When the ice maker repair person was leaving my house the other day, he said something that forced me to think about a writing problem I have. I didn’t bring that to his attention. Instead, I just laughed and responded with “You got that right!”
After discussing the repair to be made with this repair person, the gardener had waltzed off to the treadmill. Since I was pan frying dinner (ahead of time–my favorite time to cook), I was left overseeing the repair. My overseeing consisted of complaining to said repair person that the food was falling apart because it didn’t have any gluten in it. Anyway, when he was done, he shook my hand and said THIS. Watch for my italics.
“Say goodbye to your husband for me. Tell him it was really fun talking to him. You probably hear that a lot. He’s quite a character!”
THAT. He’s quite a character. You probably don’t know he’s a character because I don’t make him much of a character in this blog. Or in my memoir-in-progress. I present him sort of flat and static–not multi-dimensional or dynamic.
Why is that?
Well, I’ll tell you why! It’s because he would overshadow the other characters (including me, of course).
I first realized this when I was around 150,000 words into my memoir (don’t panic–while I have about 400,000 by now, only 80,000 are currently in play). Because my father was quite a character, and my story is about my father and me, the gardener has to be a very two-dimensional confidant. According to yourdictionary.com, a confidant is described this way:
One to whom secrets or private matters are disclosed.
A character in a drama or fiction, such as a trusted friend or servant, who serves as a device for revealing the inner thoughts or intentions of a main character.
And, truly, that is who the gardener actually is in my life, along with a whole lot of other things, such as best friend, lover, and most worthy antagonist. But he’s also a pain in the you-know-what to write about–unless, of course, I were to write about him. Putting him front and center. I am not prepared to do that. The thought of that project is beyond daunting.
In case you’re wondering if I am a wilted violet in the face of all that personality, never fear. The kids are waiting for our family reality TV show because they know it’s coming.
When Harold Hill sang his way into River City, Iowa, in the musical The Music Man he showed himself to be a con man. He believed he was a liar, and he tried to keep that information from the townspeople. Now, as it turns out (spoiler alert!), Harold was a liar and a con man, but he also was a dreamer and a believer, but he couldn’t really admit it to himself. It’s so easy to ignore the way Harold has manipulated people when we see him get trapped by love and notice that other people’s lives have been enhanced by their belief in Harold’s dreams.
This complicated personality makes for what is known in the lit biz as a morally ambiguous character. What is odd in this case is that morally ambiguous characters typically make good tragedies, not musical comedies. But Meredith Wilson, the writer and composer of the musical, knew what he was doing. He knew we (audience members and humans) could relate to someone who was bad but also good. We’re all a mix of good and bad, after all, although we like to think we lean way more to the good than to the bad.
The most famous morally ambiguous character is probably a creation of Shakespeare: Hamlet. Do you have a favorite morally ambiguous character from book or movie?
Have you had people like this in your own life? People who bring you joy, at least occasionally, but also bring you a lot of grief by their actions or inactions? Or someone who does something bad, like commit a crime, but in general is big-hearted?
If this person is a coworker or casual friend, it is one thing. But if he/she/they is a family member, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. How much “bad” can we overlook in order not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”? If you deal with an addict, for example, you might be used to feeling conflicted about your loved one.
If you’re a writer, how do you create one of these complicated beings? How do you show terrible behavior and yet create an appealing character?
This is a subject that touches me personally for the memoir I’ve been working on for a looooong time, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.
Lemme know what you think about this subject, pretty please!
Perry update: gosh, he’s cute. Have I said that before? He’s been out for a few hours at a time each day now. He gets along fine with the other cats because he is so good-natured, although obnoxious. He just wants to play with them, and although they absolutely do not want to play (although Kana might want to and hasn’t admitted it yet) with him, they realize he has good intentions.
