The Scar or The Splinter (Jeff VanderMeer)

I picked up a copy of Wonderbook over the weekend and am about seventy pages into it.  I’m really enjoying it so far.

For those who don’t know what it is, you can see more on this website.  It’s “the first fully illustrated creative writing guide” and put out by Jeff VanderMeer with some nice supplements from other authors throughout.

I don’t know how much the illustrations do for me, but the text itself is excellent.

And one of the interesting articles I ran across yesterday was on The Scar or The Splinter.  It’s on page 16 of the book.

Basically, the idea is that each writer has “some initial irritant, some kind of galvanizing and enduring impulse, [that] combines with the need to communicate” that drives us to write.

VanderMeer goes on to explain that his particular Scar taught him to “seek distance from events, to try to be on the outside looking in, to observe” and that he channeled that distance into his art rather than just allowing it to alienate him from friends and family.

This idea resonated with me, because much of my early writing was about my childhood and was a means for me to deal with my terminally ill father and all of the pressures his illness created in my life.

When you grow up with a life experience so different from that of your peers, you can’t help but feel distant and alienated.  I had some great friends growing up, but none of them could truly understand the experience of wondering at least once a year whether this hospital visit was going to be the one that killed my father.

So, writing for me, early on, was a means of expressing that difference and communicating feelings that I couldn’t communicate to my friends because they simply wouldn’t understand them.

To this day, that difference and otherness is what drives much of what I write.  And that fundamental isolation of each person shows up often in my stories.

So, I do think VanderMeer makes an excellent point with this essay.

Now, what I wonder, though, is whether this is actually true of all writers.  Growing up, one of my good friends was determined to be a writer.  They wrote all the time, entered contests, chose to major in English in college, etc.

They’re now a literature professor, but if they are a published author, it’s not under their name.  (We lost touch, but I can still Googlestalk with the best of them.)

This person, at least when I knew them, really had no splinter or scar.  And they would admit it.  Their life, at least up until eighteen years of age, was pretty damned perfect.  A little bit of a relationship drama here or there, but not even that, really.

Now, maybe the scar or splinter is a matter of personal perception.  And my friend, even with their ideal life, still felt like they had a splinter or scar.

The reason we’re no longer friends is because this person was telling me how absolutely devastated and bereft they were because their friends had left for college before them.

(Keep in mind this was about three months after my dad had died.  So, here I was grieving the loss of the central figure in my life to that point, and this person was telling me that they were practically suicidal because their friends were out of town.)

To me, their issues were minimal.  But maybe the key is that to that person they felt deeply enough about the setbacks in their own life that they had to keep trying to write about them.

Personally, I think if you haven’t had a depth of experience, that it’s very challenging to write deep stories. It’s too easy to write stories where everything happens without much effort or where everyone agrees with the main character and there’s no conflict or ambiguity.

And maybe that’s ok.  Maybe that’s just another type of story that people want.  Simple, straight-forward, black/white.

Maybe you don’t need a big scar or splinter to write good stories.


I wonder if part of the value of the scar or the splinter is that it keeps you going through the rejection phase–when no one wants to accept your stories or novel, when you get bad reviews, etc.  Maybe the scar or splinter is what keeps people in the game for the long haul.

Because, regardless of what anyone else thinks, the person with the splinter needs to get the damned thing out no matter what.  And they’ll keep writing and trying until they do…

So maybe the reason most writers have a scar or splinter is because they were the only ones that saw it through to the end?

I don’t know.  It’s a thought.

(And the book also contains a reminder to not let that scar or splinter “swallow you whole.”  Another excellent point.  It’s good to be motivated by your suffering.  It’s bad to be drowned by it.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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