Monday, July 20, 2009

Writing with Stones

by Joan

Our experiences affect our writing, not just in scenes and description, but also in emotion. If you were brought up in the south or worked as a bartender in New York, your writing might reflect charm and lunacy and wit. If you’re from Italy or Montana, you might have quite a different story to tell.

In 2005 I visited Japan. I fell in love with its serene gardens, its tea ceremonies, its culture and people. Yesterday I saw Departures, a stunning movie about a young Japanese man, Daigo, who loses his cellist gig in a Tokyo orchestra and moves with his new wife, Mika, to his hometown in a northeastern town facing the Sea of Japan. He answers a want ad for something in “departures,” thinking it’s a job in travel but he soon finds out there was a misprint. His new job involves preparing the recently departed for encoffinment (a word I didn’t know existed until yesterday—I thought I’d learned them all when writing The Cemetery Garden). At first Daigo is mortified, too embarrassed to tell his wife about his new career, but eventually he learns that, like playing the cello, there is an art to his new profession, as beautiful and peaceful as a tea ceremony.

In addition to loss and failure, the themes of love and redemption weave through the film. The actors’ expressions and actions show us all we need to know. In poignant minimalism, in what is not said. From the time he returns to his childhood home and finds his first cello and a large black rock wrapped in sheet music, we are hooked. Later, the narrator tells us, “Long ago, before writing, you'd send someone a stone that suited how you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they'd know how you felt. From a smooth stone, they might get that you were happy. Or from a rough one that you were worried about them.” In a truly touching—wordless—scene at the end, we realize the importance of this stone.

It got me thinking about how the very concepts of theme, mood and symbolism apply to writing. Our words are an outpouring of our souls at any given time. It’s why one can feel immediately the dark disposition of the Edgar Allen Poe or the lightheartedness of Emily Dickinson. The words we use, the tone, the cadence, all impart a mood to the reader. A skilled writer will paint a picture with her words.

What feeling does your writing invoke? More importantly, does it invoke a mood? Use symbolism to help tell your story—if you plant a rock early in your book, it should reappear at the end, anchoring your readers to an unforeseen conclusion, by placing the rock firmly into their outstretched hands.


  1. Although I am just an occasional blogger as opposed to a professional writer, it is funny that I read this today. A family member just recently asked me if they could help me or send me to counseling, because the things they've seen me write lately seemed dark, somber, and depressed. Not exactly the message I was trying to convey. Gotta work on my literary "smile" I suppose!

  2. Hi Renee

    Maybe you can find a smooth, shiny stone to send to your family member.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Anonymous24 July, 2009

    Through your beautiful description of Departures you show how setting the right tone through the use of symbolism, actions, and body language can turn good writing into a work of art. Must see Departures!

    Hope to see you again soon,
    Deb (Kim's mom)


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