Sunday, July 14, 2013

Escape from Boredom: Why Characters Leave Home

So far as you are able to tell, you came to reading with no expectations beyond cultural prompts from your immediate family, most notably your sister, who introduced a conspiratorial note.  "Learning to read will help you escape from places you don't like,"  she told you.  "You'll see."

She was right.  You did see.  

You're aware of your mother often reading novels.  "When you can read,"  she said, "you'll be able to read books like these."

She, too, was right.

Your father seemed, in your memory, more given to magazines and crossword puzzles.  He even had magazines whose contents were entirely crossword puzzles.  Once, after you'd learned to read, you were home from school with some childhood illness, your father brought you such a magazine.  "See how you like these,"  he said.

The cultural strata into which you were born was in effect a roller coaster ride to the learning of reading, the rises and dips enhanced by parents and a sibling who were themselves readers.  You learned to read as a natural course of events, as you'd learned to tie your shoes, brush your teeth, and, when the time came for you to need eyeglasses, to clean the lenses.

You took well to reading.  When you were ten, your sister took you to the main branch of the Providence, Rhode Island, Library, and shepherded you through the mechanisms of securing your own library card.  Two weeks later, you were asked to wait in a room at the library until your mother arrived, whereupon the librarian who'd detained you informed your mother that you'd attempted to check out James Joyce's novel, Ulysses.

You'd heard about the novel and were curious.  Thanks to your mother, you were able to bring it home.  You spent some time trying to make sense of it--any sense at all.  You've spent at least fifty years, at various times inching your way to a greater understanding of that novel.  

You'd already had the conversation with a teacher in another city in which, after reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and then Huckleberry Finn, you asked the teacher if it were possible for a person to make a living writing such things.  You came close to hating the city and school wherein you'd first read those books, but you still remember the teacher telling you how handsome a living you'd be able to make if you were ever able to write stories of the level at which those books were written, but you must never for a moment suppose reaching such a level would be easy.

This is all backstory-as-time-line to demonstrate how you began reading, as your sister suggested, to get away from ordinary, how ordinary confused and bored you, how boredom played havoc with your growing-up-years, and how boredom drove you to even more eclectic reading tastes.  You were hoping to find the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail, the one book that would inspire and guide you toward developing the abilities necessary to write such remarkable books as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

You had to learn, among other things, how terrible some of the writings of that author were and how important it was for you to realize how such a condition could exist without in any way diminishing your regard for him.  Even in recent years, when his autobiography was published, one hundred years after his death, at his request, you had to read through that thick, slap-dash undertaking, and still recognize the position of esteem in which you hold him above all others.

This is still, in a sense, backstory, approaches to how you have come to see how characters have grown through the years, even though in many cases characters over six hundred years old are still speaking to you as paradigms of what memorable characters should be.  You are, of course, speaking of a writer you think to compare with Mr. Twain.  You are seeing Mr, Chaucer as a canny, wise, observant creator of characters you can almost visualize down to facial tics and bodily gestures.

You are also leading to a discovery within yourself that you were in effect making even before you heard the concept and began wondering if you could acquire such a tool for your writing.

The tool is called the Observing Ego, which means in effect an aspect of self--go ahead, call it the writing self--that is Zen-like in nature, without affect, making no decisions, only observing; not judging.  You wish to add to the more conventional psychological use of the term the word empathy because you will be able to use this aspect of self to see characters without taking sides against them or judging their actions in any way except in the most dramatic terms.

The other characters make the calls.  You need ways to get into a cadre of characters with dark sides, selfish sides, limited visionaries, even tortured persons who take pleasure and energy from hurting others.

You're not surprised when giving a lecture or appearing on a panel when persons in the audience ask one of the three great cliche questions audiences such as those you speak before are wont to ask.  In addition to wanting to know what it takes to acquire the representation services of a literary agent, and which narrative point of view is the best, they want to know how to create memorable characters.

To show how long you've been at your trade, there was a long stretch of time when you'd set forth to answer that last question in terms of the word "memorable."  Your answers were accurate enough and, you dare say, adequate.  But now is another matter.  

You attack the word "memorable" as not being apt enough.  You want something more like dark or brooding or haunting or disturbed.  Memorable is too conventional, too ordinary.

The Observing Ego or the Writing Self would now tend to become bored with memorable characters, wanting to turn the heat up under them.

In so many ways, not with a direct relation to your age, maintaining the Observing Ego or, better yet, the Writing Self, is hard work because more energy is required to be beyond memorable.  Being present and observant and empathetic and brooding and dark is difficult work.  The performance levels are necessary in non-writing life as well as within the composition mode, and the necessary efforts to get nourishment from reading are excruciating.  But anything less produces ordinary and ordinary produces uninteresting, boring results.

The circularity presents itself to you in terms of ordinary and boring as benchmarks.  Life, reading, and writing story require a hand on the heat knob, turning up the flame.

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