Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you cast light on the dark side of a story? (09/15/11)



Featured writer: Joan Zerrien



Contributors this month:
Arllene L. Mandell
Becky Povich
Bill D. Baker
Catherine Crawford
Jean Wong
Joan Zerrien
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Suzanne LaFetra
Theresa Sanders


Tiny Lights in Dark Stories

by Joan Zerrien

It was not a dark story I was merely writing, it was the story I told myself while living through dark times. The story was fraught with pain and fury and a bone-deep fear for my daughter's life.
Here's where light came from:

The ordinariness of the people in line with me at the grocery story. True, I resented them because they didn't have fine shards of glass running through their veins, and I did. Yet their obliviousness comforted me; it was a state of being I might aspire to return to one day.

There were those who did know, and what I read in their eyes was a comfort. They said, "I cannot imagine what this is like for you" and that was true. We might vaguely imagine the penultimate parental nightmare, just around its edges, but never so vividly as to evoke the reality of it.

Light came from the natural world. A single white cloud floating in the blue mountain sky, the call of an unseen bird, could these be messages from my girl? For interminable days it seemed likely that she was no longer in this world, to see and hear any of its bounteous beauty.

Light also trickled into my heart from the prayers of friends and family and good people who didn't even know us, prayers that all might still turn out well.

And it did turn out well. My family is intact, living with all the complications and pains and glories under the sun.

Light comes from whence it comes, from hearts and minds, the sky, this precious planet, and the simple grace of living through dark stories.

Joan Zerrien is loving life, light, and her daughters in Southern California.

My Darkest Secret

  by Arllene L. Mandell

Yes, there's misery in the world--starvation, mass murder, not scoring a pair of leopard-spotted flats at the half-off sale. Wait! Did I just write that?

I had always considered myself a serious writer, until people started laughing when I read aloud in Susan's workshop. There I discovered my tiny funny bone, which causes a bit of quirkiness to slip in, usually at the end of an essay.

Now I often combine this minor talent with writing advice from author Alan Gurganus: "End each story with an image. It lasts longer."

Here's an example: Let's say I'm writing a serious piece about how Goodwill Industries provides needed services in these hard times. I could end with a homeless woman finding a pair of black slacks for $3 to wear to a job interview. Uplifting, but still a depressing ending. Instead, what if the reporter discovers something even better than leopard-spotted flats--tiger-striped sling-backs.

This new ending may encourage more women to sort through their closets and donate gently worn items to Goodwill, and might also suggest they stop in to update their own wardrobes.

My friend J, a former PanAm flight attendant who buys all her clothes at Goodwill, advises that animal prints add pizzazz to an all-black outfit.

Arlene Mandell, a native New Yorker now happily living in Santa Rosa, usually wears black with a splash of color.


How do you cast light on the dark side of a story?

  by Becky Povich

I've discovered that when writing my memoir, I haven't shied away from those gloomier days of my story. I haven't exactly delved very deep into them yet, but I'm definitely not afraid to. I tend to jump around by chapters to separate the happy and unhappy memories. In that way, just as I may begin to feel a bit too sad or depressed while writing it and the reader may begin to feel the same emotions while reading it, Whammo! Turn the page and there's a comical chapter.

Humor certainly plays a big part in my life. If it wasn't for that, there wouldn't be much light to my story and I probably wouldn't be a writer today.

Becky Povich keeps striving to write. (Hey: a six-word story. But that wasn't the prompt, was it?) You can see what Becky's been up to by going to her blog:
www.beckypovich.blogspot.com



Casting Lights

  by Bill D. Baker

Writers, artists, and photographers share a like challenge; we all constantly have to deal with getting the perfect exposure-—that balance of light and darkness that creates harmony and clarity in our presentation. Ambiguity is brought into focus, transformed into understanding, or even internalized by correctly contrasting the dark and light colors or dark and light sides of our presentation.

