Wednesday, December 8, 2010


You think you know a person or a character.  Whether the person is someone close to you or at some professional remoteness, whether the character is someone you've seen through enough pages to get a feel for, you realize there are those individuals in reality, in the writings of others, and even in the early drafts of your own work where a major plot turn simply doesn't scan; it is neither plausible nor implausible.  The plot turns or events are as uninteresting as a breakfast at I-Hop, more starch than real substance.  The disappointment is as profound as the disappointment you feel when you find yourself in an I-Hop due to all other reasonably similar venues being closed.

Good people, good characters, good events are events that bring surprise to you.  By surprise you mean the experience of an unexpected emotion, plangent in its intensity.

What greater way to experience surprise than to ask real life persons or your own characters questions they were not anticipating?  Not accusatory, mind you.  Yesterday, during lunch with a friend who is a superb shirt story writer whose publisher was so taken with her collection that they thought to cash in more on the novel format, she asked you a surprise question about a building you'd invented out of whole cloth, plunking it down on a plot of land well known to you both.  The moment the question was out, you were off in a whir of gears meshing, other shoes dropping, connections being made.  You could nearly feel the drips of endorphin as you answered, It was built in two differing times; there was an "old" portion and a "new" annex, details which will effect your story only in nuance and indirection, only in ways that will convince the reader even more that the place is real and the persons behaving in them are realer than you thought you could make them.

In a parallel way, you have undertaken a non-writing task as a way of working through if not off a trunk load of that most complicated and difficult of all emotions, grief.  You thought you knew the individual whose papers you are now attempting to arrange in some functional order, whose jewelry and personal effects you are trying to sort out for friends and beloved nieces.  You already knew about the fifty-pound sacks of peanuts in the laundry room, kept there so that they could be meted out in a more reasonable way to their intended audience, the neighborhood squirrels.  You already knew about the two hundred-pound gunny sacks of bird seed because, after all, these were part of the landscape you were used to.  But the flurry of peanuts and seeds from jacket pockets, purses, and car compartments were another matter; so too were the blizzard of notes scribbled on the backs of receipts, half-eaten sandwiches, book advertisements torn from newspapers and magazines, and secret caches of notebooks in places you would not yourself think to squirrel away notebooks (and you have managed to find any number of imaginative places to squirrel thus away).

Characters who have lives of any sort generally have secret lives that are not at all devious or in any way at odds with their apparent character but rather even more intense than suspected.  Their elephant in the living room, going on right in front of you, was an even more intense curiosity, passion, generosity, sense of being than willingness to drive ten miles every morning for a decent coffee latte would suggest.

Characters who love or hate or fret or fear are often putting on a show of normality; either that or your own powers of observation need some immediate injections of gamma globulin or similar incentive; the individuals you care about in real or fiction are leading secret lives of seeming normality lest they emerge too frightening, too threatening in their embrace of life.

Such individuals also tend to have a number of groups of friends because it is rare for them to have friends with more than twenty or thirty percent of the same interests; thus they are Protean in their interests and tastes, trying not to call too much attention to themselves so that they may be free to amass useful information without having to account for it and, indeed so that they will not have to visit their disappointment that their interests are shared at a similar level of enthusiasm.

It is true that you are in serious engagement with a novel that has the word Secret prominently in its title; in fact, secret is the second word in the title.  And so you are focused on the discovery and dramatic revelation of secrets.

Are the things you believe to be your own secrets actually so secret?  Perhaps they're as visible as the classic t-shirts sold at rock concerts, and you are not nearly the potential surprise you had thought to be as you look furtively about you, comfortable from the way your Moleskine notebook thumps against your chest, thinking to slip onto the record yet another secret.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shelly, our characters' secrets reveal our own. And the more they reveal our own secrets, the more on target we are. The target has to do with Loss, what we denied, or were denied. What we lost or never had. So hard to be a writer, sometimes, but as WC Williams said about poetry, 'there is no other fit medium'. The more we come to grips with our own central loss, the more we recognize the losses of others. Thank God for a sense of humor - which you received a generous dose of.
Hmm, I'm testifying tonight - sign me,
Sister Karen.