Chéri Vausé, “Secrets”
Charles Dickens once said, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret to every other.”
When I first read those words, I reeled at the thought that even I might be that profound secret to those around me. Was I falsely believing my family and friends know me thoroughly, that I'm an open book to them? I began to wonder how could I be when I spend most of the day writing, hours thinking silently while immersed within myself, lost in other worlds of my making, or researching to make my stories authentic. And all the years I spent living a life separate from them is only shared through anecdotal snippets. Is it just authors, or those introverts who live in their heads who are secrets to their loved ones?
The answer is, no. Dickens is right. We may believe that we know the person we marry, our children, and our friends, and then they surprise us in ways we could never calculate or anticipate. Their actions or ideas do not fit within the algebraic equations we've programmed to describe them. They are a never-ending source of wonder and awe, or disappointment and sadness. That is the nature of secrets, of the constituents of our ephemeral soul. We are hidden from those around us, containing an entire land within, possessing our own language, culture, and dreams inside that quiet world. We are, as the good book says, fearfully and wonderfully fashioned. And yet, our bodies may be made of dust and water, but our souls, the essence of who we are, is knitted in secret and made of fire. We are, as Carl Sagan says, Star stuff.
It is true that to be a good writer we must pay attention to the world around us, to see things most would miss, to stare into that hot star seated before us and use all our senses to understand them. We should look for the nuanced, the ticks, and the tells, to search out the hidden agenda, the masked intentions, the cloaked path to the land within each person. As writers, we are the purveyors of secrets, the revelators of deep truths. Peering into the secret world of humanity is our job. In a sense, we are like doctors who open wounds and clean them out with words. It may be painful for some to read what we've written, but we must put those words onto paper if we are all to heal. We are the lens that exposes the minutest of details, or we may fly up to the stratosphere to take the shot that tells the bigger picture. We are the conscience of society, and we must hone our observation skills to a fine point in order to learn about that secret world inside each of us.
The secrets we reveal can shake a reader's world, make them feel as if the tectonic plates beneath their feet have moved a few degrees, just enough to knock them from their feet. Saint John called that experience, the dark night of the soul. It's the moment we learn the truth about ourselves, how small and helpless we are, and how wrong we can be in our philosophy of life. A fellow author described her experiences as destabilizing. She said it was caused by the rhythm of some words. Although the content of each word was important to her, it was the combination that unsettled her world, as if the ground under her feet shifted, knocking her off-balance. Her secret had been revealed. She was sensitive to the tonal quality of prose, to lines that made her think, then rethink, all the while plucking the strings of her emotions with the combined sound of the words. That combination opened her up and changed her perception of who she was and her life. She pondered the revelation, that although it was an unsettling truth, it was real and certain. If a simple truth affected her that deeply, then she must make room for it inside her world.
Reading them silently wasn't enough. She found herself chanting them over and over in order to experience the sensation she felt when she first read them. I recall many times reading a poem or scripture verse affecting me in that way. Many times it would be a line or two from a Shakespearean sonnet, or one of his plays, or another classic writer like Dickens. Oddly enough, I would find myself repeating those lines, committing them to memory. And the words would trip across my tongue and make my heart beat a little faster, and tears would fall unbidden. I am laid bare, just as Saint John described. Although it was not a religious experience, it made me sensitive to the world, more empathetic, and a believer in hard truths.
This is what writing is all about. A good writer should make a reader think and feel, no matter the genre or length. A great writer will compose their words as if they were writing a symphony, a musical piece that will resonate within a reader's emotions. The rhythm, the tone, the how we say something is just as important as what we say. And yet, every word should be cerebral enough to help the reader ponder the meaning behind the story long after they turn that final page. Stories that unsettle, as well as engage, alter our perception of who we are and the truth of the world, precisely as that author described. It's what Dostoevsky called an idea behind the story. Some say it's a message, but it's more than that. A message is a note to the reader that can be a warning or even a reassuring pat on the back. An idea will bring a light to the nighttime of our lives, to keep us from stumbling in the dark. But a secret can scorch the earth, or immolate us.
If we settle for telling a simple story, that's fine. There are more books out there like that than those containing an idea. Yet, the ones that do have lasting value. I like the idea of writing a book with the idea behind it, to reveal what the French say, le dessous des cartes, which means the cards underneath, the ones you can't see. Those are the secrets, those simple cards folded in our sleeves or hidden in the deck, that we must bring out into the light.
We should apply that idea of a secret world to our heroes and villains, holding something back, and forcing the reader to guess what they might do, or what they might know. Writing in that vein can make our characters more robust, multi-dimensional, and fill their dialogue with conflict and adversarial tension. But it also allows them to have the kind of secrets that can explode within the story, or come to a slow boil. Tess Gerritsen says she doesn't map her characters, but allows them freedom to surprise her. I couldn't agree more. I surprise myself when I write a character who will rise to the occasion or shrink from it as my story unfolds. People are rarely one way.