When thinking about the necessity of dualities in a story, a painting, or photo, I can't help but think of the necessity of loneliness to fully feel love, the feelings of rejection and defeat needed to properly appreciate success, and the presence of the clearly stated detail to bring focus, purpose and clarity to our work. I ask myself and you: What good is it to write an article, paint a picture, or take a photograph if all we do is create a piece of work that is filled with ambiguity, vagueness, and illegitimacy?

Instead we must hone our skills, persevere, and create that which—-when observed or read by our audience—-is focused, clear, and an authentic revelation of our thoughts, feelings, and awareness of our subject. Let's make sure our audience is neither blinded by the light nor left in the dark, but instead experiences a sense of true communication.

Bill D. Baker finds his way to the light.

Night Vision

  by Catherine Crawford

Is it coincidence that this question popped up when I noticed our seasons starting to change? The shortening days make me pensive. When the sun starts hanging low in the sky, I turn inward to look for light.

A young man I once knew lost his health, and the medical world could do nothing for him. He turned from a loving, sensitive kid into a raging, disoriented, self-destructive adult. A dark story if there ever was one. And yet it got me thinking about night vision, the kind some animals have. Raccoons, opossums, foxes, and owls see keenly in low light. I believe writers do that too, but in a figurative way.

Darkness once suggested only misery to me: my losses, failures, the side of my nature I wish wasn't there. Helplessness is my worst kind of darkness. I don't always know how to cast light on that.

But darkness is also incredibly fertile. My stories, after all, incubate in the dark. I'm no disciple of pain, and casting light on a life gone amok is a grim business. But light and dark are just faces of being, as everyone learns. Letting them both sit at my table seems wise to me. Maybe the way I bring light to dark writing is to share its shadows with readers and other writers.

Loving the long, arctic slant to the light of the Pacific Northwest, Catherine writes and edits in Vancouver, Washington. Email: greenwriter1960@gmail.com


Why?

  by Jean Wong

Writers struggle to unearth bits of glint and gleam to line their tales. Job's suffering is commonplace if all we hear about are the fleas in his bed, his problems with constipation, and the wife he hasn't slept with for the last five years. Sure, his kids hate each other and perhaps later down the biblical line, one sibling may even murder the other. But so what? We already live on a stage which is overwhelmingly cast in shadowy woebegone.

We begin to get interested when Job asks God "Why? Why do I suffer? Why me? Why not the schmo next door with the gorgeous, adoring wife, ten thousand head of cattle, and nary a flea bite?"

God might answer, "Because you are a rotten son of a bitch and you deserve your fate." Or "I have the whole world to look after and you consider yourself special?" Or "I really didn't like that puny rabbit you sacrificed—how about your grass-fed pet cow?"

What God thinks or says doesn't matter. What matters is that somehow Job got activated. He suffers; therefore, he thinks, and questions, and wonders. Will his investigation lead to a meltdown, bitterness, denial…or self-awareness, change, growth? We don't know, but we do care. The question of "why" is the light Job beams on humanity's plight. It illumines Job's struggle and makes his story our own.


Jean has been a winner of the Redwood Writer's fiction contest, and one of her pieces was recently performed at the Petaluma Reader’s theater. Click here to see it on YouTube! Jean loves the idea that she is a writer, but then she has to shift out of her stay abed stew mode and cough something up.

Tiny Lights in Dark Stories

  by Joan Zerrien

It was not a dark story I was merely writing, it was the story I told myself while living through dark times. The story was fraught with pain and fury and a bone-deep fear for my daughter's life.
Here's where light came from:

The ordinariness of the people in line with me at the grocery story. True, I resented them because they didn't have fine shards of glass running through their veins, and I did. Yet their obliviousness comforted me; it was a state of being I might aspire to return to one day.

There were those who did know, and what I read in their eyes was a comfort. They said, "I cannot imagine what this is like for you" and that was true. We might vaguely imagine the penultimate parental nightmare, just around its edges, but never so vividly as to evoke the reality of it.

