I was talking with fellow writer and friend, Nico Taranovsky, about separation between the writer and the character. Sometimes there isn’t a lot of it.
The closer we are to our character, the harder it becomes to write that character. It is like self-marketing. A lot of us are horrible at it. When it’s time to write that employment cover letter, or put that novel into a one-page synopsis, or compose an elevator speech for any reason, we clam up. Which is ironic given that we are Americans and Americans love to self-promote. We talk about ourselves all day long to anyone who will listen, including people we have to pay to listen. Why then, if we really like describing, analyzing, and aggrandizing ourselves, is it harder to write characters that are close to us?
I recently wrote a short story that is an homage to my neighborhood and family. I did not actually intend to write an homage. I was aware as I wrote that I was drawing heavily on the details of my neighborhood, and it was fun. I was also aware that my characters had certain conversations that could have been had by my family. In fact, the teenaged son bears a strong resemblance to my boyfriend’s son. And the little girl is a composite of our daughters at a younger age. The narrator, however, is a man. It is his head I inhabited while I wrote. He is not me. He is also not my boyfriend, nor is his wife me. But the four of us: me, my boyfriend, the narrator, and his wife, have a lot in common.
I think the narrator being a man gave me the separation necessary to write something so close to home without getting cornered by reality. Of course, writing about my neighborhood is not the same as writing about something emotionally fraught that hits close to home.
I once lost a baby when I was twenty-weeks pregnant. (It was ages ago and all is long-since well.) For years afterwards, I wanted to write about the experience. Every time I tried, I wrote total crap. It was impossible to access the experience without being stymied by own role in it. In trying to write from the center of my lived, true, experience, I failed to convey that true experience on the page. Words felt overwrought or flat, so I gave up.
Perhaps, when we are close to a character or an experience we’re trying to write about, we try too hard to capture some essence that we know to be real, instead of letting the details do the work. I did finally write about the experience. It’s a short creative non-fiction piece. A year ago, I figured out that if I want the reader to know what it felt like, it suffices to write what happened. The day I found out the baby was anencephalic, I did not want to go home right away, so my husband and I went to a movie theater. The movie that happened to be starting next was Scream. Within a few minutes of the theater going dark, Drew Barrymore was hanging from a tree, eviscerated.
Although I did not write about that experience for over a decade, I did use it constantly. Once we live through something, positive or negative or outright traumatic, it becomes a part of us. As writers, every part of us is material. It is not a conscious choice and I do not think we are aware of it as we work. “Now, a little of Grandma’s death, and a pinch of how much that haunted house scared me when I was six, and a smattering of that bizarre sense of fortune when a tornado left my house unscathed.” No, it’s not like that, but all of our life experiences are in the well and we do draw on them.
Sometimes, when writing an experience or character that is excruciatingly close, it is enough to change things up to gain separation. Sometimes, only the passage of years will see us to a place where we can sit down and write. Don’t mind giving up on that difficult piece of writing—for now. When the time arrives to write it, don’t expect it to be easy—just trust that the right words are in there. When the piece is finally done, you might just see in it a lesson you were ready to learn.
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