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Posts Tagged ‘character’

The writer Elizabeth Strout, explaining what it’s like to write from the point of view of an irascible retired schoolteacher in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge:

“I actually see myself in all my characters.  In order to imagine what it feels like to be another person I have to use my own experiences and responses to the world.  I have to play attention to what I have felt and observed, then push those responses to an extreme while keeping the story within the realm of being psychologically and emotionally true.  Many times after writing a story or a novel, I will suddenly think, oh, I’m feeling what (for example), Olive would feel.  But in fact the process has worked the other way.”

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The novelist Gayle Brandeis wrote about a traumatic and terrible event.  And then it happened to her in real life.

Several months ago, as I was proofreading my new novel, Delta Girls, a sentence I wrote last year kicked me in the gut:

“My mother killed herself, you know.”

It took me a moment to remember how to breathe again. I had not recalled writing that sentence, had not recalled that this was part of a character’s history, part of that character’s motivation. I wanted to slap myself for writing that sentence so off-handedly, for forgetting it so easily.

My own mother had killed herself about a month before I received the page proofs, one week after I had given birth, and I was still reeling. “My mother killed herself, you know” was way too casual a sentence for someone to utter. I could barely say “My mother killed herself,” and couldn’t imagine tacking on “you know” as if it was common knowledge, something easy to understand. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand her suicide. But my character had already had years to process and learn how to talk about the loss, so those words had a different context in the story.

Sometimes we don’t know what we know until we write it. I don’t believe I foresaw my mom’s death as I wrote that scene—her suicide was unexpected although she had been suffering from paranoid delusions off and on (mostly off—most of the time she appeared to be fine) for several years and was especially fearful the last two weeks of her life. Even though my initial reaction to the sentence during proofing was shock, some part of me must have wondered what it was like to lose a parent that way when I first wrote it. Some part of me must have known my mom was capable of such an action, even though she had the strongest sense of self preservation of anyone I knew. As writers, we often have to go to dark, painful places in our work; perhaps this can serve as a kind of rehearsal for the more difficult moments in life we haven’t experienced yet.

Sometimes, of course, life teaches us that we got it all wrong on the page, that we were naïve or misguided when we wrote about something we hadn’t lived, that what we wrote pales in comparison to real experience. That is certainly my experience with Delta Girls; there are depths to the aftermath of a mother’s suicide that I couldn’t have foreseen when I wrote that simple sentence.  But sometimes, somehow, we are lucky enough to tap into some collective human database of emotion, some authentic vein. I love this quote from Terence, 190-158 BC: “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” Writers have to come from that place of openness, of readiness to explore humanity in all its surprising contradictions, shallow and deep and strange. I know that I have a different relationship with my Delta Girls character now, and feel more compassion as a result of going through a similar loss. And I understand that character’s actions in a way I couldn’t have before (so maybe part of me did kind of know what I was writing, after all).

“My mother killed herself, you know” is still not a sentence I can say easily. I can say “My mother killed herself” now, perhaps almost too readily—I can’t seem to stop talking or writing about her death – but the “you know” still feels too pat. Perhaps it was glib in my character’s mouth, as well. It’s true that often we don’t know what we know until we write it, but sometimes even then, that knowledge is just a glimmer, just the beginning hint of insight. We write towards what we need to understand.

In addition to Delta Girls, Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novels Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She recently published her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns, and is also the author of the creativity guide Fruitflesh. She lives in Riverside, CA and is mom to one college student, one high school student, and one seven month old.

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Last week Bonnie Friedman found out something big …

As soon as I finished writing my guest post for this blog last week about how “people don’t do such things,” I put the computer in “sleep” mode, stood up, and the answer to the question I was secretly asking washed through me.

Why couldn’t I really believe that people in the world do mean and otherwise outrageous things (things that, if I could believe in them, I could let my characters do, as well)?  Because my sister was mean and I couldn’t let myself know it. Voila! Also: not so earthshaking, since she’s my sister, not yours.  But here’s the part that likely does apply to you.  We all have blind spots — things that we can’t let ourselves know and yet which we write in order to find out.  And if we don’t believe what our pens reveal, we have to keep writing the same thing time and again until we do.

