Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Dark Night of the Soul: All is Lost

I'm a writer. I write commercial fiction. I follow a basic structure and format as I cobble together my story. I also let the muse come in and dance when I am in first draft mode. This dance releases me from the handcuffs of perfection. However, it does not release me from the reality of following a basic map. A guideline of sorts that gives me an idea of where I'm supposed to end up. Every story, whether carefully plotted or not, must have certain elements in it in order to fly into the publishing world.

Some of the elements are compelling characters, a unique hook or high concept, an interesting plot line, and a mastery of basic writing craft. I'll be the first to admit that grammar is my least favorite element to master. I'm a decent writer, an intuitive writer, but I am not a super technical writer. I don't have years of technical writing as a profession, nor do I have a degree in English, Literature, or journalism. But I don't believe I need any of those things in my background to be a good, compelling storyteller. 

That's what I am and what I have always been. A storyteller. An imaginative, creative, daydreamer with thousands of ideas and wonderings about how people mesh together despite the odds against them. I'd like to believe that I have a lot to give as a writer because I also have a wealth of experience that comes from having lived a life that wasn't perfect. I've experienced loss, loneliness, extreme fear, the daunting aspect of where will I live tomorrow? I've experienced hunger, real hunger, because I didn't have enough money to pay both the rent and the grocery bill. I've experienced the Dark Night of the Soul. I know what is like to believe All Is Lost. 

Understanding the Dark Night of the Soul is a key element to writing compelling stories. If I had always had everything run smoothly in my life and if I always received accolades for my hard work, I'd never be able to truly translate the dark night of the soul onto the page. 

What is the dark night of the soul in the writing world? In novels it is the part of the book where the reader believes the hero and or heroine have lost everything. There's been a terrible black moment. In a romance, the black moment is emotionally gripping. The hero and heroine walk away from each other because they believe they've lost their chance at true love. They believe all is lost and there is no way back. But they're wrong. And as a writer, I owe it to my readers to bring these two people back together because they do deserve each other. How they've grown emotionally, despite their backgrounds and their emotional baggage constantly driving them apart, is they way they will find a path to each other.

The dark night of the soul is an intensely personal, emotional moment for the hero and the heroine. As much as I'd like to make my readers laugh a little, the truth is that at this moment if my readers aren't reaching for a tissue, I've failed. This isn't easy stuff to write, folks. This is mining the heart. This is where the technically sound, pulled together neat little story might just fall apart. Why? Because the depth of emotion isn't there for the reader. They aren't sad. They aren't feeling anything. They may even think the couple should stay apart. 

In fiction, the Dark Night of the Soul is resolved by the writer's words. In real life, the Dark Night of the Soul isn't so easily resolved. So how do we mere humans, myself included, survive and grow past the feeling that All is Lost? We can't rewrite the terrible circumstances. We can't re-order the world into a nice, neat box. We can't make the pain of the loss evaporate in an instant. 

I think if we allow ourselves to feel the pain, to know the pain, to acknowledge the pain then we will get through it because we've been HONEST with ourselves and our emotions. We need to reach out to our most trusted friends and life's companions and reveal the truth about the darkness within. Even C.S. Lewis suffered from extreme bouts of depression. He turned to his friends for guidance, for support, for encouragement. 

I've experienced the Dark Night of the Soul when I was sixteen years old. I could no longer live at home, but I had no place to go. I had no relatives to take me in. I had no one to watch over me. I was as alone as a girl can be with my one blue suitcase in my hand. That was all I possessed. One suitcase of clothing. I literally had no place to go. But a girl I'd barely known, someone I'd briefly shared my sad tale to while at school, had told her mother about me and this family of strangers took me in. They housed me for over a year.

I've experienced the Dark Night of the Soul. I remember calling my best friend up when I thought I could never have a child. I was ironing (I always iron when I am scared or upset). I'd suffered so many miscarriages that this last pregnancy attempt was literally my last go. I just couldn't face another loss. I needed her to hear my pain, to hear me cry and wail at the wall of my misery of loss. I needed to unleash the firestorm of anger, sorrow, and agony within me because I was going to be denied the one thing I so desperately wanted. She said she'd carry a baby for me if I needed her. And that was when the darkness lifted. I wasn't alone.

