Too Close for Comfort

I have never been very good at expressing my emotions verbally.  I don’t have that problem when writing.  Which is lucky, because good writing must be emotionally honest to resonate with the reader.  Even when it is fiction, it must be honest.  Writers can’t afford to pull punches or hedge their bets…not if they want to really reach their readers and establish that all important connection…the one that makes reading so magical.  This can create some interesting problems.  

Art is about expression.  A composer expresses him/herself through music.  A painter appeals to our visual sensibilities.  I would argue that this allows a bit of a buffer that writers can’t afford.  There is an immediacy to good writing…a closeness.  It is harder to separate the art from the artist because the medium is language.  The writer and reader are having a kind of conversation.  It is a strange dilemma.

I have always been surprised by readers’ reactions to what I write.  My fiction is generally fairly psychologically ‘dark’.  I would choose the word ‘real’, but most people go with ‘dark’.  Some would argue that they are often synonymous.  The world is not a nice place sometimes.  Being human is a hard and brutal task for many people.  Why then, would I write about the human experience like it is nothing but spring afternoons and rose petals?

Sure, there is beauty in what I write.  Often, I find the most beautiful passages to be the ones that are the hardest to read.  There is beauty in truth.  And truth is pain, loneliness, and vitriol as much as it is comfort, love, and friendship.

I came to terms with this strange dichotomy long ago.  It took me a little while to figure out.  When I was  younger, I would give someone a story, and they would hand it back to me when they had finished reading it with a look of unease.  It was ‘good’, they would say, but behind the compliment there would be discomfort.  ‘Pretty dark’, they would say.  I’d shrug and try to smile.  And then they would go watch a TV show where people were brutally assaulted, murdered, and slashed apart in bright living color.

The writer’s burden is this: there is an immediacy to writing that does not exist with other forms of artistic expression.  When you watch a movie, you are captivated by the images on the screen.  You don’t necessarily picture a screenwriter sitting at a keyboard and creating the story line.  You don’t picture the director showing the villain just how to disembowel a victim to make it look more authentic.  But many people, when they read, cannot divorce themselves from the image of the writer, at the computer, crafting the story that entertains and sometimes shocks them.  You write a story about suicide and everyone thinks you’re suicidal.  You make the wife a bitch and you get a tearful phone call.

Writing is a solitary act, and that plays into it, too.  When someone reads my novel or one of my stories, they know that ‘I’ wrote it.  There was not a team of writers involved.  There were no focus groups.  (In truth, there are often others involved in helping me mold my work, but perception is everything).  This immediacy becomes especially hard when you are reading something written by someone you know.  It is difficult not to wonder where the ‘reality’ ends and the ‘fiction’ begins.

My mother loves me very much.  I know that.  She has not read my novel, Joe Café, and she probably never will.  In fact, I advised her not to.  She is too close to me.  It would be hard for her to read.  It is the darkest thing I have ever written.  Not because I wanted to shock people.  Because that is the story that needed to be told.  And it is not a story my mom wants to hear – especially from her son.  There have been many people close to me who have read it, though.  And sometimes they ask  hard questions.  ‘How did you even think of that?’  Well, I don’t know.  It was what the story needed.  ‘Is this about you/me/someone we know?’  Of course not, it’s fiction – even if it’s not.  The second question is fairly easy to field.  The first one is harder.  It implies that there is something dark and evil inside me that allows me to write about dark and evil things.

It is a very odd phenomena.  We watch violent movies.  We watch the news and see that people are beaten, raped, murdered by the thousand all over the world, daily.  These things happen.  They are part of life.  But if you write about them, you are removing the distance.  You are telling the story.  The trauma came from your mind.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the story.  It does mean you should be ready for the questions.  It is the choice we make as authors – we invite the questions.  Intentionally or not.

If your writing is full of joy and love and happiness, you probably have an easier time of it.  And there is truth and beauty in those things as well…I am by no means putting down ‘happy’ writing…I just don’t do a lot of it.  My writing is not always uplifting – sometimes it is, and I happily send those stories to Mom.  Often the stories are about hardship, struggle, misery – life.  My fictional world is not a particularly cheerful place.  Neither is real life.  But life writes its own story.  And therein lies the difference.

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JD Mader is the author of ‘Joe Café’ and a Contributing author to IU. You can find more of JD’s writing at his blog


Author: JD Mader

JD Mader is an award winning short story writer and novelist. 'Joe Café' and 'The Biker' are out now, as well as 'Please, no eyes'. and the collaborative 'Bad Book'. Mader has been writing for half his life and has no plans on stopping any time soon. Learn more about JD Mader at his blog and his Amazon author page.