What does the blind spot feel like?  What does denial feel like?  It feels like a numbness.  It feels like the bloated anesthetized lip at the dentist’s.  It’s large, it’s tingly, there’s a temptation to bite it and bite it again until one’s mouth drips.  It feels like something is there, but you can’t say what.  It feels like being stupid — others can see what you can’t.  They even laugh at how obvious it is!  And as you become more acutely aware that you are in denial, it feels like needing others for a verdict on your own experience, as if you have to steer your car by looking in a series of tilted mirrors rather than by looking straight ahead at the truth.  There’s something there, you need to know it, but when you look it’s subsumed in fog.

Which is why many of us write.  We want to get at that thing suffused in fog.

Why couldn’t I know that my sister was mean?

Because I loved her, and she was suffering.  She was a bossy, dear, acne-stricken, wounded girl who shared my bedroom and who frightened me.  I thought she was right that my existence was an imposition on her.  She’d been alive six years before I was born, and that proved in both our minds that I was an inconvenience she should not have to put up with.  I cringed, I obliged, I believed I was a doltish, messy thing — as if I lived inside a gooey, disgusting jellyfish or as if the jellyfish was all over me. I was forever pressing my eyeglasses against my face, trying to see better through that jelly haze.  I believed what my sister said. She was a clever, shrewd, unobliging sort, quick to point out others flaws.  I’d gawp, astonished at what she’d illuminated.  And I felt sorry for her, because her suffering was obvious.  And if she were alive today I certainly wouldn’t be writing this.  She passed away four years ago, freeing me to articulate and understand what before I’d had to keep concealed in the slam book of my heart, where I inscribed, under my observations about her, my own verdict on myself: wrong, impulsive, prone to distortion.

Even now it seems unkind and exaggerated to call her mean.  Surely she was merely outspoken. Surely she’d only spoken rashly from time to time.  The old denial wants to subsume me.

I could not see mean people in the world because I could not see a mean person in my bedroom.  And so my writing was hampered by a certain obligingness, a certain vacillating wateriness, a certain wishy-washy tepidity.  And it was only when I started admitting that certain people are bold and spiky and mean, or at least do mean things, and that I can trust my own perceptions, that my own world and writing acquired a greater clarity.

What would you see if you trusted your own vision? I ask myself.  What preposterous things would you know are true?   You are the person riding alongside the blind-spot girl.   You are the tilted mirror she needs.   Oh, believe the truth, believe it, I urge her.  Because in her other ear is the old whispering voice, still suggesting: You’re wrong.  You’re bad.  You don’t know what reality is.  Surely the truth isn’t as stark as all that.

This is the third in a series of three essays – including “The Novel Terminable and Interminable” and the above-linked “People Don’t Do Such Things” – that Bonnie Friedman has written for this blog this month.  Her book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, is a modern-day classic, and has been in print since it was first published in 1993.

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The writer Bonnie Friedman considers what it means to create ‘realistic’ fictional characters:

“People don’t do such things!” is the last line of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — words cried out by the scandalized judge after Hedda has shot herself off-stage.  His words echo in our ears as the curtain rings down and as the actors gradually emerge to take their bows, and as we shuffle out onto the street and back into our lives.

People don’t do such things! Well, if the blowhard who exclaims these words had actually believed it possible that the stymied Hedda might do what she threatens, maddened by the asphyxiating, conformity-bound society in which she lived . . . all might have ended differently.

Do people do such things? I’ve often wondered, reading about heroically outspoken or shockingly rude or tin-eared or laughably selfish or otherwise outrageous people in fiction. Yes, they’re great for the story, but do people in real life actually do such things?  I’ve often wondered about this because I wanted to write characters who confronted one another, who weren’t as nice as I was, who weren’t as cowed by convention, who had an edge, had bite – and yet it was hard for me to actually perceive such people in my life.  And I couldn’t write them if I didn’t believe in them.  I wanted to write realistic fiction.  Why couldn’t I perceive such people if they did exist?

One thing I’ve found about writing is that if you ask a question, the answers appear.  The main thing is to formulate the question.  Life starts supplying the answers.

