The Memory Project
Off the top of my head, natural (Johnny Ketchum)

Who Do You Love?
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If you are a writer, or thinking about writing fiction, make a list: What do you think you will do well? What do you think your weaknesses will be? If I had made such a list in 1991, when the first Tess Monaghan novel began taking shape in a black-and-white Roaring Springs notebook, my list of perceived strengths would have been:

Sense of Place

And my list of weaknesses would have included:

Syntax (I suffer from a kind of logical dyslexia in which I deliver information in the wrong order, very cart before the horse. I blame a childhood in which Time magazine was readily available in the house. I believe there's an old saw about the Time style: "Backward ran the sentences until the mind reeled."

Study your lists. Consider them carefully. Because the fact is, your weaknesses may soon become strengths from sheer hard work, while your perceived strengths may end up being the areas in which you are lazy or take shortcuts.

S.J. Rozan once said of another writer that the writer had the mixed blessing of being able to write a B+ manuscript in first draft. S.J. (modestly) maintained that she can't do better than a D on first draft, so there's no choice for her but to plunge back in. As someone who was famed in college for knowing how to glide my way (sometimes, although never in my journalism courses) to an A-minus, I was taken with this concept. I, too, write what Anne Lamott, in BIRD BY BIRD, famously called shitty first drafts. There is nothing for me to do but buckle down and write four, five, six drafts, whatever it takes. But if I could glide my way to a B+ on the first draft -- yes, it would be hard to push myself.

But the one thing I thought I could write was characters. I was wrong. What I could write was Tess Monaghan, a person very close to myself, someone who agrees with me on almost every important issue, someone who shared a lot of my hopes and dreams and aspirations. I was seven books into the Tess series before I went through some life-changing events, ones that forced me to think about myself as others might see me. It wasn't a flattering perspective. At the risk of TMI, I feel tears welling up in my eyes as I think about those events, now almost a decade behind me.

I wrote an essay about that transition in my work, My Life as a Villainess. It has never been published, although I read it once, just once, at Eckerd College in 2008. In it, I explained how confronting others' dark views of me, deserved and undeserved, forced me to evaluate every character in my novels. There could be no more villains, I decided. Only humans. Every person who passed through my books must be fully alive. If I didn't understand them, who would? I must feel toward them as Prometheus did the humans he created, the humans on whom he lavished so much time and attention that there was nothing left to give them but the fire of the gods.

And for that, he was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten out every day.

But recently, in writing one of my Eckerd students, I reached for a different analogy. At the risk of being self-referential, this is what I told her about a character I felt was a little too easy to hate:

"Re: [character name redacted]. [M]y advice is to write about him as if you are his mother. A disappointed, realistic, incredibly objective mother, but his creator nonetheless. I believe that's how we must write about all our characters. If you think about it, who else might have empathy for them? If we can't see the full humanity of the people we create, then they're doomed, are they not? This doesn't mean that all our characters are good, far from it. But take the time to understand how [he] sees himself. Does he suspect the ways in which he is flawed? Or is he utterly blind to them? What does he yearn for? When you write in the third-person limited, the POV is something I like to call the 'gargoyle on the shoulder.' You see how the person sees himself/herself, but you bring a dispassionate perspective as well that allows the reader to experience the character on two levels.

I am away from my books tonight, in Fort Lauderdale, but I found this sentence in my Kindle, from Michelle Huvenen's wonderful novel Blame: "Joey was instantly good at typing, surprising herself.' This is a good example of the dual perspective, interior and exterior. It's in the phrasing. In real life, inside someone's head, it would be: Joey was good at typing, although she didn't expect to be. I know, how is that different? In Huvenen's phrasing, there is that tiny suggestion of perspective, of someone inside and outside. The better example would be a passage in third-person limited where the character does something stupid and isn't the least bit amused at himself/herself, but the reader is."

I haven't yet heard back from my student, so I'm not sure if this was helpful to her or if she threw up her hands and despaired that she had the bad luck to be assigned to Eckerd's equivalent of the faculty folk artist. (I am the only teacher in the workshop who doesn't have an MFA or its equivalent.)

We create characters by living them. Sometimes, it's painful, but as my friend George Pelecanos would say, it's not exactly digging a ditch, so get over yourself. I have just spent five days reading 60-80 pages aloud per day and many of those required me to be in the head of a truly loathsome individual. But I understand him. He doesn't think he's loathsome. He thinks he's just a guy who wants what everyone else seems to get, with so much less effort.

One small bit of advice: If you have any dramatic training whatsoever, any knowledge of the Method or other acting techniques, even if they were learned in high school and community theater -- use them.

It also helps to have been a strange little girl who grew up at the foot of a forested hillside, pretending to be a Koala bear and a unicorn and a mugger, among other things. (Yes, "Mugger" was a beloved game in my neighborhood.) But it's probably too late for that.

I'm curious today. Did this make ANY sense?

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