17 thoughts on “Too Close for Comfort”

  1. Interesting post. I agree, writing is a solo, very personal thing. We sit alone in our work spaces, eyes glued to the monitor, ignoring the world around us (at least that's what others think) But in reality, we are in certain ways, chronicling the world around us and the world in our minds. I'm not afraid to expose the horrors of war in my characters, in a strange way, I live with it every day. I think the world NEEDS to know that it's not all love and roses, unfortunately they seem to want to see it that way.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more. The reason I write is because I have to. The reason I read (when I used to have time) is to see the world through other lenses. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  2. I think the reason many people don't want to read 'dark' stories is that, as you said, life is often very dark and difficult and the reader wants to escape the realism into a world where things are lighter and easier and happier.

    I don't understand why it doesn't always translate the same way where movies are concerned, although I personally choose movies that tend to be redemptive at the end and not too dark throughout. Even The Lord of the Rings, though very dark and evil in part, does have it's happier and lighter moments that lift the tension for a time. And my choice in books is about the same. I love mysteries, but not all the 'blood and gore' details, so I choose Mary Higgins Clark or Agatha Christie and others who write in a similar style.

    It's a good thing we don't all like the same thing. Life would get rather boring and there wouldn't be any room to create something new. Every author has his/her place in the reading world and will appeal to their particular audience.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed the post.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well, Diane. I agree…that is pretty much my Mom's argument, and I respect it. For some reason, reading dark fiction does not depress me. The real world, with its coarse tragedies…that is what depresses me. You make a good point. Actually several, but the one that sticks out for me is that a happy escape is just as valid as any other reason for reading. I don't judge anyone (within reason) for what they read…I just wish people would do it more often. 😉

  3. very good post. Got me to thinking that maybe I need to dig deeper with my own writing, that it's too superficial, and write what the story calls for. I think I have a tendency to skirt the edge of it…and cheat. So, thanks for sharing.

    1. Sure! When I was in college, I dealt with this dilemma quite a bit, so I wrote the most horrible thing I could imagine. It was uncomfortable, but turned into a damn good story.

  4. The reason books and movies act differently on the mind is that readers need to "produce" their own mind-movie, whereas a film watcher has it interpreted and visualized already.

    The act of visualizing a text is personal, and just as deep as the act of writing, so the emotions of fear, shame, regret, grief, anger and so forth (the ones we tend to label 'negative')are aroused as we read and create an empathic response close to the authentic feeling. Of course it's similar for the 'positive' feelings, and we all know how it feels to come away from a book uplifted and motivated, or 'happy'.

    Although we feel movies might have the same effect, they don't, because it was not us who created the 'mind pictures'. They were manufactured for us. Reading is visceral; movies need you to be passive, not visceral, cerebral or active.

    Authors who have the ability to write 'dark' fiction are surprised they also have the facility to write uplifting 'positive' stuff. It needn't be saccharine, and it can be just as moving and visceral as the dark stuff. It must be accompanied, however, by the mechanical and verbal ability to lift it from the commonplace, to rid it of verbal and cultural cliches, and give it the accompanying 'bitter sweet' flavour that only tragedy can give.

    To find out these differences, one needs to read books such as The Horse Whisperer, leave a few months, then watch the movie… and you will see what I mean. Even 'Sleeping with the Enemy' is a good example. They are uplifting books that rely on the dark side … and their interpretation by directors into movies have quite different effects that place the viewer very firmly in a passive role. See what I mean by running the exercise with 'Enduring Love' – the novel by Ian McEwan (known for his dark writing) which is interpreted rather closely to how I felt the text. We all interpret with our own authentic mind pictures, see? Millions of different 'movies' for the same text.

    Wow – I could write a blog about this!!

    1. Very true, Rosanne. I have had many interesting conversations with students about this. Readers often feel robbed when they see a movie based on a book they love – the images are not the same. Since I worked with a lot of kids with comprehension issues, this was often an 'aha' moment. You must comprehend or the fact that Hogwarts looks different wouldn't piss you off. I agree, too, that sentiment is important and that it MUST be distinguished from sentimentality. Two very different things.

      Thanks for stopping by. -JD

  5. I guess it's all in the readers' preference of whether they want lighthearted reading material or grittier stuff. Depending on my mood, I can read any kind. Same goes for my writing; I can craft a story with a more lighthearted view of serious material, or I can take a more serious view of serious material. It just depends on how I want the story to go. A lot of readers have dyed in the wool ideas about how a story should go, so they stick to that style of writing they prefer. As a writer, I suppose we just need to think of what Ricky Nelson sang in Garden Party (I think that was the name of the song…) You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself.

    1. Agreed. "You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time." – so, you might as well please yourself. 🙂

  6. Yes, JD – writing is for oneself, but publishing is for an audience.

    And lighthearted does not necessarily mean lightweight. Dark does not necessarily mean hopelessly black (or blue) ((or black and blue)) either. I am finding Joe Cafe full of shafts of hope, that slant sometimes this way, and then the other. Quite an amazing debut novel.

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