In this case, I immediately heard a doctor say to a nurse, “You dress like a clown.  Don’t come to work dressed like that!”  I grabbed my notebook and scrawled his words.  I was sitting in a clinic in Iowa City.  I don’t recall what was wrong with me.  But I do recall thinking: “Oh, my gosh!  People actually do say such things.”  How could that doctor be so mean? How could he be so ridiculing?  What did he mean, “dress like a clown”?  Surely the nurse didn’t have a red rubber nose on (although in fact I pictured that she did).  Both were down the hall and my door was open.  A moment later the doctor appeared to treat me; he was a brusque, starchy person with a peremptory manner.  All these years – twenty years – later, I recall him.

And just yesterday I wrote in my notebook something else I wanted to remember because it, too, was so strange that my sense of reality wanted to subsume it, to deny it.  A man and his date slid into seats my husband and I were about to sit down in.  “Why don’t you see if you can move somebody else over?” said the man when I protested. Rather than argue, my husband and I raced to find other available seats, which were vanishing fast.  “What exactly were his words?” I asked my husband a moment later, and I wrote them.  This man was a handsome-ish man who’d stood near us in line, and had given away the whole end of “Up in the Air.”  Fortunately he’d said loudly, before doing this: “Did you expect that ending?” and I’d flung my fingers into my ears.   But the man talked on and on about the ending, while I pressed my fingers hard in my ears and hummed.  Now I thought: sociopathic people do exist!  And they are sometimes handsome, and obdurately oblivious or purposely uncaring of others, and they are real, and sometimes even steal your seat.

Such people exist in my blind spot.  As do many other people so rude or infuriating I automatically tell myself I misperceived.  So now I make an effort to notice when I stumble across them or they stumble across me, and when I find them occupying my seat.  One of the uses of writing, it seems to me, is to broaden our perspective, to wake us up, to end our innocence.  And one aspect of this, for me, is to behold what a fabulous world we live in, with the most stupendous people living here with us, and grand stories springing up all around.  How dull to be confined only to what we expect! I want to keep finding out what lives in my blind spot, what I tell myself can’t be true, isn’t real.  How tired I am of my own limited vision!  How eager I am to allow myself to see the unacknowledged aspects of my reality, and, alas, of my own quite flawed, loud, offensive, mistaken self.

I make it a practice now to record the unexpected, what makes me want to gawp and say, “People don’t do such things!” Contemplate the indigestible, the it-can’t-be-so, the but-people-don’t-do-such-things, I tell myself.  Because I don’t want to be that conventional judge crying his verdict in amazement at the last instant.   It benefits my writing to allow such characters in, and it benefits, as well, my vision of reality.

This is the second in a series of three essays Bonnie Friedman is writing for this blog this month.  The first was “The Novel Terminable and Interminable.”

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In which Annie Dillard articulates the seemingly inexpressible, discussing what she likes about writing fiction:

“The interior life is in constant vertical motion; consciousness runs up and down the scales every hour like a slide trombone.  It dreams down below; it notices up above; and it notices itself, too, and its own alertness.  The vertical motion of consciousness, from inside to outside to back, interests me.” (from To Fashion a Text)

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BIH inspiration“The newspaper clipping is in tatters.  Folded, yellowed, curling at the edges and mended in places with clear tape, it was tacked to the bulletin board in my office for eight years….”  So begins a guest post I wrote this week for In This Light, a blog about the influence of images on writers and writing.   Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters in Bird in Hand, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways …

You can read the rest here.

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Magritte's pipe - semioticsSemiotics is the study of signs, and a sign is anything that stands for something else. It took me a long time to understand this seemingly simple idea.

The argument goes like this: it is a myth to believe there is any such thing as an objective reality; ‘reality,’ in fact, is a system of signs. As Proust has said, “Everything can be several things at the same time.” Or, to put a finer point on it: the art historian Ernst Gombrich says, “There is no reality without interpretation.”

The British semiotician Daniel Chandler suggests that studying semiotics can make us “more aware of reality as a construction and of the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing it. Meaning is not ‘transmitted’ to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware. Becoming aware of such codes is both inherently fascinating and intellectually empowering.”

The process of creating literary fiction, I would argue, is the practice of semiotics. It’s all about signs. Our characters’ reality – an artificial construct to begin with – is freighted with meaning, conscious and unconscious, for the writer, the characters themselves, and ultimately for the reader.

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”  But these signs and symbols, the dual or multiple meanings, must be subservient to the story, and not the other way around.  Otherwise the fictional trance will be broken; the characters will be types and not individuals. The novel will become a treatise.

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