Sloopy Anne update: First let me say that Tiger doesn’t get along with Sloopy Anne unless they are in the kitchen. Tiger has slept with the gardener and me for years, with the door closed so nobody bothers her/us. Sloopy Anne can’t stand the bedroom door shut at night and will wait in there hiding hours ahead of time so she doesn’t get shut out. Lately, Sloopy Anne has been in the bedroom, under the bed or on the floor, each night . She then advanced to jumping on the bed while we’re asleep. Tiger retreats to the top of my head and Sloopy Anne at the foot of the bed. If it stayed like that I would be fine with it, but why did I think she had a Machiavellian plan to take over the bed and kick Tiger out of it for good? Well, night before last I woke up at 6AM to a cat fight. Sloopy Anne was angry and attacking Tiger! It was some kind of argument over the litter box, but Sloopy Anne was definitely on the attack. A morally ambiguous cat?! Now I have to get that door shut while she’s eating dinner to keep Sloopy Anne out at night!
My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the hurricane(S). And those we lost 16 years ago today on 911.
The other day I was out by my pool (yes, it’s Arizona and we have a pool). My pool is small, but it has an attached jacuzzi and a little fountain. I glanced down at the fountain. It was shut off, so I mainly saw the empty fountain pool. When I noticed the side of this empty pool, my stomach lurched. [Pause to go look it up: an abrupt, uncontrolled movement–yes, definitely, it lurched]. ICK. Those little dots completely creeped me out. If you click on this photo, you’ll see what I mean. I’m sorry if it bothers you, too. Truly, I am. But I feel a need to share!
I began to think that maybe I am getting that phobia that my daughter has. It’s called Trypophobia, and it means a phobia of little holes clustered together. There are fabric patterns that resemble holes, and if you are Trypophobic, you can have a reaction to those. Or it can be a lotus seed pod, that you can see in this Pop Science article on Trypophobia. You could feel sick when you cut into a block of swiss cheese. Or, in my daughter’s case, even a massing flock of birds can bring out this phobia. Or is that her bird phobia (Ornithophobia)? Or a combination phobia?!
You will note that in this photo there aren’t really any holes. These are little “pimples” on the surface. Maybe these were created by the pool builder for traction. I suspect my pool looks like this, too, but I promise not to look at anything except the water surface! Any kind of pattern where a multitude of holes could lurk can cause a reaction in sufferers.
How about this one? A little coral–
Oh my. Some people say that this phobia is when a natural fear of something dangerous has become a fear transferred to things that are not dangerous. But I always say you can’t be too careful. Imagine all the bugs that could slither out of your basic pancake batter.
Do these kinds of holes or pseudo-holes or patterns that vaguely resemble holes make you squeamish?
A writing question: if you create a character with Trypophobia, how important is this to your characterization? Does it just become an interesting “tic” and a way to identify that character or is there a more intrinsic purpose to that character trait? Would it affect more important aspects of what motivates the characters and how the character lives her life?
On another note, remember how my mom is here through February? Now my aunt and uncle (my dad’s twin) are coming here for a couple of weeks in February, too. We are going to be busy!
P.S. If you’re wondering about my weird post title, I was thinking about my poem “Waking Up” in Doll God that features an Alice in Wonderland character. I read it aloud the other day and was thinking about Alice when she’s so small and at risk in her environment.
I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.
As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.
But who is she?
There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.
I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.
Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood
Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.
Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.
Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.
In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.
In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.
There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.
Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?
The other day Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood posted a piece on Ruth Gordon, and it reminded me of one of my weirder non-family memories. I’ll sketch it out for you.
A weekday evening in Chicago in the late 70s or perhaps 1980. The interior of an upscale Indian restaurant. The dining room glows with gold and rose tones, and the tables are small and intimate, for couples, covered in rose tablecloths and candlelight. Rather than elaborate Hindu decor, the design is elegant and classic European with small touches of Indian art for flavor. Outside it rains, but inside all is dry and quiet and warm. The faint fragrance of well-blended turmeric and cardamon, as well as melting wax, beckons new guests.
