Sunday, December 04, 2005

Going Deep

"If I'm writing, and I'm writing realistic fiction, I have to come up with the goods. Otherwise, what am I doing? So I have made a commitment, in my work, that when I write I'm going to write as hard and as tough and as raw as I can about real emotions. My emotions included."

That's award-winning author Chris Lynch describing his writing process in an essay that he wrote for The ALAN Review (a publication of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English).

"I'm showing you, the reader, mine," Lynch writes, "and at the same time I believe you are showing me yours. Your bruises, your scary thoughts, your best jokes, your perversions. If we're in the book together, we are showing each other."

You have only to take a closer look at Lynch's work--Shadow Boxer, Iceman, Free Will, Who the Man, and the recent NBA-finalist Inexcusable-- to know that he comes up with the goods every time.

In Lynch's Gold Dust, for instance, a remarkable story about friendship that crosses racial lines, he explores the difficult and complex emotions on both sides of the color-line.

The story begins when two boys--Napoleon Charlie Ellis from Dominica and Richard Riley Moncrief from Boston--meet in the racially charged hub-of-the-universe in the 1970s.

At first, Richard is a bit perplexed by this blossoming friendship between himself and Napoleon:
Did I ask for this? Was I looking for this? Did I go following anybody into the bathroom to spark up a friendship? No, I did not. I was minding my own business, doing just fine, marking off days on the calendar until baseball season started. Next thing I know I'm chasing a guy out of the bathroom to patch things up. Makes no sense. If I ran things, nobody would have names. We would just have batting averages. Then there would be no misunderstandings.
That's Lynch coming up with the goods, going deep into the psyche and heart of his character, and touching that place where the character's emotions are percolating, way beneath the surface, and giving them to us, the reader. Nothing censored. Nothing held back.

It's Richard's obsessive love of baseball that keeps him from seeing anything wrong with his city, his school, his friends.

But once Napoleon arrives, Richard begins to see cracks in his perfect egg-shell world--racial slurs, taunts, threats. Eventually, everything comes down to black-white because that's the real world, Napoleon's world, not Richard's egg-shell world.

Napoleon understands in ways that Richard must come to learn that not seeing racism is as much a problem as racism itself.

And that becomes the challenge for Richard. Can he step outside himself, outside his love for baseball, and see the world from another person's point-of-view?

Richard only wants life to be as clean and pure as the game of baseball. Once he steps onto the field, he knows the rules--strikes and balls, fair and foul--with utter clarity.

In life, however, he begins to see that being black is against the rules in certain parts of his city. This knowledge insinuates itself bit by bit into his consciousness. And, though he struggles against this idea because it soils his egg-shell view of the world, ultimately he comes to accept it:
"How stupid are you, Richard, may I ask?"
My first response was--I could feel it even if I couldn't see it--to go all red in the face. My second was to walk faster and try to leave Napoleon behind.
"No, no, listen to me," he said, staying with me.
"No. I don't want to listen to you. I don't want to listen to that, all right? You know, Napoleon, everything doesn't have to do with that, does it? You're always talking about the same thing, no matter what anybody else is talking about."
"What?" he said, and he laughed when he said it. But he didn't think it was a bit funny. "Listen to you. Always talking about that? You can't even speak it. You can't even say what that is."
"Yes I can."
"No, you cannot."
I breathed a couple of loud, exasperated, steamy whistly breaths through my nose. Then I said it. "Blackness," I said.
I knew why he was laughing now. I tried to hold my hard-guy face but it was a chore. I had heard myself, after all. I said the word in such a ridiculous stage whisper, like a three-year-old with a secret. It was the best argument I could have made for Napoleon's side of things.
"That doesn't prove anything, I said, giving up to a small laugh myself.
Anyway, I had managed to make him laugh. No small task. I didn't want to mess with that just yet.
Again and again, Lynch gives us everything, showing us his and demanding that we show him ours, diving into the deepest water to show us the real emotions of his characters. Not just what the character sees, but what the character feels.

Richard's struggle to see Napoleon's side of things reaches a climax outside Brigham's, an ice cream parlor in a supposedly neutral part of town... when they're spotted by two of their bigoted classmates.
"This is stupid," I said. "I'll go talk to him."
"Sit down, Richard," Napoleon said.
I sat.
"Please don't make too big a deal out of it, Napoleon," Beverly said. Beverly's face was making a big deal out of it, like she might cry. "He doesn't matter."
I looked outside. Jum and Butch were sitting now, in a bench at the park. Facing us. There were two more guys with them that I had never seen before. Older.
Beverly took notice too. "No, no..." her voice trailed away.
Then there were two more. And it looked as if they were all sitting on a wooden sofa, watching a TV that was the Brigham's window.
"They're just like dogs," Beverly said. "Territorial. Brainless."
"And what," I said, "they don't like other dogs in their yard? And anyway, I thought this wasn't even their yard."
"Apparently their yard is getting larger," Napoleon said.
We all stared out for a few seconds, waiting for whatever. But it was waiting for us.
"I am so sorry about this," Beverly said.
Napoleon stood up, wiped his mouth neatly at the corners with his napkin as he continued staring out across the way. Even now, he still had his manners. I thought of him and his father together in Pier 4, so graceful, so foreign, so many million miles away from here and now.
I could not ever remember actually wanting to fight anybody before. Before this moment.
"You want to go fight?" I asked.
"Don't be stupid," Beverly said to me.
Napoleon pulled his lips tight. His eyes went narrow as he looked out there, and he began lightly, rhythmically tapping the table with the meaty part of his fist.
"Yes, I want to fight," he said.
I thought Beverly was going to scream, or cry, or attack Napoleon herself.
"If you do," she said, pointing a finger at him, "if you do..." She stalled, to collect herself. "They are animals. What's your excuse?"
Lynch not only goes all the way, he keeps going deeper. He pursues the arc of a character's emotion as far as it will take him... and in that pursuit builds drama and tension.

He gives us everything he finds in his characters' hearts, bringing it back to the surface to share with us, and in the process opens his own heart to share with us, too.

By the end of the story, Richard finds himself and his world--Boston, baseball, school, friends--different. His friendship with Napoleon, his way of dealing with people, his obsession with baseball (which shielded him from the real world while offering him a way into that world)... Lynch shows us all of it without flinching away from painful or disburbing parts.

"My method for getting at what I'm trying to get at," Lynch explains, "is to write it all the way. I get as deep into the lives I write as I can, and I report what I find there whether I like it or not."

Going deep into the lives of your characters is the fiction writer's job. Like Lynch, you have to write it all the way. It's part of the contract that you make with your readers.

Equally important, it's part of the contract that you make with yourself when you enter the deep water of fiction.

To see Lynch's full essay in The ALAN Review, go to

For more on Lynch and his work, check out these sites:

P.S. - Chris Lynch was one of my teachers at Vermont College. If you think it's hard to write all the way, bringing real emotions to the page, you should try sitting in a class with Lynch, his penetrating eyes bearing down on you, asking you to explore what's at the heart of your character... and then helping you get there... in front of the class. He's as unrelenting in the classroom as he is in his books.

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