Friday, May 21, 2010

On Mood

Today a Facebook friend posted about how the "mood" of a certain song brought on a feeling of loss and longing. I found this intriguing because-- maybe due to the fact that I'm not someone who knows much about music-- overall "mood" isn't a subject I think about very often. I think about craftsmanship or nuance and subtext (that, quite a bit), but it's rare that I step back and think about mood.

Yet when I consider what was on my mind as I wrote "The Kingdom of Childhood," mood has a major role to play in that. Several long and critical scenes are set in Bavaria in the 1960s, during the protagonist's childhood, and many reviewers commented on the "magical" feeling evoked by the time and place. I gave credit for that to Bavaria itself-- naturally magical-- but upon consideration, of course I painted it that way on purpose. While framing up the scenes I thought back to my own childhood experiences in Bavaria (in the '80s, not the '60s) and pondered how I could capture the feeling of that place-- the fairytale wonder of it, with both the mystical overtones of the area's deep Catholicism and the darker ones of history and of the Black Forest.

That's mood. Everything I put into those scenes needed to pay homage to that overarching feeling I needed for it to have. I don't think it was a terribly conscious decision, but without it the book would lack a solid core.

"Loss and longing"-- why, my friend asked, do we feel these things about a past we can't relive? Usually we know the feeling is deceptive-- that the past as we remember it is not the same as how we lived it. And yet we feel that longing anyway.

At the top of this post is a photo of me in Berlin in the summer of 1992. I was on an exchange trip with a group from my high school, and the picture was taken by a boy I befriended on that trip and then barely spoke to again once we returned to the States a few weeks later. In it, I'm wearing a shirt I had bought within the past couple days, and would lose at the house of a friend-- under circumstances that would make for a hell of a story in and of themselves-- within a couple months of returning. So the elements of the photo alone capture a singular moment in time: a foreign country, an article of clothing, a smiling gaze on a person who passed in and out of my life in a matter of weeks. But what you can't see, and I do, is the overarching mood of that moment in my life-- of the summer I turned 16. At the moment this photo was taken, I was caught up in more toxic relationships than I could count on one hand; I was lonely and profoundly insecure; I was hurting people, some of whom have never quite forgiven me, and being hurt by them, some of whom I have never quite forgiven. It was, objectively speaking, awful. Yet do I feel longing for it? Of course I do. Not to return to those days and repeat those experiences-- oh, no. But for the girl being formed right at that moment by that place and time, tied to the woman today by the fact that we both want to be writers when we grow up? Well, how could I not?

Without longing, I doubt we'd have fiction. Fiction is composed of all we have ever suppressed and hoped for and wished could have come out differently, polished up, glossed over, tweaked here and there until it looks a little less crooked. Fiction is us wading out into the water of what we've longed for and feeling glad to have it swirl around our ankles for a little while. And if we're lucky-- and we do it right-- we channel that into an experience the reader takes away as "mood."


  1. Wow Rebecca! You nailed it with such depth and wisdom!
    My memoir has a section called "Woodenhood" about my childhood and writing it brings back the mood of incredible loss and longing. But there's a sweetness to it. I feel that little girl safely tucked away, protected inside me. She will never be hurt again.
    P.S. You're beautiful, and isn't it amazing how we can look happy when we are suffering so... Margie B from WA

  2. Margie, I just wanted to say thank you for all your kind comments-- I'm sorry it took me months to reply! Comments on my blog still tend to catch me by surprise and I need to get in the habit of checking and responding in a timely manner ;-). I really appreciate hearing your experiences. And I wish you all good things with your memoir!