Ruth Gordon (1896-1985)–Famous movie star of Rosemary’s Baby, Harold and Maude, and Every Which Way But Loose. In addition to being an actor, Gordon is a writer–of screenplays, plays, and books. In this scene she is elderly, but still has her trademark brown hair (pulled back) and wry expression.
Studs Terkel (1912-2008)–Writer Terkel is seated across from Gordon at one of the small covered tables. Terkel is also a historian and actor, as well as a radio personality. He and Gordon are good friends. They have much in common, both being actors and writers. Terkel’s hair is white and thinning, but brushed back from his forehead in a casual, confident manner. He’s got a sturdy overweight build that is more accepted in 1980s culture in a man than it would be in a woman.
Young husband–In his 20s, this man has curly off-black hair and hazel eyes. He holds dreams of succeeding in business. He has an observant eye and a lot of knowledge for someone so young. Loves history and travel. He’s a rock.
Young wife–In her 20s, this woman still thinks of herself as a girl. She married young and created and runs a retail business with husband. She enjoys it, but likes to read and write and has other dreams for herself. But right now she’s very naive and doesn’t know too much about anything. She’s not very observant. With her long brown hair and slim build, she’s considered pretty by many people, but she’s not a bombshell by any means.
Plot and story sketch:
The young couple is seated at a small table. The lovely glow in the room relaxes them as they study the elaborate menus. They spent the day at the Merchandise Mart and Apparel Center, buying handbags and jewelry for their store.
As the wife begins to sip her first drink, the husband leans toward her and whispers, “That’s Studs Terkel and Ruth Gordon.” He nods toward the table behind him. His back is to the back of the woman at the next table. A white-haired man with a compelling face faces the young wife across both tables.
The wife says it can’t be. She barely knows that Studs Terkel is a writer and confuses him with Ring Lardner. She knows who Ruth Gordon is, but she can’t see the woman’s face the way the older woman is seated. The wife wonders aloud how her husband knows who the others are when his back is to them.
This is one of the first times she learns a lesson she must repeat over and over again for over 30 years: that her husband has an uncanny way of knowing things.
She peeks around her husband’s shoulder to sneak a glance at the famous man. She can see from the man’s expression and way of hunching at the table that he’s very sure of himself and comfortable with who is–and that he is “somebody.” Gordon is tiny and talks quietly to Terkel. In fact, she talks more than he does. A lot more.
Perhaps Terkel is bored with the conversation or with his life, but he must notice the young wife peeking at him, so he glances back. Boldly. In fact, it’s not a glance. It’s too long for that. Before too long it becomes a stare.
She feels shiny tonight in her teal silk blouse and gold chain. Terkel’s stare confirms that she looks shiny. He doesn’t look away for quite a while, but she withdraws her glance immediately. Still, she can feel his eyes on her.
At first she refuses to look at Terkel. The more he looks, the more she tries to keep from glancing. Eventually, his gaze overpowers her and she glances at him. It’s just a glance as the moment he catches her eyes with his, she retreats.
Terkel continues to stare at the young wife, with only an occasional flickering look at Gordon. The wife and husband finish their first drink, order another, and place their dinner order.
Rather than feeling like prey, the young woman is nervous, but flattered. She occasionally slips a glance at the man who is the same age as her grandmother (though she doesn’t know it at the time) and at Gordon’s back. She wonders how Gordon can stand having her friend stare mercilessly at a strange girl. She wonders what kind of friendship they have that would tolerate this behavior. She wonders what kind of man Terkel is. He’s got a sloppy, rather mobile, face with a large nose which melts across his cheeks. He looks intelligent, almost dangerously so. His eyes tip a bit, but are symmetrical. He exudes virility.
Occasionally, the young husband says, “He’s staring at you.” She says, “No, not really.” The husband laughs. “He’s definitely staring at you.” The young couple has finished their second round of drinks, and a bottle of white wine now sits in a chiller on a stand at tableside. They will be paying off their credit card for months. Only once does Gordon turn back and openly look at the young wife.
