It’s been said that the most compelling element of fiction is its ability to evoke strong emotion. But how do we do that? How do we infuse our writing with enough believable story to wrangle that response from readers? I’m personally learning one particular aspect of this right now, and it cuts me to the heart, but it also enriches me.
I’m currently in America, visiting dozens of people, and the lessons have been endless. Let’s start with a simple yet profound one that I’ve not enjoyed in the least: leaving friend after friend after friend. It’s a thing that wrenches my insides with unshed tears that may come out later on paper, if I’m lucky. Imagine for a moment you’re me; this is how you would experience it.
You spend years working together online, chatting regularly, sometimes video chatting. Minds meld in an inexplicable way, even across the distance. You plan a journey to meet. You sweat and toil to make it happen, and you wait longer than you thought you ever could. Then you are there, but oh, the time is so short. For a while you float along in your bliss, then you realise your sojourn is half over. In the remaining days and hours before the parting, you drink in their face with your eyes, memorising every line and expression. You want to be able to call up their image on your inner screen at will, almost as if they were there, but aren’t.
When the moment finally arrives, you do the unthinkable and just turn away—less painful that way. No clinging, no extra hug, just do it and get out of there. And then it’s over. You’re away and they’re gone and there’s nothing else to be done about it. You cry inside and maybe out, and things return to a semblance of normalcy, if there is such a thing.
Further, in all of this rumbles the hassle of travel, of getting away by whatever means you have chosen. You fly and are afraid. Or even with ground transport you are afraid you might miss a connection and all the repercussions that go along with that. All this fear mushrooms up to the extent that you are no longer sure how much of your bellyaching is from that and how much from having to leave. And you think you would rather be sentimental than a scaredy-cat, even as the miles stretch out between you to impossible distances where you once again hang by the fragile thread of technology to keep you connected.
Then you wonder if maybe you’re overdoing it. If everyone else is much more matter-of fact about these things than you are and you embarrass them by, well, being more intense than is necessary. But no, there was that connection before, though via the safety and silence of the anonymising Internet.
Parting is such a strange thing, this instantaneous transition between there and not-there, with you and not with you. We’ll meet again someday, but we can’t know how or when or where. In view of that hope I can live through these sorrows.
For after the leaving comes an arriving; after the lonely travel comes a meeting, a sighting of faces seen many times before: photos differ from their live subjects in subtle ways. Now, at last, I know what you really look like. There is a jaunt through local haunts, finally pulling into a driveway of a place I’ve known from many angles except this one with my feet on its ground. It is a most peculiar—and spectacular—sensation.
This is my life, so it seems, to look my friends but rarely in the eye. However, I do get to look them in the soul very often, and for that I shall be glad, and travel on—other friends await, and I will yearn also in good time for home, so as to welcome kindred spirits there.
I hold onto these experiences, mentally filing them away. And when I write about a character in the same situation, I pull them out of my heart and mind, and live them all over again: osmosis from reality into fiction and then to the soul of a reader, the grand circle of literary life.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience when reading a book you didn’t want to end. I know it’s happened to me. So by writing these moments of life with friends into my stories, I make them last longer in the reliving—and I’m taking a little piece of you home with me, too.