I’ve just returned from teaching a novel workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, and I want to share a writing exercise that I hope will help you know your characters better while also allowing your own vulnerability to take you to a deeper level of engagement with the material. The greater your engagement, the greater will be the reader’s.
First choose a character from one of your novels, stories, essays, poems, and make a list of all the objects that you’ve already given that character ownership of in your draft. What does she have on her dresser, what does she carry in her pocket, what sort of knickknacks does she have in her living room, what has she hidden away in her closet? Just list all the “things” of her life. Then look for an anomalous object, one that doesn’t seem to fit in with the personality that the other objects suggest. If you’re writing a piece of memoir or a personal essay, you’ll have to rely on the facts to recall that one item that was out of the ordinary. If you’re writing a poem, you might want to catalog all the images in the draft and then ask yourself whether there’s a new image wanting to come into the poem, one that will be surprising in some way. If you’re writing fiction, you’re free to create this anomalous object.
When the writers in my workshop did this exercise, they sometimes found themselves creating objects that had some sort of personal emotional significance. As a result, they found themselves more emotionally engaged with their characters. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable on the page, but first we have to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable in our lives. If we’re not feeling, if we’re not risking, we’re just moving words around on the page. We’re performing technical exercises that don’t require, and, therefore, don’t receive or emit, any sort of emotional resonance.
Now take that anomalous object, and create a brief story of how someone came to own it. Did they inherit it, buy it, find it, steal it? Why can’t they bring themselves to part with it? Then see if you can use this as a prompt to write more about that character’s vulnerability. Begin with, “I (or he, or she, or you, depending on the point of view you’ve chosen) couldn’t let anyone know that. . . .” What does your character fear will happen if someone finds out about that object?
To write a true thing, a thing that comes from our hearts and our glorious and complicated places in this world, we sometimes have to come at the material in an indirect manner. Often an object, especially one that doesn’t seem to belong, can turn out to be exactly right.