Light came from the natural world. A single white cloud floating in the blue mountain sky, the call of an unseen bird, could these be messages from my girl? For interminable days it seemed likely that she was no longer in this world, to see and hear any of its bounteous beauty.

Light also trickled into my heart from the prayers of friends and family and good people who didn't even know us, prayers that all might still turn out well.

And it did turn out well. My family is intact, living with all the complications and pains and glories under the sun.

Light comes from whence it comes, from hearts and minds, the sky, this precious planet, and the simple grace of living through dark stories.

Joan Zerrien is loving life, light, and her daughters in Southern California.

Shedding Light on the Subject

  by Sara Baker

When most people look at a flock of sheep, they see exactly that—a herd of wool and a bevy of hooves filling a pasture—all alike. None different. But not so with a shepherd. To him, every sheep is unique; every face is distinctive and has a story; every sheep has a name.

If you ask him about his sheep, the shepherd will say, "Da one with the downcast eyes, well dat's ol' Droopy. Da one over yonder with one ear up and da other down, I calls him Einstein cuz he's da smartest one of da lot. And dat small ‘en with da brown spot ‘round his left eye, well, he's a runt and an orphan; I calls him Squirt."

Because the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, the sheep listen to him, obeying his commands as he leads them through the fields.

When most people look at a crowd of people, they see exactly that—a crowd of humans and a flock of faces filling a crosswalk—all alike. None different. But not so with a writer. To him, every person is a different character; every character's face is special and has a story; every character has a name.

If you ask him about his characters, the writer will say, "The one with the sad eyes, well that's Elise who spends most days alone while her mother—a single parent—works two jobs supporting Elise and her younger brother, Todd. And that elderly gentleman over there with one eyebrow up and the other down, I call him Jon; he lives uptown working as an attorney by day and secretly frequenting strip clubs by night. And that short boy with the limp? He's an orphan with no brothers; I call him Charlie."

Because the writer knows his characters and calls them by name, the characters listen to him obeying his instruction as he leads them through the story.

Like the shepherd's unconventional perspective, I find my perspective allows me to cast light onto any subject. After all, shedding light on things is what we writers do, right?

Sara Baker is a contented retiree who joyfully works part-time as an editor/proofreader and freelance writer. Her favorite past time, however, is spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married for 28 years.

Finders Keepers

  by Susan Bono

Any time you find yourself stepping into the mouth of a cave, it's best to get serious about a source of illumination. Fools rush into all kinds of places, but those who expect to see anything worthwhile take tools into the unknown dark.

Flashlight. Check. Extra batteries. Got ‘em. Be prepared, but don't start shopping for a special spelunking helmet, freeze-dried snacks and quick dry underwear. Going into the dark means just that: going. Some basic preparation is definitely called for, but this kind of work is basically low tech—think of Theseus bringing string into the Minotaur's labyrinth.

So head in there with your flashlight and shine it around. Check out the floor (damp) and the ceiling. (Cripes! Bats!) Watch your step and try to find your bearings. This introductory exploration may take much longer than you anticipate, and sometimes you'll mistake the stuff you see near the cave opening for the story you're trying to find. But if you are patient and keep going, you'll start to make out the shape of what you're really after looming black against the deeper gloom.

Take a step forward, then another. Try not to falter. Hang on to your torch or nightlight or whatever you're holding at this stage of your adventure. Let your beam fall on the curve of your story's shoulders. See if you can catch the look in its eye. There's nothing to be afraid of. Here's why: Your story has been alone, lost in the dark, hoping to be found. It's only a story, after all, and you're much bigger than it is. Without you, it is nothing. Once you shine a little light its way, your story will follow you wherever you want to take it.

Susan Bono is stockpiling batteries in Petaluma, CA.