I've experienced the Dark Night of the Soul. I remember working on my third manuscript when I received a call from my best friend's husband. He was unusually calm, yet he wasn't himself. My friend had a diseased kidney that had to be removed. They were 99% sure she had cancer. The sheer drop of my heart into my stomach can't even begin to describe my fear for her. For me. This woman who had known me through many of my dark nights, who'd held my child and cared for her when I was finally blessed with a baby, who'd counseled me wisely and without holding back, was in danger. And there wasn't a thing I could do to stop it. For three weeks we waited for news about her life. Three. Long. Weeks. We talked a lot. We laughed a lot. But behind the laughter there was a beast of dread so dark in the pit of my stomach that I couldn't focus, couldn't breath, couldn't relax. What if all was lost? I turned to my faith, my friends, and my hope for encouragement. The day my friend called to say she was cancer free ranks up there in the top 5 golden moments of my life. The house rang with our joy, it bounced off the ceiling and ping ponged around the rooms as we laughed our first unrestrained laughs in weeks.

The Dark Night of the Soul. All is Lost. But nothing is lost until we give up and say there is no hope. That is what we as writers, as people, must strive for in our lives. Cultivate hope. Cultivate friendships that nurture your hope. Hope restores light into our lives, into our characters' lives, and restores us to a place of peace and happiness.


Ellen Brickley said...

Thanks for this post, Christine. You've lived an interesting life and it'll carry you a long way in fiction.

Those moments are important, and this was *exactly* what I needed to read at this point in my work-in-progress. Thanks :D

Pam Asberry said...

Beautiful post, Christine. Sharing your personal stories really helps me understand the meaning of the "dark moment" in fiction. I have had a few of them in my own life. For me, it's the feelings about the events, as opposed to the events themselves, that I need to mine in order to make my fiction more compelling, as I have a hard time "feeling my feelings" in those moments. But as you said, as long as we can find a thread of hope to hang onto - however thin and tenuous it might be - all is not lost. Thank you.

Christine said...

Hi Ellen: I'm so glad my post resonated with you and helped clarify what you needed to do with your WIP. Writing is not easy. So much of it is laying in the story, then going back and making sure the emotional depth is there.

I know you can do this!

Christine said...

Hi Pam: Whenever you are deep in the emotional moment, try to grab onto how your body is behaving, too. This is something I am trying to perfect in my own writing. Translating the physical reaction to the emotion in a unique, compelling way is tough, but worth effort when you nail it.

Writing--for me--is an ongoing learning process. I don't think I'll ever "figure it out," but I am having fun trying!


Gwen Hernandez said...

Powerful post, Christine. And very well explained. I think the hardest part is translating those feelings onto the page.

After my mother died, I wrote down all of my thoughts and feelings (before I was a writer), but now that we've moved three times, I can't seem to find it. I was hoping for a glimpse into what was going through my mind that maybe I don't recall now.

Thanks for sharing.

Christine said...

I was thinking about you today, Gwen. Wondering how you were doing. I would imagine even the greatest highs are somewhat tinged with a hint of sorrow because your mother isn't here to share the joy.

But I believe she is watching you and celebrating your big successes just the same.


RedPeril said...

Thank you, Christine. I admire your boldness in willing to be so vulnerable for the sake of dredging up a teachable moment.

It's funny, I'd just finished reading C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, and had been giving a lot of thought to the varying intensities and forms that pain takes on. While it's such an unpleasant and undesired foe, it somehow posesses such character-shaping merit - and as you've pointed out, critical turning points in they fictional or real-life.

Looking back, I've had a number of black moments in my life that have all contributed immensely to who I am, and what I'm now capable of. At the time, every time, I thought I might not survive them intact. But now, I know I wouldn't take them back.

Christine said...

Hi Red Peril: Yes, the blackest moments we go through serve to make us better, stronger, and more empathetic individuals. That is why is so important not to hold back when we write them for our characters. They must endure emotional pain at the deepest level. It's hard to translate to the page, but it can be done.

Thanks for stopping by and saying Hi! :-)