Friday, April 27, 2012


 Characters struggle to get to their safety and comfort zones, but writers won’t let them.  Writers seek their own comfort spots, but their characters won’t allow it.

In both cases, the comfort zones are not comforting enough.  If they were, more readers would set books or magazines or journals or electronic reading devices down in search of some other diversion for the steady stream of event, encroaching like a line of determined army ants, the stream we variously call Life or, in a more generous state, Reality.

Comfort and safety zones are not twentieth- or twenty-first-century inventions; they have been with our species before it had the ability to speak, well before it had the ability to incise words into rocks or clay tablets, or paint them onto scrolls of various compositions.

Some of your favorite stories involve men or women who are about to sit down for a meal, sneak off for a nap, perhaps slide into a few moments of recreational canoodle, only to be interrupted by the express delivery of a story point.

Knowing a character means knowing a number of things about the individual, strong points, weak points, fears, hidden agendas—you name it, the more secretive the better, because we readers enjoy secrets every bit as much as we writers enjoy inventing them.

Good places to begin are within our secret trove of writer’s secrets, things we know about ways the universe works that amuse us.  You, for instance, have an entire index of ways in which you will show off for particular types of girls, women, and in-betweens, amazed when you catch yourself doing so until you begin to look about to discern why and what you hope to accomplish, a goal that could be as transient as eliciting a smile from a certain, well-tattooed waitress at one of your favorite coffee houses to a hug and a cup of coffee with a certain wealth assets manager from a local bank to a dinner date with a certain former student to leisurely conversations with a broader range of demographics.

You believe there is a calculus between secrets and dreams.

Only last night, in a brief flash of dream, such a person for whom you’ve showed off on numerous occasions, appeared.  She was in the background of a more-or-less recurrent dream in which you cannot remember where you parked your car, a dream often exacerbated to the point where you further cannot remember which of the cars you owned was the car of focus in a particular dream.

Sometimes, as you are writing a scene, you experience a discomfort that seems to spread outward from the thorax, descending into the lower limbs, the uncomfortable awareness emerging that you’d used the scene in an earlier story or that you were not writing your own scene but perhaps copying a situation you’d read in the work of another.  After a time, you begin to realize you’d dreamed the scene or something like it, in vivid enough resolution to have you here, at your computer or note pad, sketching the details of a dream rather than working your way through a story.

Such fleeting insights and recollections lead you to speculate that many of the prolific writers you admire have worked their way through the caves and grottos of such introspection to the point where it is rare for them to reach outside themselves to define a character, finding it more easy by far to use as armatures for their characters their own secrets and fantasies, then wrap traits most congenial to story about these armatures.

Real individuals are often impenetrable, their defenses and distraction devices so acute and sophisticated that you find their agendas a code you cannot crack.

Through an interest you developed in bullfighting when you were in your mid-twenties, occasioning frequent visits to the bull rings in Tijuana, and some of the border towns such as Juarez, then later into Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, also because one of your oldest and dearest friends performed in the ring and still paints and draws of it, you came to understand the meaning of a Spanish-language term as related to the bull, querencia, a terrain within the bullring where the bull goes to feel comfort, or protected.  Most bullfighters are quick to identify such places.  The more spectacular in their midst attack or invade or trespass within this area, a tactic of some risk to their safety.  The bull is, by now, at least frustrated, in all probability producing a good deal of adrenaline, considering its strategy.  Remember, the bull is wired to attack anything that moves.

Neither characters nor writers must be allowed to find and remain in querencias.  Comfort stations are for later.  Ease is for after the final draft has been on the revision lathe for a time.

True enough, some writers find the work easier than others; many find it easier than you do, but you do not do it because of the sense of it being easy, rather because of the sense of fun and satisfaction while you’re doing it.  Your experiences with beginning writers and with yourself when you were in earlier stages than you are now, leads you to conclude how irrational it is for beginners to think this is easy work, particularly when their own work betrays, as indeed yours did (and still may) how difficult it becomes.

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