How do you cast light on the dark side of a story?

  by Suzanne LaFetra

A nephew in a faraway hospital. Failing kidneys. A gut obstruction. Compromised by diabetes, my nephew Matt has always had to contend with various diabolical medical complications. And so, of course, has his mother, in the up-all-night-with-worry way. In the get-on-a-plane-to-Germany way. In the your-firstborn-child-might-die way. Pretty dire stuff, and you'd think the missives fired off from the hospital would be unbearable. Yet, I find myself smiling.

"Matt is scheduled for surgerz tomorrow. Will take at least 6 hours and thez dont know until thez get in what thez will find. Sorrz this kezboard is in german…"

I mean, it is agonizing, but hard stories go down easier with a smidgeon of humor. The comic relief opens some little door in our hearts so that the stab of poignancy goes in easier, and deeper.

Another writer, Douglas Coupland, does this in a dark and hysterically funny novel called All Families are Psychotic. In rougher moments, an over-the-top character appears who has re-named herself the unpronounceable "Shw." You're tripping along, ingesting suicide attempts, and HIV horrors when you come across this name—Shw-- again and again, and your brain just giggles.

"Anzwaz, thez will probablz remove the large intestine but hopefullz keep the small one." That damn keyboard threw some sunshine onto a situation that would've been very dark. "We are hanging in there, and trzing to keep our ears stiff—apparentlz a German version of the English stiff upper lip".

So I plan to put my characters into situations that have a bit of the absurd going on. Maybe a guy gets a horrible phone call, but he's in a towel that won't cover him all the way. Or a woman is getting fired and knows her life is crashing around her ankles but the worst possible rendition of "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" is blaring on the radio. It's worth considering recasting my own painful memories with an eye toward the beautifully absurd—-a childhood divorce might go down easier when my mother's meringue-stiff hairdo and orange caftan get-up is part of the picture, not to mention the giant wooden earrings.

Matt came through the [sic] surgerz beautifullz. He's home with my sister and her stiff ears and boring keyboard. But it's okay; the news since then has all been good.


Suzanne LaFetra casts light in the darkness every time she writes for Tiny Lights.

Come Morning

  by Theresa Sanders

My mother-in-law has lived on oxygen for years. Though it hasn't been easy, she has never let it stop her from staying as active as she can. She still attends family functions and ballgames. She still drives, shops, embarks on limited travel, and last year, even thwarted a would-be robbery, all with oxygen in tow. Several months ago, she told me about a friend who was having significant health problems. Very worried about this friend, she felt at a loss for how to show her that life could still be good.

"You are showing her, though," I said. "You're showing by example. You're casting a positive light."

She gave me a discerning look. "Sometimes, I think that's why I'm still here."

I expect that, for my mother-in-law, casting light is less about sugar-coating, and more about finding balance, living true. She has been able to take an untenable situation and re-tool it, chunk by unsavory chunk, arriving at something that is acceptable, that is bearable, something that still has meaning. It perhaps doesn't glow as it did before, but it still shines anew. My mother-in-law has found a way to make hardship redemptive. She and her oxygen have become reluctant companions.

As a writer, it has taken some time for me to understand that stories are best told by varying degree. In life, as in story, every happy ending is exacted by way of struggle, just as darkness is deepest right before dawn. And even when we think the day has fully risen, there is no precise moment when light completely collects dark. No matter how bright the light, there still remains a certain amount of shadow. Light is all about nuance.

And so I write—and strive for nuance. For it is out of the depths of night that morning comes. I will work to decipher just the right amount of light to shine upon my page, the amount that speaks to what is uniquely me. I will craft it, chunk by unflinching chunk, in search of something that is readable, that is breathable, something that hopefully provides meaning. It won't immediately glow, but perhaps one day it will shine anew. In seeking silver linings, I will celebrate the beauty in shades of gray. I think that is why I am here.

Theresa Sanders lives near St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, and is the mother of four grown children. An award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a documentation and training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. She contributes frequently to Tiny Lights and Chicken Soup for the Soul, and is completing a novel. Theresa welcomes email at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net.



Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow


Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: greenwriter1960@gmail.com

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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