Writing Darkness

I woke this morning from a night filled with nightmares – for the second time in two weeks.

It comes, I think, from the stresses of the past few months, which have been some of the most difficult I remember. And it’s made me think about my life, about how I respond to certain situations.

The thing is, I’ve lived a fascinating life. I know it’s fascinating, and that parts of it sound like a story. But those of us who have had lives in which things like the secret police and imprisonment for political crimes were real threats – you can’t mess with us. We are extraordinarily sensitive to certain things – certain kinds of darkness. Certain things triggers a sort of post-traumatic stress response. We can’t, for example, stand cruelty or coercion or silencing. Even minor examples trigger a strong reaction.

I think I have a fundamental need to believe that the world is rational, and that people are at least capable of behaving in civilized ways. Because I’ve seen and heard too much of the other stuff. And I have a fundamental need, myself, to feel free – to know that all the world is mine, that all possible thoughts are mine, that I can go anywhere and do anything I set my mind to.

It’s a legacy, I think, of having been born behind closed borders.

The stresses of the past few months have brought some of those issues back – I think that’s the reason for the nightmares. But there’s a useful lesson in this for writing as well.

I think the darkest story I have ever written is “The Belt.” It’s a story about mental and physical imprisonment, and I could barely stand to write it. I could barely stand to read it afterward – and now I never do, although I know it’s pretty mild stuff, by some people’s standards.

My one serious problem with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that there are dark, violent scenes that are written almost as set pieces, by someone who obviously enjoyed writing them, enjoyed constructing those particular scenes. I can see that, as a writer. And to me as a reader, that is genuinely disturbing. Because darkness is real, it’s not a literary device or convention. (The second book in the series starts with one of those set pieces, which is one reason I won’t be reading the series.  Although I probably wouldn’t anyway.  I learned some interesting things about plotting from the first book, but Stieg Larsson’s prose is not the sort I particularly enjoy.)  One thing I admire about the Harry Potter books is that J.K. Rowling is intensely aware of the reality of darkness. Voldemort and his Death Eaters are, strangely enough, more real than Larsson’s sadists and serial killers. But then, Rowling worked for Amnesty International. She knows what she’s talking about.

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4 Responses to Writing Darkness

  1. emily says:

    I choked on my saliva when I read the first half of the last paragraph, no lie.

  2. Why, Emily? Because it was disturbing in some way? I would have that reaction . . .

  3. Dan says:

    Will those nightmares, or elements from them, ever end up in your writing?

  4. Hi Dan! My nightmares are not terribly interesting, I’m afraid. What they are is real and scary. I prefer not to think about them once I’ve woken up. But I do have daymares that will no doubt end up in stories of mine . . .

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