Terkel and Gordon began their meal before the young couple. After forty-five minutes of staring so intense it feels intimate, Terkel walks out of the restaurant with Gordon without a backward glance.
The wife, on the other hand, remembers this evening for decades. She thinks that Terkel doesn’t know that she’s a smart student or that she wants to be a writer or that she will become a feminist and go to grad school. He sees her as just another pretty girl.
Oddly, she thinks she likes this strange experience. This objectification.
On Monday I wrote about an essay in Telling True Stories by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.” It reminded me how important are the small things in life. But, as Harrington shows, it’s our interpretations of them (in our writing) which are even more important.
Most writers realize that details are important. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes, “This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history.” Writers obsessively scribble notes to themselves about the shade of a flower petal, the height of a tree, and the sound of a motor. I know I do this. I want to remember it all. It becomes part of my history.
But it’s not enough that we add these details to our books. It’s not enough to give our characters little details which differentiate them. We need to know the emotional story of their belongings, their accoutrements, their props.
My friend Wilma, aka Jeannieunbottled, asked how we give the emotional story to these objects. This is what I wrote to her:
I think it’s the context in which you present the details that show emotional meaning. If a man carries a bouquet of flowers next to him on the car seat, we don’t know anything until we know what he does with them or how he relates to them. He might be giving them to someone or he might be dumping them in the dumpster behind the restaurant.
Did I really just do the tacky thing of quoting myself? Hah. Well, it’s because I’m too lazy to re-write the thought.
I kind of like thinking of it in a magnified way to see it more clearly. For the following photo, if I describe the luminosity of the white pearls and how they are speckled by light and shadow, but forget to mention where the pearls are hanging, you might automatically think of an entirely different emotional context.
In Telling True Stories, I read a short piece by Walt Harrington called “Details Matter.” While it’s geared toward journalists, it spoke to me as a creative nonfiction writer.
To research a story, he visited a home, which he described as “full of tacky teddy bears and knickknacks.” His first assumption was that they represented bad taste; I felt he was implying a moral deficiency in that judgment. What he discovered was that those offensive items were all gifts from people the family had helped.
Knowing that they had been of service to so many people completely revised his opinion of the family.
He said that details are important, but the information behind the stories is most important. Without that, they are just objects.
What I got out of his essay is that in memoir the details are important, but it’s important to show what those details mean to the narrator and to the characters. Each object must carry an emotional meaning. It’s not enough to merely describe.
Now that’s a powerful reminder about the small things in life.
I have always carried a lot of clear and strong memories with me, especially from my childhood.
But when you go to write a book-length memoir you need more than those memories–you have to remember what happens between those vivid images, to recreate the glue between them, in a way. Sometimes searching backwards for the hazier recollections and the forgotten events seems as if I’m trying to get into a boarded-up old building.
E. St. James San Jose, CA
William Zinsser, in Writing About Your Life, says that the way to write a memoir is to start with those vivid memories, writing up one each day. Then he makes a giant leap to the assumption that by writing those recollections the writer will discover her own writing style, as well as what is important and what is less important–in fact, that the writer will discover what her story truly is!
Hmm, that’s great, but then he dumps us off at the curb, without any directions on where to go from there.
That’s the place where I began to flounder and, although I’ve worked very hard at finding my structure, my story-and my direction–still have difficulties.
After many efforts and revisions, I have the beginning chapters of my book and a rough idea of the rest of the structure. But as the story moves on, I need to work on the glue between the vivid memories. This is true more of characterization than anything else. Particularly since in my childhood memories I was . . . a kid. I didn’t see the adult characters in my life as the round and dynamic* characters people they are. And I didn’t see myself as a round and dynamic character either–not clearly.
That’s why I am using other methods to try to fill in some of the blanks. One of these methods has been studying psychological aspects of the characters, such as the HSP and Myers-Briggs analysis I wrote about.
