JENNIE-O: Does everyone have what they need?
WILD: Mom, sit down.
JENNIE-O: I can’t—they sawed my legs off.
As a fiction writer, how do I develop the kind of emotional investment/empathy for my characters that will make them come across as realistic and cause readers to feel strongly about them?
Every person in this world is both complex and simple. Give your characters a complex system of emotions and characteristics—it’s their motivations that are generally simple. Most readers can relate to the basic human motivations of love/safety/joy/sex/survival, etc., but how we navigate the world, with these motivations determining our actions, is where stories come from. Place your clues carefully, so the reader feels she has discovered depth on her own—as if the character were a close friend who only she understands.
One of my biggest fears upon entering the MFA was that workshop would be a source of enormous anxiety spurring impostor syndrome, which would set me into some horrible cycle in which I would be completely unable to write. I think this fear came from my forgetting that writing is a communal activity. I don’t think I realized that I was yet to meet some of the best readers of my work. Maybe I sit alone in my apartment reading or in a coffee shop with my headphones in when I’m writing, but there’s that undeniable urge to talk about a piece with a friend, to bounce ideas off one another, to ask them for their thoughts.
Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a creepy little book. It isn't confirmed until very near the end that Merricat, the narrator, has poisoned her family, but we start to feel it right away. Here's the opening:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Writing comes easily to me.
No, no, this is not what you’re thinking. I’m not trying to brag about how easy the act of writing is for me. I’ve spent plenty of hours staring at blanks pages (admittedly not so much staring as thunking my head onto my arms in defeat) and sliding to the floor in despair. However, writing does come naturally.
I’ll never understand people who don’t like cats. “Don’t care for ’em,” they tell you in their terse, no-nonsense way, not realizing that to a cat lover, this is like hearing someone say they hate sunsets. What’s not to like about cats? They’re graceful, fascinating, polite, beautiful, and always enjoy a good joke (as long as it’s not on them).
People who dislike cats don’t care, and I leave them to their lot. I’m not interested in the unnecessary task of defending felines. What concerns me is defending the merits of writing about them. I’m a serious poet. And I write poems about cats. This bothers some people. “No poems about cats or butterflies,” sneers more than one editor from the pages of Poet’s Market. They’re trying, I know, to avoid greeting card verse. But if people write badly about cats, they probably write badly about love, death, and war.
I can only speak for myself, but it seems all of us in our little book “world” have been incredibly busy of late. I’m tempted to label 2015 The Year of the Book, in that anyone who claimed publishing was “dying” has now been proven wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s an editor, agent, or writer, it seems like we’re all working non-stop. I’m not complaining, it’s a good problem to have.
This means that one has to practice triage in the publishing and writing life. There are only so many hours in a day, with the writing reality being that it’s physically impossible to do everything we want (and maybe need) to do.
In this edition of Lit Chat, I get to know my new neighborhood bookstore, and bookslinger Angela Schwesnedl. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss the memo; the bookstore itself is not new, but new to me as a recent resident of the Longfellow neighborhood. I imagine my unbridled excitement to be within walking distance of Moon Palace Books matches that of the metro area when we got that Ikea, but rather than a overwhelming warehouse full of much-assembly-required furniture, Moon Palace houses its expansive and well-curated inventory in a cozy space nestled behind Peace Coffee on the 3200 block of Minnehaha Avenue. You can’t help but use words like “cozy” and “nestled” to describe it—which just makes you want to curl up with a good book. This is good marketing. Some things are just better small (though, of course, I’d be happy to see them expand).
I have a lot of books. I know, I know, you’re absolutely shocked, right? A person interning at The Loft Literary Center has a lot of books? No, it can’t be!
Yes. It can.... Sometimes I wonder though, since there are so many books—in my room as well as in libraries and bookstores—waiting to be opened, why spend time rereading?
“…disorder surges up in all the primary passions—love, hate, jealousy, despair, terror, joy. And we experience disorder’s power when beauty or wonder overwhelm us or ecstasy seems to dissolve the very boundaries of self.” —Gregory Orr, in Poetry as Survival
The creative response to the power of disorder then, according to Orr, is one of ordering—or perhaps a better word is shaping—by turning it into language, into story and verse. In this way, the author gains some measure of control over the extremity of emotion, the propriety that comes with naming. Which is why many find the act of writing to be a relief, why many turn to the page at all. After all, “All sorrows can be borne if put them into a story or tell a story about them” (Isak Denison, author of Out of Africa).