Last week, I posted about how a fiction writer knows when to unpack what a character is carrying around inside him or her, and when to stay outside the consciousness and let the details do the work. Today, I offer a writing activity designed to let you practice both. The objective is to try two different approaches to the climactic moment in a piece of fiction—one that requires going into a character’s thoughts, and one that asks you to stay away from his or her thoughts and let the emotional/intellectual state become evident through the way the character chooses to present details.
You know that feeling; you get home from a trip with this suitcase full of stuff, and you have to decide whether to unpack right away, or whether to postpone the chore in favor of plopping down in your favorite chair, or on your favorite sofa, or in your favorite bed, just to rest. And if you have another trip coming up soon, there’s the decision of whether to leave some things packed or whether to put them away and pack them again in a few days. Traveling, like writing, is hard work. So many choices.
A brief post this week from the Antioch Writers Workshop. When I see the high school students here who were awarded scholarships to attend this workshop, I remember what it was like when I, too, was young and trying to find a way to express everything that I was carrying around inside me. When I see the more mature folks who have a story to tell, I understand how blessed I am to have a similar desire. And when I meet my fellow-writers, when I hear their work, I’m reminded that I’m not alone, that I’m a part of this community. We may be of different ages and experiences but we share the desire to put something on the page that will have an effect on readers. Writers’ workshops remind me of all this. We sit around the table. We talk about language and structure and character. We talk about sentences as if they’re holy. And they are. Where else in our culture today, does the written word receive such honor and respect? Please forgive me for being so brief today, but it’s time to get back to the workshop, to talk the talk, to be immersed in the power of the written word.
Whenever I started to get fussy as a child, on the verge of a meltdown, or worse yet, a bona fide tantrum, my mother would say to me, “Don’t make a scene.” I knew, then, it was time to settle down, to rein myself in, for fear that I’d provoke my father. “Cool your coppers,” he always said.
So I, like countless other kids, went through childhood trying hard not to make a scene. Thankfully, we future writers never quite managed to stop ourselves.
Here’s a simple story. I go to an independent book store in a Midwestern town of around 14,000 people to talk about, read from, and sign copies of my new novel, Late One Night. The location isn’t far from where I grew up. I’m back in the part of the world I know best—those small towns and farming communities of southeastern Illinois. Reading is sometimes a tough sell here. Too many people are challenged by a lack of job opportunities. Too many people have made unwise choices that have led them to dire circumstances, or worse yet, to the wrong side of the law. Too many people are occupied with getting by day to day. Of course, not everyone falls into these categories; I’ve met plenty of folks who love a good book. Still, in general, as is the case all over the world, too much competes for peoples’ energies and spare time.
All day, this Father’s Day, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a particular belt my father wore whenever he wanted to be dressy. It was a black elastic belt that stretched until the buckle clasped. That buckle was a gold-plated “M,” the initial of our last name, a touch of vanity, I always thought, just a little too precious for my otherwise down-to-earth, often gruff, and sometimes crude father. It was a detail, in other words, that didn’t fit the pattern of what I knew about him, and for that reason, it is indeed precious, not in the sense of being excessively refined, but in the sense of being of great value. It’s a detail that rounds out my father’s character and shows me more about who he was.
When I was a younger writer, just starting to figure out what my vision of the world was and how to translate that onto the page—heck, it was a revelation to me to know that short stories and novels, and later for me, essays and memoirs, reflected the way a writer saw the world and his or her place in it; I thought I was just making stuff up!—I had to remember how much I loved this life even at the hard times. I had to remember that in the midst of darkness and pain, there was still beauty and joy.
My new novel, Late One Night, has been out now for nearly three weeks, and I’ve been doing a few readings, and have some more to come. It’s got me thinking about this thing we writers do in order to drum up interest in our books, this selling, if you will. We sell online, we sell in person, we sell in blogs like this. Normally, it isn’t our natural inclination to sell, but sell we must. We do whatever we can to get someone to pay attention to us and our books, and in that way we become needy children, waving our hands in the air, jumping up and down, shouting, “Me, me, look at me.” The whole enterprise of selling myself and a book I spent countless hours alone in a room writing is often distasteful—a necessary evil.
My Aunt Mildred passed away last week, so I’m rerunning this post from two years ago as a tribute to her.
When I was a small child, she took me to the gravel road that ran by my grandmother’s house and patiently sat with me while I hunted for rocks, which I found, for whatever reason, fascinating. I have no memory of this, but I felt it in every interaction between us thereafter—that patience, that encouragement, that love.
People often ask me how I know when I have material that I think might work in a novel. It’s no secret that each of my five novels has been based on actual events from the news, but news isn’t what first seduces me. What hooks me every time is usually something that I have to invent—characters in the midst of moral ambiguity. Something in the news might catch my eye, but before I can commit to spending the time and energy it takes to write a novel, I have to play the “what-if” game, and that game always leads me to what I consider the center of the book, and that center is always located within character. A reclusive math tutor who adores one of his pupils fails her at the moment of crisis. An elderly bachelor lets a shameful moment from his past dictate his life, yearning for connection while at the same time protecting himself from the outer world. A young girl falls under the spell of an older woman and finds herself torn between what she knows is right and her desire for love and acceptance. A talented gardener has to decide whether to go along with the status quo or to stand beside his neighbors. The key for me, when I test material to see if it has the depth of content that a novel must have, is whether the central event will meet the main character in a place of uncertainty.