Another method is to write an imaginary scene which shows a reason why someone did something. For example, when I was in 7th grade I was sat on and beaten by a fellow classmate. I was imprisoned underneath her because she outweighed me by more than 100 pounds. I have no idea why she would do something like this, and I remember feeling the unfairness (actually, I felt squished, too).
To get insight into her personality and motivations, I wrote a scene which results in the beating. The scene is fiction, and I can’t use it for the book (and don’t want to share it ;)), but in writing it I learned more about the girl and myself as characters. It’s when I do research in this way that I frequently have little epiphanies, where I learn or remember things that I didn’t know I knew.
* round characters are seen as fully-dimensional human beings, whereas flat characters tend to be one-sided
* dynamic characters change as real humans change in life, whereas static characters remain the same
I’ve broken out with Spring Fever and don’t want to work on characterization now. In fact, I’m being downright cantankerous about it.
It’s not the sort of spring I used to wish for when I lived in Michigan. I couldn’t wait until the dirty snow and slush had dried up and disappeared and the green spikes of the bulb flowers were pushing up out of the ground.
You can tell when spring arrives in the southwest when you notice the snakes have woken up from their long winter naps and by the blossoming of the Sweet Acacia trees. These events are accompanied by dirty desert air which coats my throat and sinuses.
We go all winter without having to worry about whether a snake in the yard means danger (the rattle alarm) or not. Then one day in March there is a snake lying there on the ground, and I flinch until I know for sure. King snakes are our friends; they eat baby rattlesnakes.
The Sweet Acacias don’t look much different from Palo Verdes or Mesquite trees, but their yellow blossoms smell so sweetly they make you feel sick. So sweet they almost smell like garbage. But I could tolerate that if they didn’t make my sinuses flow like Niagara Falls.
The allergist says that the reason the standard skin tests don’t include the Sweet Acacia is because it isn’t a specific allergen; instead, everybody is sensitive to it. It’s partly to account for the high incidence of hay fever in the valley.
Here are the Sweet Acacia blossoms, which my husband calls puff balls, up close and looking innocent.
Still, it’s our spring, rattlesnakes and allergies aside. And there are always the baby bunnies :).
Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part III
I’m still on this HSP kick that I talked about on Monday.
Elaine N. Aron, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, suggests:
This greater awareness of the subtle [on the part of the Highly Sensitive Person] tends to make you more intuitive, which simply means picking up and working through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way. . . . This is that “sixth sense” people talk about.
That’s right, I have ESP. Sometimes.
This intuitive introvert stuff is probably why I am an INTJ in Myers-Briggs terminology. Introverted. Intuitive. Thinking. Judging. That is someone who is an introvert (duh) and intuitive (see above). It is also someone who values logic (thinking), which I might add is because I view it as “fair.”
Then everyone either uses judgment or perception. People who rely more heavily on a structured lifestyle use judgment, whereas people who rely on a flexible lifestyle rely more on perception.
I do like a structured lifestyle because otherwise I would be overwhelmed with new stimuli coming at me every day, and I couldn’t handle it. My body and my mind begin to shut down when they are inundated or, as Dr. Aron would describe, overly aroused.
Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I am rarely bored. The littlest thing can amuse me. Well, let me adjust that a bit.
Stick me in a room with nothing to do but listen (I am not an auditory learner) for hours on end, and I will start to go nuts. As a kid, this situation used to result in me “talking in class.” You know how that turns out. In first grade, I had to sit in the corner, and freshman year of college I got the lecture about how the professor didn’t care if I talked, but that the kid I was talking to was failing so I needed to take pity on him ;).
Recently, I was in a situation where I was stuck in a chair for hours, listening. So I counted bricks on the wall and calculated distances between objects using typical brick and mortar measurements. I memorized all the distances. This kept me busy for at least an hour. My mind worked like a computer, and that’s because I was the opposite of overly aroused, but actually leaning toward boredom, so my mind wasn’t overwhelmed, but working sharply.
Anyone need room dimensions and don’t have a tape measure handy?