Photos by Piotr Ryczko
Innocuous questions posed?
The questions that kicked off the story "The emotional core of the story" two weeks ago were simple enough.
Should we write what we know? Or should we take a wild chance, put everything on some wild card, a complete unknown, anything to blast our way out of the safe and comfy shell of ours, out of our comfort zone.
These questions, although seemingly innocent, open up a slew of themes which beg to be queried.
Last time, I concluded at how important it is to arrive at a deeper emotional connection between us, the writers, and the characters in our stories. The true stuff of life, our hard earned emotional experience which has burnt its way into our subconscious, and made us into who we are.
This time around I would like to go deeper into the process of writing my novel "A child made to order". Into my own experience of enquiry about the main character of this novel and the emotional connection I developed with Viola. A protoganist which was as far away from my own personality as I could possibly imagine. Or so I thought initially.
But more importantly I would like to break down my process of enquiry into some more manageable steps and conclusions. So others might hopefully take away something of value from this.
But first let's look at the origin of the process itself.
Self-enquiry, its true meaning and ultimate goal
Self-enquiry is a well known spiritual process, used by Buddhists to arrive at deeper truths about what is hidden within us. The divine part which is hidden in us. It can be as simple as a prolonged focus on the question "Who am I?". When done with scrutiny and vigor, it can uncover our ego and mind as illusions. Bear in mind, this enquiry takes an incessant effort and patience on our part. Think of this process not in terms of months, but a life-time.
The people who are familiar with this process in practice might object to it immediately. They would say it is not aimed at things in this world, not at our psychology, our wounds, and our subcouncious.
I think differently of this matter. I do believe that given a meditative mind, cleansed of the incessant chatter of our thoughts, we are able to uncover some groundbreaking truths about ourselves and the world around us. You might ask, what has this to do with writing? Surely spiritual practice and its immaterial rigor has nothing in common with the creative process.
Well, I think otherwise.
I believe most of us are already doing this process, more or less consciously. Regardless if we are a hardcore spritual practitioner or hate the mere thought of meditation.
Just think about it. Isn't writing a very active form of meditation? Many artists describe the process of creation, the inspired flow, as a hyper-focused union with something so much larger than our own personality. As a blissful state, a place we disappear into. A swallowing of our whole essence into the immanent.
That's why I think that by writing, we are able to arrive at these truths. The same way spiritual self-enquiry is able to do. Be it psychological or spiritual questioning. And by writing a lot, we vibrate ever higher with our mind, our focus, reaching for ever more refined and universal answers.
The protagonist's fragmented psyche
With this in mind, let’s get more specific about my experience of this process. And how this can translate into our writing.
Viola, the main character of “A child made to order” is a 42 year old woman who has been through eleven gruelling IVF cycles. This emotional rollercoaster of high hopes and crushed dreams have laid her psyche in ruins. A short quote from the novel sums up the inner resentment and frustration so havily experienced by Viola and other infertile women.
It’s also an ample illustration of how many years of emotional battering can distort these women's self-image and project their inner drama, and low self-esteem, onto others.
“Sara! Sara! Baby! Get a grip on yourself. Just listen to yourself. Just think about it. The one thing you were meant to do, that only thing we can do, you’ve failed at. And miserably at that. Remember who you are, Sara! And if you should forget, then just listen to your period. How do you feel when it comes around?” Marianne whispered to her. She knew Sara needed her more than ever. This wretched girl was lost, and it was Marianne’s duty to make her see this obvious fact.
“It’s what?” Sara asked, unsure if she possesed the correct answer. Then she focused her tear-filled eyes on Marianne’s face. And the blogger clapped at her like an obedient dog.
“It’s one cosmic joke, girl. And the last laugh is on you. What’s the point? That’s how you should feel. The period is a fucking taunt! And so is this man. Because when he learns the truth, that’s how he will think about you. Right?” She put Sara in her place. After all, what was that stupid little girl thinking?
excerpt from the novel "A child made to order"
Having done several months of research, collecting a mountain of notes, read countless recounts, and consulted with a psychologist who has dealt with infertile women, I chose deliberately to enter the story as late as possible, just about when Viola was turning 42.
This is the time, when given an opportunity to surface, the motherly instinct can overwhelm a woman’s otherwise completely rational life. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to have the protagonist go deeper into a off the rails.
An immense potential for engaging drama.
Enquiry as a process
With this character and the process of self-inquiry in mind, I focused in on the classical model of the main character’s need and want. I also formulated a few simple questions.
What is the one thing Viola needs so most dearly in the world? The thing without which her world would never be complete.
I knew she wanted a baby, but I needed to go deeper than that. Was it the love which she would be able to give to her child? Or was it, more egoistically angled, the love she would receive from that child?
And did any of this resonate with my self?
I found out that the answers didn’t come at first. It was a struggle. Sometimes they didn’t surface for several weeks. This may be one of the the hardest part of our work as writers. To identify what is truly ours in our writing. Or why it is the way it is.
And often, the answered remained elusive. Because the real issues, our own flaws, and wounds, they would do just about everything to stay concealed in our own subconscious.