It's not enough to just write beautiful words on a page, or active words that engage a reader's attention. That is almost too formulaic. Sentences should have a rhythm and dig into the rich black earth of life to reveal that secret gem long buried. Writing like that takes more thought, forces us to go beyond the story, and to make our words function in three ways: The definition, to further the story, and reveal a secret, another story behind it.
The word secret is oftentimes fraught with a negative connotation. But I ask you to see it in its most positive light. Even if we are revealing a dark and dangerous occluded idea, facing the shadows and the inherent danger is necessary. It becomes a call to arms for our readers, to change lives, to be wary, even more thoughtful of those around us.
The question we must ask ourselves when we have completed the first draft of a story is whether we have revealed that secret world in each of our characters, and uncovered a bit of ourselves along the way. But more importantly, have we broken through to that deeper idea under the permafrost of the story. And, have we told the truth people might not want to hear, but must? Cracking through that hardened expanse to allow the burbling mass underneath that benign frozen layer to percolate up through the fissures, and exposing it to the world is our goal. I want to be that writer, that diviner of truth, to help my readers dowse for the subterranean idea. And if I can knock someone off their feet, just once, then I've hit the mark. It might take a lifetime of writing, and it might be the book I just turned in, but whenever it is my secret will be revealed.
From The Night Shadow
Set in the moral upheaval of the sixties, dark shadows are cast over two private investigators, Esther Charlemagne, and her former NYPD partner, Aiden “Mac” McManus, as they look into the circumstantial death by fire of a ballerina. The investigation begins in Los Angeles, but eventually ends in New York City, and the New York Ballet Company, under the direction of George Balanchine. Both investigators find they will have to face the ghosts from their past if they are to solve the case and make a new life for themselves.
September 23, 1964...
A cool breeze blew in from the ocean and out across the landscape of Los Angeles in an attempt to chill the heat off the early autumn night. Then, it just died. Dead. Autumn never made it past Highway 101, the road running like a black, glassy snake along California’s craggy coast. It, too, was dead on arrival.
When the ocean wind died, the heated damp air was left behind, and floated lazily through the bowels of the Los Angeles warehouse district, like it fell asleep. It managed to stick to everything like flypaper, making any physical activity uncomfortable. One particular warehouse, converted into a dance studio, was lit up at the late hour, the old glass and wooden walls expecting to hear the clunk of ballet slippers across its hardwood floor. A young dancer, sat on a bench in the dressing room, ready to change into her leotard and tights. Sweat began to form in huge beads at her hairline and on her upper lip. She wished that the cool of autumn would finally get the upper hand and kill its predecessor. Summer should have been finished, should have died, just like the wind, but it hung on, passively suffering in its excessively long-lived existence. Rehearsing in the heat was just one of the sacrifices a dedicated dancer had to make if they were to star in a company like the New York City Ballet. She sighed, and dabbed with the tips of her fingers at the sweat on her upper lip.
She stood, stepped out of her heels, feeling the cool cement on the bottom of her feet, then slid out of her sleeveless Yves St. Laurent dress, hanging it in a locker, along with her stockings. The converted closet was only large enough to accommodate three at-a-time changing out of their clothes. Fortunately, she was alone. She should have been at home packing for her plane trip to New York, but her muscles felt cranky and she needed to stretch, in spite of the sultry air. It would be good to leave Los Angeles behind, with its pitiable peculiarities, and all the emotional entanglements that seemed to be unresolvable. She paused for a moment, thinking, conjuring up a picture in her mind. The future, any further contact, had died away with love unuttered between them. She knew leaving would not solve the break-up. It would only make it more tragic. A tear broke free and traveled down her cheek, joining with the sweat already gathering for a full-scale assault. Even her tears weighed in, knowing intimately the inconsolable grief of unrequited love. She must learn to live with it, however painful it was, and focus on her fledgling career in New York.
She brushed the thoughts from her mind and quickly slipped on her tights and leotard, then she lowered herself to the bench and laced up her toe shoes. The picture in her mind returned, and she sat immobile, fixed to the bench. Curiously, she could hear someone walking across the boards toward the men’s dressing room; a hurried, uneven step, someone probably more interested in a quick workout, rather than mastering a movement. Disappointment traveled through her, and she stared at her hands, lying like two limp fish in her lap, her shoulders slumped forward.
Chéri Vausé taught theology for twenty years. She has three mystery thrillers published with GWL Publishing, UK, a small press: The Truth and Nothing but Lies, The Night Shadow, and The Touch of a Shadow. The Portrait of Lilith, a Gothic thriller, is forthcoming in 2016. She currently lives on a small ranch in Central Texas with her husband and two dogs, Scully and Mulder. For more information about Chéri Vausé go to her website: http://www.authorcherivause.wix.com/noirthrillers.