Technique? I can teach that in a writing workshop. What’s tougher to teach—really, I can only extend an invitation—is the ability to think and to feel in terms of opposites, to know, as Thomas Mann said, “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.” If you’re paying attention, life will teach you that.
My father was a gruff man, a man of temper. During my rebellious teenage years, we clashed. We said vile things. Sometimes we shoved at each other. My kind and timid mother endured it all. She didn’t deserve the ugliness we brought into our home, but she didn’t know how to stop it. She only knew how to hold faith, how to love.
One night, my father and I let things go so far—I tend to remember it was an argument over my getting a haircut—my father stormed out of our house, got in his truck, and drove away. He didn’t come back until late the next morning. That night, while he was gone, I couldn’t let go of my anger. The fifteen-year-old kid I was couldn’t see beyond what he thought was the injustice of his father telling him to get his hair cut. So there was that anger. That was one truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I also felt ashamed—ashamed that my stubbornness and anger had helped to bring us to this point—and in that shame was the other truth, the undeniable fact that my father and I loved each other. If we didn’t, as my mother pointed out to me that evening, we wouldn’t get so angry. We wouldn’t care enough to bother.
Although I didn’t know it then, my battles with my father were teaching me something that would one day pay off for me as a writer. They were teaching me to never settle for the surface truth, but to always look closely enough to see the other truth occupying the same narrative moment or the same character.
We have to learn to think and feel in terms of opposites. When I travel back to my fight with my father over getting a haircut, I feel what I felt then—a squiggle in my stomach that tells me this moment is complicated. Back then, I didn’t know how to define that feeling. My mother, who was older and wiser, did. She knew love was often the underside of anger and shame.
Think back to the moments of emotional and/or intellectual complexity—those squiggles in your stomach. What were the layers—often contradictory ones—that co-existed within those moments. Start there to learn how to think and feel in terms of opposites, how to reach a deeper, more resonant truth in your writing. There’s always another story beneath the one we think we’re telling. We just have to be patient, to be willing to look closely, to wait for the action, or the dialogue, or the image that tells two stories at once