As a writer, I strive for the moment of awe. I know myself and my abilities, and I know at most, most of the time, I come closer to the moment of “aw” which can be achieved just as profitably by looking at a picture of a cute kitten hugging a teddy bear.
But I know what I want to do – where I want to go – I’ve been there. Not often.
Books don’t have that much impact on me anymore. Oh, I’m not saying I’m jaded – okay, I’m jaded – but I’ve been reading stories since… well… I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read or didn’t like to read stories. I think the earliest stories I read were Disney comics (don’t judge me!) and “read” might be a slight misnomer, since I learned to “read” them by memorizing the words my brother read and associating them with the pictures depicting the action I remembered. Somewhere there, along the line, in the back brain, something went spring, and I associated sounds with those funny scratches people made in the interesting pictures.
That very method of learning to read (but not to write. I’m actually profoundly dyslexic and my dad made me learn to write by making me do a copy of a page a day. Because he would pick whatever came at hand at the moment: history book, economics text or the newspaper, I was the only first grader who could spell socio-economic, but had issues writing “much” (It’s not phonetic in Portuguese, and as pronounced in my area it was even less so. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t an nh around there somewhere.))
Anyway, I found that “story” is addictive, and I’d do anything to get more. Portugal at the time (I really don’t know now) had no lending libraries. Public libraries were more like the library of congress here, containing only books by Portuguese authors, and mostly only “worthy” books by Portuguese authors. One copy. Valuable. To be read in-situ with gloves.
Fortunately I came from a long line of people who had ruined themselves at the booksellers (my dad knew more used book sellers than I think anyone else in the country – though I discovered one, when I was a teen, that he didn’t know about. It dealt in French and English books only, in the original language.)
Unfortunately, I ran through the family store of books and read even the unlikely ones, like Joseph and his Brothers and all of Pearl S. Buck by fourth grade.
By the time I was ten I had cultivated entire friendships because the “friends” had a lot of books I wanted to read; I had raided and smuggled home to read (and return) books that my friends parents’ bought and never read (one of my friends had a father who bought the equivalent of time-life collections
This is not meant to brag about how much I read – look, it wasn’t on purpose. I was seduced by story. I understand junkies in a way – but to explain how I got some immunity to novelists’ tricks.
I remember being absolutely riveted by the suspense in Castle of Adventure (Enid Blyton) – and I can relive a little of that, when I read it, because I remember it. And I remember when the IDEAS in Out of their Minds (Clifford Simak) were oh, wow! Mind blowing!
But as I got older “awe” was more difficult.
Awe is the mirror moment. Not the mirror moment for the character in the book (though it can be that too) which is the moment when the character is forced to drop all his disguises and pretenses and see himself for what he REALLY is – but the mirror moment for the reader. The moment when you see through the story, and experience something real, something true: the moment the book becomes you and you become the book, and the experiences in the pages hit you at a gut level.
It’s very rare for me, these days. Pratchett manages it: the final battle in Night Watch. The “crawl through hell” in Thud. Heyer (who was a recent discovery for me, as in in the last ten years) manages it, particularly in The Infamous Army or A Civil Contract. Agatha Christie managed it when describing artists in The Hollow.
Heinlein manages it reliably in a sudden shock, where I feel tears come to my eyes: the end of I Will Fear No Evil; the part in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress where Mike won’t answer. And two years ago, while listening to a book I’d never read – Rolling Stones – the moment when Hazel Mead/Stone is thought to be dead. That one was a doozie, because I’m walking with headphones on, and suddenly – downtown! – I’m crying, and people are staring and I’m trying to stop, but the narration is pulling me along, and I’m THERE.
The moment of awe is when you forget you’re a reader with a physical body and you ARE in the book/you are the book/you experience joy or triumph or fear, and it pulls you right along, and when you’re done, it leaves you tired and wrung out, as if you’d just lived through everything you read. And it stays with you. Later, in a situation, this scene will come to mind, and you’ll realize emotionally you’ve been there before and this is what it means.
As a writer, the easiest moments of awe to manage are gross outs. This is why so many new authors lovingly describe corpses, or do the equivalent of what Kate Paulk calls “the meaty skull style of art.”
The next easiest is … sex. This is because we are a horny species. You really need very little to get people putting in their own feelings and ideas there – and in fact, it’s best if you restrict it to sort of the universal common denominators. Get too far into what does it for you (a newbie mistake) and you risk having people go “Uh, really? Caterpillars? How interesting.”) But paint in broad enough strokes (eh eh eh eh eh eh eh, I said strokes) and add shades of the forbidden but not too forbidden (tie me up, tie me down) and voila! People will add their own frisson and you have awe… of a kind. (A turgid and non permanent kind.) This is why so much porn is wretchedly written. It needs no more than that.
The next easiest after that is fear. It’s relatively easy – particularly in short stories – to have the monster jump out of the box and scare someone. Okay, it’s not that easy. It requires some weaving of tale and word magic. BUT it’s not that difficult, either.
These are easy because they’re primary colors. They’re also deceptive. A beginning writer MIGHT think he/she knows “plot” when in fact the book has no plot at all. The writer has just kept up interest by throwing in enough sex or gross-out. (And there’s a pitfall, if your sex or gross out interest/threshold is not the same as the general public. You’ll find that out by the public’s stern refusal to buy, but it can be baffling if you think you have a plot.)
The other stuff: sudden self-recognition, love, experiencing sympathy with the character, or a sudden understanding of the world… oh, those are much harder.
But they’re the thing that makes a book live. Shakespeare manages it, across the centuries. It’s not all pretty words. It’s that he captures experiences which still speak to us. Jane Austen too. And, yes, even Dumas. (For some reason the one that speaks most to me is the part where Porthos and his servant are holed up in the inn terrorizing the innkeepers… never mind. I’m a low creature.)
The grown up emotions are HARD. They’re also what stays behind. I learned how to cope with some of these grown up emotions in books. I learned about loyalty and friendship, and creativity and honor by reading about them until they became part of me.
And I aspire to do that to/for readers. Can I? Who knows?
I don’t think I’ll even know if I’ve succeeded. But it’s something to strive for. For a writer, perhaps, more than money or accolades (though those would be nice too, any time now, Lord. I promise I wouldn’t let it spoil me) the only thing to strive for.
Because we paint with emotions and experiences, not with words, and our ultimate canvas is the human heart.