Describing Shadows: Helping Our Readers Feel Better

All the work I do, whether it's books, blogging, teaching, or interviewing, is founded on one simple idea: people want to feel good. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white, young or old, man or woman, the President or a pauper -- you want to feel good as often as possible. Usually people don't say they just want to feel good. Usually they say they want to get married, or they want a better job, or they want to publish a book, or they want to watch television. But they only want those things because they believe they will feel good, or at least better, when these things come to pass.

Which is why I believe that if you're going to write something and share it with other people, you ought to write something that leaves the reader feeling better at the end than they did at the beginning. It's a good business model, since everyone wants to feel better. Of course, your better might not be my better. In the span of a single day, I can fluctuate between miserable and joyful. Actually, I can do that in the span of five minutes. I can only assume the same is true, more or less, for the rest of humanity.

The trick, I've found, is to first remind the reader of how bad they sometimes feel. Whether I'm writing a story or an essay or a poem, I like to ask, "Remember how bad it feels to think you're not good enough, or whatever you plant won't grow, or good guys finish last, or life is just a meaningless march to an eternal darkness? Remember that?" This brings us all to the same place. Now everyone is standing in shadow.

I have stood in a great many shadows in my life. I didn't call them shadows at the time, of course. I called them reality. Sometimes the harsh reality, if I was feeling dramatic. It was not that the sun had passed behind some cloud of thought; no, it was that I finally woke up to the truth that we must all get about by the dim glow of candles, praying all the while that a strong wind isn't coming. I wasn't actually a pessimist, mind you. I just wanted to be happy. I just wanted to feel good, and I thought the only way to feel good was to protect that candle from the rain and wind. I was trying to be practical.

Shadows may come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but they all share the same impermanence. When they're gone, they gone, and they leave behind no marker except maybe a little dampness, which, given time, the sun will burn away. Sunlight is the true engine of change and growth. Which is why it's so hard to write only about shadows. I sometimes need shadows to appreciate the sun, but even as I describe their darkness, I am noticing only where the sun has been obscured. If I try to give the shadows any more reality than this, my work feels disingenuous.

The nice the thing about the sun is I don't need to keep it burning. It burned long before I was born and it will go on burning long after I die. And it burns equally brightly for everyone. I know we don't always see it, and I know there are rain and storms and midnight, but it's there anyway -- and the shadow I cast wherever I go merely marks my relationship to its light.

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