Thursday, February 13, 2014

Your characters are derelicts from the crucible of your own politics

If your facts are at all accurate so far as the Samuel Richardson novel Pamela, (published in 1740) is concerned, early readers were outraged to discover the novel was only an invention.  

However clever Richardson's invention was, however plausible he made the plight of the young working girl in her attempts to deal with her own sexual feelings, her awareness of her social station, and the fact of her employer's son, constantly hitting on her, readers in those times were not as experienced in dealing with the potentials of fiction.  Readers were a good deal more literal-minded than they are today.

In a number of similar ways, young persons, wandering the sinuous paths of maturation, discover for themselves the vital lies, the Santa Clauses and Tooth Fairies of their various cultures, recognize the often gaping chasm between convention and reality.  These discoveries leave emotional scar tissue; they are in a major sense the awareness their elders assure them they will attain once they are grown up and have developed the capacity to build strong rationalizations of their own.

There are a number of public rituals, confirmations, quinceanarias, bas- and bar-mitzvahs, high school graduations, and the like, celebrated, often at great expense.  Leaving the individual to accommodate to the unspoken realities of convention, often on their own, with scant explanation or guidance, just as often left, still on their own, to discover from hard, painful experience.  The subtext is always the same.  You're grown up.  Now you know.  Or, now you should know.  Or, See; just as I told you.

The someday has come to pass; the someday is now.  The individual is expected to suck up reality, then get on with the process.  In some cases, there's more education to consider, experiments with romance and physicality, focus on career, perhaps even paring off with a partner, whether grounded as an individual or not.

Seeing "how things are" often brings the same sense of outraged betrayal Samuel Richardson's early readers experienced.  By this stage, the individual is supposed to remain polite about the realities, about the ways life really is.  The illusions are gone, but the emotions connected with their disappearance are often left to smolder or lapse into acceptance.

Thus the stage is set for such notable life events as rebelliousness, mid-life crisis, and crisis of identity.  Welcome to the real world, where we are asked to observe the real rules as we fox trot around the elephants on the ballroom floor.

Except that writers, poets, artists are not willing to go gentle into those particular good-nights; they recognize their anger, their betrayal.  They draw upon these and other related feelings to fuel their work, their output, their artistic voice.

This is about where you come in, as a teacher, as a writer, as an editor, but even more significant, as someone who has also been through the same rituals, has rebelled in a wild, inchoate way, and spent much too long trying to figure out what went wrong and why.  You see individuals ranging from the low and early twenties to the fifties, sixties, and seventies, all clambering about the Teflon shield, the roadblock between them and their own artistic energy.

Politeness is the last border guard, standing between the self-actualized writer and the one who thinks mere focus on the techniques of composition will be enough.

Because of some fluke of convergence or coincidence, you are at about the same place in your dealings with three different demographics, the middle-age group from your late wife's memoir class, the young twenties from the newly hatched individuals from your university group, and the assured, publication-ready group of your Saturday writers' workshop, where age has little significance, and the ability to listen to characters has great significance.

Listening to one's characters causes one to leave the ego outside the work area along with politeness, a sense of countless losses and betrayals.  Instead, there is the energy, often driven by anger or a super-heated drive of energy to get the story down without any of the propaganda, chest beating, recriminations, and desires for revenge often attending the writing of beginners.

Your characters are pre-selected by you at white-hot fury or humiliations real and imagined.  Your characters are derelicts from the crucible of your own politics, including your awareness that you may have been more an abuser than an abusee.  You do not have to love your characters but, whoever they are, you must respect them, not allow them past the first draft to leer or glare or in any way project the rebarbative nature you see in them.  They are individuals expressing what you did not dare express for fear of offending some authority figure who is not at all likely to read your book or, should she read it, she will think herself one of the other characters rather than the one of your intent.

You are not writing to get even; you are writing to grow in your ability to see implications, codes, and nuances, then bring them to the stage so the reader can experience them.  There is no need for them to carry signs, alerting the reader to their true nature, nor for them to carry adverbs and other attributions that serve as stage directions.  They know who they are.  You know who they are.  They will do what they wish, if you let them.

And always, you will let them.

Won't you?

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