What Do I Know?

Many, many years ago when I was young and adventurous and poor, I earned money for my own art classes by modeling for a sculpture class. I took the same pose (stretched out on a sofa, my lower half prone but twisted at the waist so that my upper half was facing sideways, an arm bent to prop my head on my hand) for 90 minutes each week, over a six week period. During breaks (I wasn’t, mercifully, expected to hold the pose for more than 15 minutes at a time) I walked around the class, looking at the students’ interpretations of me. Quite apart from differences in their skill levels as sculptors, I quickly learned that how they saw me was directly influenced by their relationships to their own bodies. Heftier sculptors tended to perceive my body as longer and leaner than I knew it to be. One very slim woman with a boyish figure exaggerated my curves into a Rubens-like voluptuousness. And the male students revealed the areas of the female form most of interest (sexual attraction?) to them – breasts, thighs, buttocks – in the way they emphasized these aspects of their work.

The lesson – that who we are influences what we see – has stayed with me, and been reinforced in a variety of ways since those early days. It has become salient again recently, in the form of critiques I’ve received of my novel, Like Dust Devils Through a Card House. In particular, readers respond to my character Sylvie in ways clearly dictated by their own life experiences. One who has had a hard time overcoming anger was particularly disturbed by the way Sylvie clings to anger as a motivator. Another asked the reasonable – to her – question why Sylvie would seek out sex when she’s in pain or when feeling weak. I myself, writing the first draft, was somewhat dismayed to discover that of the three women in the story, the point of view and main character had to be Sylvie, the one I personally like the least. But I know her, I know too many people like her to not recognize her as a neighbor, a co-worker, a very real example of a set of choices about how to negotiate a life.

I appreciate the thoughtful critiques which question what I’ve created, because they push me to clarify, refine, or broaden my explication of Sylvie’s character. Adding detail that will reveal her motivations and enable these readers to understand (if not agree with or like) Sylvie, strengthens my story. This rewrite also requires that I get ever ‘more real’ with myself about the experiences and observations on which I draw to create character.

“That’s what actors do as well,” stated one of the reviewers whose comments were most helpful between drafts two and three. “We have to put what we know of ourselves into a role, to understand the characters we’re playing and bring them alive.”

Meanwhile, I continue to be amazed, sometimes dismayed, by the characters that appear in my stories. “Where on earth did she come from?” was my question about the lead in my most recent short story. I began with an idea about links in a chain mirroring the phases of a life and ended up with a young woman who experienced ostracism growing up, was orphaned young, now lives alone on a boat and experiences being assaulted. She is no one I’ve ever known, yet in the piling of cause upon effect upon new cause, she is every one of us. What I don’t know is why such challenged, tortured or difficult characters so often ‘take over’ my stories and demand to be heard!

If I reason from my premise above, I am presumably revealing aspects of my own view of the world. But I don’t see myself as having experienced such a painful, twisted life. Yes, there were difficulties, yes my mother had severe emotional problems that made for a dysfunctional childhood, yes I was uprooted and relocated repeatedly until I was in my late twenties – and yes I have read about many types of personality and culture, have studied psychology, worked in prisons, met a great variety of people in quite a wide variety of places. But I don’t see the world as hurtful, something to be afraid of or to fight against, nor as a place that creates and targets victims. So why do these types of characters appear so often in my stories?

I don’t know.

I do know the truth of “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Especially when that first practice of deception is of ourselves. Unexamined motives, ill-considered actions, un-reviewed decisions, unrepented errors pile upon one another into tangled webs not just of deceit but also of pain and loss. Observing life around me, I have learned that much of this tangle exists just below the surface, and that my choice to look for the good in others, to “seek that of God in every one” as the Quakers phrase it, does not prevent me from seeing the coils of deceit and misrepresentation into which too many people snarl their lives.

How I wish it were not so!

I would far rather live in a world of people who are aware of themselves and their needs, and who feel secure enough to express those needs and seek openly for their fulfillment. I am coming to realize that my choice of mysteries for light, escapist reading is largely the result of my wish for life in a simpler, more straightforward ethical world. And I also realize that my inability, at least up to this point, to write such a mystery is the result of my recognition that the world I live in, the world I know, is neither simple nor straightforward.

When complex, angry, or tangled characters emerge in my writing, I am in fact following the dictate to “write what you know.” Hmmm. Let me contemplate that fact. Because I also know loving and tenderness, and caring people who devote themselves to improving circumstances for others. So I should know, as well, how to write engaging, positive, “good” characters. I do hope one will spring forth the next time I start a story!

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