Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 3: Creating an "Aha!" Moment for the Reader


One method of delivering a message in a work of literature that I find satisfying and effective as a reader is when the writer gives me just barely enough information to figure out the puzzle on my own. That solving in my mind is the “Aha!” moment. And the closer it comes to the ending, the better it works for me. If I don’t get it till the very last word, so much the better.
For the writer, it’s a bit like writing a murder mystery. In a mystery, you want to plant little clues for the reader, but unobtrusively, so you don’t tip your cards. You want the readers to enjoy the guessing game, to want to solve the mystery, but you don’t want the readers to guess who the murderer is before you reveal it. Once the secret is out, you want the readers to think, “Of course! That’s so obvious.” But it shouldn’t be so obvious that the readers know on page 10 what you reveal to them on page 210.
But in a way, creating an “Aha!” moment for the reader is like writing a mystery where you rip out the last chapter. The reader becomes the detective and solves the crime. There shouldn’t be a moment like the one in the classic mystery where Inspector Burley-Hyde confronts the murderer in an English country house where he has gathered all the suspects in the well-appointed parlor with its lace doilies and concealed revolver. For the kind of “Aha!” moment I’m thinking of, all the suspects should be under one roof, but the reader should be the one to finger the murderer.
That may sound fairly abstract, so I'll give an example of a short poem by Tess Gallagher that creates an “Aha!” moment for the reader.

                                                                Tess Gallagher

Here’s a link to Gallagher’s powerful poem, “Each Bird Walking.” Please read this marvelous poem before taking in the rest of this blog, so I don’t spoil the surprise of the poem for you. Gallagher’s poem is a mystery from the start, with its oddly convoluted phrasing:

Not while, but long after he had told me

This phrasing that becomes more poetic and necessary, though, each time you read the poem.
The poem starts with a lengthy and almost utilitarian description of a man washing the body of his frail and elderly mother, shortly before her death. The description is fascinating, and so wonderfully paced that it imitates the patience and care of the man who is washing:

…the rag
dripping a little onto the sheet as he
turned from the bedside to the nightstand
and back…

Notice how the enjambments mimic or enact the actions of the man going back and forth from the mother’s body to the washbasin with the damp cloth.
But why this meticulous description that takes up most of the poem? That question itself becomes the mystery. We get a clue in the stanza that begins “as though he were a mother,” where the man who must be unnamed is transformed into a mother by the act of washing his own elderly mother, an act that is loving without being sexual. We get closer to the heart of the mystery in the next stanza:

And because he told me her death was
important to his being with her,
I could love him another way.

But even in helping to clear up the mystery, Tess Gallagher is creating more mysteries with the phrase, “I could love him another way.” What does that refer to? It’s like a murder mystery where a second victim hits the ground before our detective can even begin to figure out the first crime. And then Gallagher adds that haunting and incredibly simple phrase from the mother:

“That’s good,” she said,
“that’s enough.”

It seems as though the labyrinthine mystery of this poem could continue a long time before arriving at an explanation, but the whole story careens to an end in the last ten lines. We find out the speaker of the poem was the lover of the man who washed his mother. We find out that he ended their affair “so as not to hurt/the one closer to you”, i.e., his wife or partner. And finally, we find out that the speaker asked for a parting memory that would allow her to remember the man with love despite his hurting her, and that’s when he told the story about washing his mother. Gallagher concludes by echoing the quote from the mother that she had given us just ten lines earlier, but now in such a different context—or is it so different?
It’s a breathtaking ending. It breaks my heart every time I read it. The culmination works so well because Tess Gallagher takes us right up to the edge of the cliff, shows us where to look, but never says, “See, that’s the Grand Canyon.” In this case, the Grand Canyon is—what? I’m not entirely sure.
Maybe the title gives us another clue. Birds fly beautifully, but they only walk very awkwardly, the poet has explained in an essay about this poem. So when we attempt to love without sex, in a spiritual way, we are like birds wobbling on the ground, moving forward, but clumsily, and yet that is part of the hard work of being human for all of us. But if Gallagher had come out and flatly said all that at the finale of her poem, it would have been the worst ending.
Yes, “Each Bird Walking” has a message, it has deep emotion, it has a beginning and a middle and an end (though definitely not in that order!), but the final “Aha!” is in the reader’s thoughts after taking in the poem, the way a chord lingers in the air at the end of a solo piano concert.


Other recent posts about writing topics:

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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