So what did I learn from this book that I can apply to my own writing?
Well, several things, but the one I want to highlight today is this: Yesterday when I was digging around Mr. Kuyper’s site and looking at all the lovely pictures, I clicked on on this page and saw that Kuyper manipulates his prints on the computer. I’m not a photographer or an artist so I’m not sure if I’m saying that right. But he explains on his site that he tries to restore to the prints the emotion and the power of the scene he originally shot. He’s an artist, and true artists capture and expose truth. But sometimes they do that by making stuff up, or manipulating facts. Or maybe by obeying what Jesus Christ called the spirit of the law (as opposed to the letter of the law).
I used to live on a lake in Alaska. I’d stand on my deck and click pictures of the lake in front of my house, with birch trees all around it and wild mountains behind it, and the pictures, once developed, looked nothing like reality. The mountains in the pictures were flat, small, pedestrian things. They elicited no feelings of majesty, of wild, brutal power, or of the passion that the real mountains poured into me. So I am glad that Kuyper understands how to put back into his pictures the beauty and the personality that the camera strips from them
I suspect that even as the camera strips truth from nature, so does the bustle of our world strip meaning from life. Novelists have an opportunity to encourage people to stop and listen and learn.
Our novels can’t be thinly disguised sermons, though. They should be parables. They should show the truth of the human condition, the truth about pain and love and joy and eternity. We should inject into our novels our worldview, sure. That’s what makes them uniquely ours. That’s what gives them voice and personality and makes them interesting. But the truth we project into our novels is hardly ever the harsh reality people see every day.
I once critiqued a novel in which the writer painted a brutal homosexual rape in excruciating detail. It was devastating and ugly, but worse than that, it was so brutal that it lost all power to move me emotionally. I shut down. I couldn’t look, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t connect.
I suggested that the scene would have been more powerful if she had shown the big boys moving in for the kill, and then cut-away, perhaps to focus on the flower crushed under the heel of one of the attackers, so as to allow the little boy to have some privacy and dignity, and then moved back in to show him lying in a wilted, little heap on the ground after the act was done.
Because what we are looking for is to elicit emotion so people will grow. People rarely grow when you bash them over the head with ugliness. They close their eyes.
On the other hand, the truth we put into our novels can’t be a picture of the wonderful eternity where every tear is wiped away that some of us look forward to. Our readers don’t live in heaven and we can’t paint heaven on earth and expect anyone to care about what we say. Readers are living in the land of brutal rapes. We can’t lie and pretend that stuff doesn’t happen.
People are not moved and they don’t grow when novelists preach at them. So we often hear, “Show, don’t tell,” and this is good. Telling is preaching. Showing is allowing a reader to draw his own conclusions. But I think we need to remember, as we show, that we want to not show life exactly as it appears to the lazy, busy reader as he rushes through his day. We want to show the underlying truth that we see in life, not the day to day dirt or the future glory. We want to show the true human condition and sometimes that means we speed life up for our characters or slow it down. Sometimes we focus on a minute detail and sometimes we flip open a curtain to give the reader a glimpse of the big picture.
You’re the artist. You need to play with the light in order to bring some things forward and push some things backward so that the reader will focus where you want him to focus and so see life as it really is and not as it is on the surface, which is all most of us usually see.