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So much of the time the emotional moments in our writing fall as flat as the page they’re written on, or worse yet, they’re missing altogether. Gordy Hoffman’s goal in his craft talk Tuesday evening was to take us from that place of distance and fear in which we write and bring us up close to the genuine, exposed space that holds the emotional experience.
Gordy started off class by sharing a story of writing his screenplay “Black Friday” about grown children finding their mother dead on Thanksgiving Day. They see her coupons, advertisements, and a list of items she was planning to purchase the day after Thanksgiving neatly lined up on the table, and decide to honor her by buying the gifts she’d planned to give to everyone.
Even though the screenplay is fiction, Gordy based the family characters on his own family. As he wrote a scene about the siblings opening presents on Christmas morning when they were young, he could see his own brother reaching over to help tear the paper off the package he was opening. The memory crystalized in his mind—his brother’s voice, the setting, the action—and then Gordy’s vision blurred with tears. He knew then that he’d captured the emotional moment on the page.
Gordy explained how we are often afraid to bring our personal story to the page, but those emotional moments can only be captured if we are “honest, vulnerable, and authentic.” Although the class applied more to writing fiction, the memoir and poetry writers know it’s a truth that pertains to us as well.
Too often, he said, we dance around the ugly emotions that come before the character’s transformation. We can’t skip those emotional moments if we want our readers (or viewers) to believe and feel the story. Writing the specific details is what connects the reader to the character and then allows the reader to feel the power and truth of the scene.
To help us find the emotion, Gordy gave us a series of writing exercises. First, write a fictional scene about a confrontation. Make it up completely. Second, write another confrontational scene about strangers (this time it can be true). Third, write a confrontational scene involving someone you know (not you, though). Fourth, write a scene about family (not including yourself). Fifth, write a confrontational scene in which you were involved.
Then he asked us to look at the difference between the first scene we wrote and the last. Some students said there was more dialogue or emotion or detail in the personal scene compared to the first scene. Lastly, he asked us to write the fictional scene again using the same emotion we used to write our own confrontation.
Next, we wrote vignettes in the same sequence (fiction, stranger, someone we know, family members, and personal) but with the emotion of joy instead of a confrontation. In each scene we were able to get closer and closer to the emotion, and in the end we re-wrote the fictitious scene using what we had learned—a bit like only putting a toe in the frigid water at first, then a foot, then the other foot, eventually immersing our whole bodies.
Gordy reminded us that there’s no place for distance or protective walls when you’re writing. He said, “Our wounds inform the narrative.” And when we feel blocked, ask ourselves: What is bothering me? What am I afraid of? Then write about what those things are. The stuff that’s smarting now is the best stuff to write about because it’s detailed and specific. The bottom line: Make the plunge, even if it hurts.
For those interested, Gordy’s teaching one more seminar today (6/20) @ 2 PM: Everyone Has Two Ears: Writing Great Dialogue.