This piece was going to be presented without comment and tags of “pedantry” and “uninspired advice.” I was that displeased by the result of my writing effort but out of time to make it better.
Then I got an unexpected hour to re-write my post–by which I mean, compose an entirely new post–and I am much happier with the new one. In “Portrait of a Lady’s Hand” I discuss how beautifully composing a photograph parallels writing a story…how the same sort of choices about what information to inlcude and what not to include make different stories out of the same scene.
So read. And enjoy! This one you actually might….
I had another post written for this guest blogging slot. It was edited, illustrated, tagged, and scheduled…and I hated it. I put it in the queue because I had to have something, and I was out of time, and we had houseguests arriving Monday so there would not be time for an eleventh-hour save. The draft sitting on my personal blog said only, “Presenting this one without comment.” I don’t know if my post was that bad. I do know that I was not satisfied with it when I ran out of time to fix it, and the embarrassed dread I felt about it Sunday night did not go away during the day on Monday.
As it happened, our company was worn out from traveling, and so I had the chance for a mulligan, after all. Rather than trying to fix the original post, I let my mind wander to other topics. Sometimes it is better simply to scrap the old system and build from scratch.
The place my mind went was my bracelet. It’s something I purchased for a costume, but somehow that imbued it with a power, because now it feels like a talisman. If I put it on, I become more focused. Stronger than my ADD. Safe from doubt and self-criticism. I was going to talk about that kind of tactile, physical symbol and how using something like that to bring your creativity under your control is like using a focusing stone in matters of the occult.
But a funny thing happened when I went to take a photo of my bracelet: I realized I had inadvertently stumbled onto a perfect metaphor for writing a story.
You see, I had a lot of choices to make for the portrait of my hand. What background should I use, such as my couch, my rug, the room around me? What mood did I want to communicate with my hand’s pose–anger, relaxation, playfulness? Did I want to include the story of my wedding that goes with my left hand via my ring? Should I hold a prop, such as a wine glass or a pen? Would the amazing chiaroscuro effect of the camera flash on the silver make up for leaching all life from my skin and over-emphasizing the hairs on my arms that have embarrassed me since age 10? Did I want to eliminate the distorted reflection of myself to be seen in the depths of the jewelry?
I took about ten photos before I found one that satisfied my vision. I tried different angles, different backgrounds, different distances, different lighting, different positioning within the camera frame. And the whole time, I was cognizant of the fact that I controlled the narrative of my photograph. I had absolute say over what story the self-portrait of my hand told. Did you think cameras tell the truth? No. They tell a version of the truth–the version the photographer wants you to see.
And that is what writing is: telling the story you want your readers to hear.
As the writer, you get to choose what you reveal and in what context. You choose to include or withhold the third finger and the presence or absence of a marriage band. You choose to emphasize one feature at the expense of another, or decide the harmony of the whole is more important. You choose to include the messy, possibly shabby room or limit the background to the posh illusion of one piece of expensive furniture.
This kind of editorializing is implicit in every scene of every story you write. Whose point of view do you use? Where do you begin and end the scene? Do you include any segue from where the reader previously saw the character?
There is no one way to tell a given story. There is no single way to write a particular scene. Writers always know more about what happens than they put on the page. Part of a writer’s job is to find the best way to tell the scene and the story in order to achieve the particular effect they are looking for. Change the frame or the perspective, and you can end up with an entirely different story. A mystery can become a comedy from the villain’s perspective, as he laughs over a mis-directed investigation. The difference can be that stark.
For most writers the choice of how to frame a scene, and what scenes to include in a story, is probably intuitive most of the time. But if you find yourself stuck on a scene, step back and examine it with a critical eye. You may find that you’re trying to compose the scene all wrong, and changing something like what element you’re focusing on will get your story back on track.
Always remember that readers will see only what you write, not what you don’t. Without the frame of a wide-angle shot, they will never know if the hand above is a portrait of a lady…or not.