Sunday, June 7, 2009

Go Ahead, Make Me Cry

When I searched Google Images for this post, I knew in an instant, this was the right one: Walt Disney's Old Yeller. It was the first movie I ever saw at a real walk-in theater in Sacramento, CA. The beautiful old Alhambra Theatre, which unfortunately was demolished to make way for a Safeway supermarket in the 70's, but I digress . . .

I was seven years old when Mom walked us up those steps to see a movie about a boy named Travis and a mogrel dog named Old Yeller. I watched the big screen eyes wide and mouth full of jujyfruit, as the story progressed and the relationsip between boy and dog grew during scrapes with raccoons, bears, snakes, wild pigs. I giggled, I covered my eyes and gasped, I was mesmerized . . . until the end. Oh, aaagh! Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, had not prepared this seven year old for her first tear-jerker movie! I remember very clearly, walking down those steps bawling my eyes out, chin shuddering and asking: "Mommy . . . Old Y-y-yeller . . . died?"

I had that same feeling some years later, when called to the dinner table minutes after I'd finished reading Charlotte's Web--and sobbed in my plate of spaghetti. And I still get a lump in my throat thinking of all those baby spiders floating down on webs to console Wilbur.

The stories made me cry--pushed emotional buttons. Didn't spare me. And its probably why I remember them all these years later. Why am I thinking of this now? Because of a question asked of me during a recent author interview by C.J. Darlington, now posted on . The question was:

"Do you ever find it challenging to distance yourself enough from your own experiences [as a nurse] to write novels?"

I told the interviewer the truth, that I'd expected to find it relatively easy to write realistic medical drama--I'd spent more than half my life in scrubs. So I wrote away on that first draft of Critical Care, scene after scene, giving the readers inside glimpses into the adrenalin filled world of emergency medicine. Showing nurses, doctors, patients . . . in all sorts of situations. Got it down. Made it shine. Turned it in. And my editors loved it . . . but wanted more. Not more pages, not more medical jargon, but more . . . emotion. They wanted to "see" the scenes that I left mercifully on the cutting room floor, all the heartbreak I left offstage. They said to go ahead and, "Show us--make us cry!" They challenged me.

That's when I realized that I'd been holding back, "protecting" my readers much the way I'd always shielded my family from much of the grit and heartache of "what Mommy does at work" . . . all those years.

So in the revision process, I crawled back "into scrubs" emotionally, to give my editors--and my readers--"more." The story began to breathe, the characters came to life. The editors were right. And I'm grateful for their excellent guidance. Even if it meant that I had to I had to re-live some of those tough memories again--and they had to grab a Kleenex box.

But then, just as I told the interviewer, I didn't hold back on the joy and laughter in Critical Care, either--and (unlike Old Yeller and Charlotte), I guarantee a happy and hopeful ending. I hope it will be a memorable.

Even without Jujyfruit and big screen.


Rel said...

Loved the interview, Candy :) Was a great read.

Just letting you know our spotlight on Logan and Claire is now posted on my blog.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. I've been preparing all week to write a post on my blog about what it is that triggers emotion in readers (or viewers) and how we as authors can tap into it, so I appreciated hearing your take. Powerful stuff...

CandaceCalvert said...

Rel--your spotlight was fabulous!
Thank you!

CandaceCalvert said...

Thank you, KM. I think if there were a way to pin down that elusive thing we writers call "voice," it would boil down to having the courage to be honest. To dig deep for the emotion, risk being vulnerable: and share it with our readers.

As I reader, I'm most impressed with an author who creates flawed, human, heart-on-their-sleeves characters that make me think: "Omigoodness, she's writing about ME!" We all want to feel understood, connected. I think that's we must strive for as authors, to offer that blessing as best we can. said...