worlds, sun-flecked waves became pools of mystic gloom beneath these leafy behemoths.

Throughout this novel I tried to use my love and appreciation of the river—and, hopefully, the reader’s—to create a bond between the reader and the character. I attempt to use the river as an allegory to what is happening in Mays’ life, and by the end of the novel these ties to the river should draw from the reader the same emotions and feelings coursing through Mays. I guess you will just have to read it to find out if I was successful.

Another great example is Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway used the sea as much as a character within that novel as he did the old man, Santiago.

He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and
saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.

As I read that novel, I could feel Hemingway’s love and respect for the sea. I grew up near the Pacific Ocean, and those pounding coasts, bays, and inlets became my playground. As a young man, I ventured out onto the ocean currents searching for that trophy fish and felt the vastness of God’s creation and—by comparison—my own finite being. These experiences in my youth allowed me to make the crossover into Hemingway’s world. Maybe a reader has never been out in a little boat like Santiago, but they can use similar experiences to draw parallels in their mind to what this old fisherman must have felt as he battled nature.

This novel was Hemingway’s answer to all those critics who claimed he no longer could write, that he had somehow lost his edge to create another literary masterpiece. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway drew from the deep reservoir of his emotions and experiences that he had stored up while living in Cuba and fishing the waters of the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. Hemingway's joy and reverence for nature comes alive in his stories.

Can you close your eyes and see the waters over which Santiago battled the great fish and the sharks? Can you smell the salty breeze and feel the parched lips of the fisherman as he struggle to stay alive? This novel was a culmination of all those experiences and emotions Hemingway soaked in and kept in his mental reservoir until he found the right time to put it down on paper.

What experiences and emotions have you used to allow your story to touch a reader’s life? What authors have you read that skillfully used their experiences and emotions to make the story come alive?