Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deborah Grabien on "what happens next?"

Deborah Grabien, fabulous author of Dark's Tale and the fabulous Kinkaid mysteries, is perhaps one of the coolest, funniest people I know. Okay, no perhaps about it. So, of course, I wanted her to write a guest post for my blog, and she produced this great one. Thank you so much, Deborah.

...then what happened...?

Once upon a time...

All good stories supposedly start that way, right? Draw the kids around the campfire, melting marshmallows forgotten and dripping off the end of the stick as they listen, wide-eyed and breathless, to the storyteller, the holder of mysteries, the keeper and sharer of secrets, the only one who knows the ending: then what happened?

A few years ago, the author of (at the time) seven published novels, I found myself in an odd position: as both the storyteller and the kid. There was a hell of a story in there: rock and roll, an older married musical genius with addictions beyond my ability to help and a disease that would kill him too young, a love that went wrong or maybe never existed beyond my own heart. That was my history in there, a few years that had had so shattering and defining an effect on me that I locked it away in my soul, and refused to look at it for thirty years.

...then what happened...?

No clue. I didn't really know what had happened, and I didn't want to look. Any time his name was mentioned, I drew back like a turtle rapped on the nose. It hurt. But I was just turning fifty - well hello there, midlife crisis!

It was obvious to friends and family that the time had come for me to deal with it. I'm a storyteller, bred in the bone; books, drabbles, song lyrics, essays. What better way to deal than to write about it?

Immediate knee-jerk response: NO.

My old friend Marlene pointed out that I could fictionalize it: "You write novels! You lie for a living! Write about it. Write about you. Write about him. You need to do this!"

No. Nonononono. NO!

But of course, the brew - midlife, memory coming back out of the cracks, beginning to bump into old friends from that time, the need to see who I'd been and why I'd become who I am - was too strong. I took a deep breath, braced myself, and prepared to rip away a long hard scar across my heart, and possibly drown in the blood of my own buried memories.

The result was JP Kinkaid, his longtime younger lover and caregiver Bree Godwin, and the band Blacklight. The Kinkaid Chronicles was christened in blood and tears. I don't know that I've ever written or done anything that took more courage or required more emotional risk. These are the books of my heart, and I'm now halfway through the seventh.

Looking at my locked-down Livejournal blog, I find the first entry about the Kinkaid Chronicles at 6:55 pm my time on 18 May, 2005. I was about to begin the first book and I was asking for work in progress readers. I got 51 responses in under six minutes. My email and blog went ballistic. The second entry is not quite two hours later that same day: I'd sent the first four thousand words to my wip-list.

Two hours. Blood, much? Hell yes. But wait, there's more.

On 18 June, exactly one month later, the book was done. 93,000 words. I'd lost weight, lost my temper, and found my own history. I was as raw as Hypatia: no place to hide, scraped clean to the bone. Every one of those 93,000 words had cost me blood, air, and safety.

When St. Martin's Press bought it, they wanted virtually no changes: the occasional typo, the occasional overuse of a word or phrase, because the series is narrated by the man himself, in the voice I remembered, the voice that hurt, that I'd lost along with my younger self. And dear gods, I'd lost scar tissue. So much in there, so rich, so painful, failures and powers and moments of pure love that I could look at now, feel the burn, feel the pleasure, feel young Deb back where she belonged: sharing the world with the woman I am now. Because, you know, one doesn't exist without the other.

As a writer, I'm in service to my story. This is my job, my duty, my responsibility. It's the covenant I've made with myself. This is the price of storytelling: I give blood when the story needs it.

JP Kinkaid has evolved into his own character, rather than simply the avatar for his inspiration. He's retained the original voice, but it's become his own. And Bree, very much a younger me, has grown out of some of her obsessive behaviours and into JP's partner, not just his younger caregiver and buffer. They've become individual and distinct as people, and when I summon them up in my mind's eye, I don't see myself at Bree's age, or my lost love as JP is the books. I see unique individuals.

That's also the price of storytelling: you have to let the story run, whatever form your story takes. Sometimes, you aren't going to want to see what your characters evolve into, or how they change. You lose control that way. But if you don't - if you try forcing living breathing characters into a niche of your choosing - your work will almost certainly have no soul. It may be technically perfect, but it will have no heart, no passion or power. There will be no kids around the campfire, with or without marshmallows, wanting to know what happens next. They simply won't care.

It's not just about fiction, either. You tell stories in song? Same thing. You can't fake it, you can't force it, you can't rely on just technique. It has to breathe, to fell, to tell. And that means that, sometimes, you have to bleed for it. That's the price of making it real: giving your art heart means you have to share some of your own.

Scary notion, I know. Believe me, I know. The Kinkaids continue to surprise me, to open old wounds and force me to mine them for truths and understanding. It isn't easy, ever. JP Kinkaid himself refers to those unexplored moments in their history together as "landmines." He's right.

But there's a payoff, even beyond the Zen that comes from knowing you've looked beneath your own barbed-wire walls. There are those kids, sitting around the fire. They're there because you made something real from your own pool of pain and history and love and longing.

And every last one of them wants to know what happens next.

--Deborah Grabien


Clea Simon said...

Lovely. Lovely and true

Patricia V. Davis said...

A brilliant piece, one I have printed out, and will keep with me as a reminder and a muse whenever I write.