Still, if we keep at it, formulate the question, re-focus on this matter while we write, I believe our true nature surfaces sooner or later.
For me personally I learned that my inner being didn’t necessarily need a child like Viola did, but there was a deep need for unconditional love in my persona. In other words, love which wasn’t asking for something in return. But was sufficient in itself and was rather a spiritual search.
I also found out that our needs can often turn toxic. They can overwhelm us, and lead us to destructive behavior. That is if we let them, and we are not mindful of ourselves. This is exactly what happens to my protagonist. And this is what happened to me in the past where my spiritual path, an uncompromising search for the transcendent, laid my life into a wasteland.
And if you think about it, this is what happens in every gripping story. This experience is the real ammo for our storytelling.
This was the case with Viola where her life goes off the bend when she suddenly gets the opportunity at the impossible. To give birth to a child. This spins her unquenched desire into an emotional storm which blinds her rationality, where she burns all the bridges in her life, fires herself from her own dream job, and puts her in an uncanny mental territory, where she is able to kidnap a stranger's child on a subway.
The writing, the inquiry led me to the conclusion that even the most beatiful things, or maybe especially the most beautiful things in our life can be such a double-edged sword. Being so crucial to our own existence, they also hold immeasurable power over us.
A power strong enough to derail our normal existence into an emotional war zone.
Tapping into our psyche
I continued to tap into my emotional past. Not in a literal sense, I wasn’t writing a biography, but I pulled at the raw emotions of it all. A fountain of untapped feelings which gave the narrative the rawness it required.
I soon realized that although the research is critical, the facts aren’t so important as the raw energy of the emotions in the story. I wasn’t writing a clinical account of an infertile woman, and this wasn’t a non-fiction book. What I was after was rather the vibrant and relentless emotional battering of the reader’s senses. And the best scenes were the ones, where the protagonist's hurt, and pain overlapped with my own. Emotionally and metaphorically.
I repeated this process for other areas of the Viola’s character. And found such an interweaved web of character traits, mirror images which reflected back some fragments of myself. As the process became second nature, a fountain of questions welled up.
What is the thing that Viola detested most about herself? Why does she detest vulnerability so much? What did others to her? How far would she go to conceal her wounds? What would she do? Would she be willing to sacrifice her relationship, even the most trusted people? And what would it take for her to break through that shell? To free her from her past.
These questions were aimed at the main character of the novel, but there was no escaping it, they were also always gunned at me. To test what resonated and what didn't. What my mind was bored by. What it was frightened by, or what it rebelled at. The rebellion and the fear were always good signs. The right direction.
I also found out that the hardest truths about ourselves, our flaws which cause our most destructive patterns, are the ones which are the most elusive to our own mind. And when you think about it, they are like our blind side, right in front of our nose, staring right into our face, and so obvious for everyone else, except us. Rarely made conscious by our own eyes and mind.
And that is also the reason why self-inquiry is so challenging. Maybe the most challenging part about writing. To keep at it, and uncover hidden, often painful truths about ourselves.
But on the other hand, it is also why this process can be so wonderfully fruitful because many times we won't have any clue why we write what we do. But in due time, with patience, some consideration for our neurotic nature, something deep wells up from our inside. It opens up and makes us conscious of what is in between those seemingly empty lines - universal truths about ourselves.
I believe that to tap into this well, launch into this self-discovery, can elevate our writing, from the mundane to the sublime.
Lastly, we do this not only so we can write better drama, but also so we can hopefully become just a little bit more human. Towards one another.
"Yeah, that’s a well (the emotional wounds) that you can go back to. There won’t always be water in it, but you can go back and check. As your life moves on you, start to say, “What am I really confronting now? Is there a metaphor, is there a story metaphor that will express what I’m trying to understand about my life?” You have to be very calculated about how you access that pain. It’s no fun being at the mercy of destructive impulses, and the one thing that art does is it allows us to put a leash on them. I think you learn that pretty quick. Otherwise, you end up going to jail or overdosing..." - Paul Shrader
And finally I want to leave you with a few well-chosen words from Paul Shrader, the screenwriter of the Taxi Driver fame, who touches upon the very same issues of my story, accessing our own emotional history, our pain, as the source for our stories. But what he does, is to add his own two cents. Words which carry with them such great wisdom.
Piotr Ryczko is the published author of the London based publishing house “The Book Folks”. His first novel, a Scandinavian psychological thriller “A child made to order” was released on Amazon Kindle and Paperback. It placed itself amongst the 100 best novels in its category. The same publishing house plans to release the novel PANACEA at the end of 2017.
His short films have won quite a few international prizes. They can be seen here: piotr-ryczko.com/shorts/
Born in Poland and raised in Norway, he loves both countries but has a soft spot for his hometown, Oslo. Piotr loves to hear from readers and writers and can be found on Storygeist where he writes flash fiction, html5 stories, non-fiction and screenplays for his films.
He is also an avid photographer which he does as a hobby, as well as a means to communicate his visual ideas during the filmmaking process. www.facebook.com/RyczkoPhoto/