Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Bits of GLITCH that are Bits of ME

So I was doing my pre-writing or editing quiet/meditation time with my favorite Natalie Goldberg. Today this was the nugget that jumped off the page at me. It's chapter 4 from Thunder and Lightening, and it's all about the way we naturally write ourselves into our book.

I read a piece online lately and the young author was writing about the elderly, something far beyond her years and experiences, and the characters felt like bad imitations of stereotypes. No, Goldberg is right. She suggests we can't make a fictional character exactly like ourselves, because rarely are we able to be that vulnerable, to even understand or be willing to share all our motivations. But through fiction, the conscious and unconscious parts are ourselves pour out all jumbled up. This is a universe all in our own head, so naturally it is built of our parts - our hopes, fears, insecurities, life experiences.

Goldberg says: "The people we befriend usually mirror ourselves, our known and unknown parts." Now this is a very big statement that makes me look around at the relationships in my life and think, huh! she's right! But it also can be said of our characters. Characters who feel real aren't ones we picked out of a stereotype catalogue. All the formative things that have happened to me, that I've read, movies I've seen, things that seeped into my psyche slowly over the years are poured out in this book. What's funny, is I didn't think to realize it until 1) I'm a year out from writing the initial first draft 2) I'm in editing, where I really think consciously about each character's motivations and 3) the fabulous Goldberg.

Now that I look at it, I'm like, holy crap! There's the obvious--my love for 80's and 90's sci-fi and fantasy movies, the melodrama of romance novels, even watching The Little Mermaid EVERY day after school for all of 2nd grade. Then there are the less obvious, the unconscious things working themselves out--I see how that rough patch in my marriage is reflected, the deep ache of longing for beauty and hope in a hard, painful world, that time I was so sick with my chronic illness that I was in a wheelchair--especially the anger of that period. I was always such a good little girl, I'd never felt anger like that, and such a sustained anger. I woke up angry and went to bed angry for a year and so now I can draw knowingly from that texture of anger.

In a way, I see that all the characters in my novel are almost stages of myself. Zoe, naive, just waking up to the world of emotion and good and evil (something I think happens with most teenagers). Adrian, at least in Book I, is most like me now in his belief in beauty and hope, though it will be tested. And Max, dear Max, you are so many things to me. You are what I have wanted and who I have been and chaos and rule-breaking. You are Id, trying to grow up, needing a little Super-ego to come along and tame some of that into a healthy place.

I'm only 29, and maybe my book reflects that too - at 50, I'm wonder if this would be a very different book? But at 29 I've been poor to the point of impoverished, have been well off while my husband had a posh office job, deal daily with chronic illness, have lived in a bad part of Chicago, have lived in a safe pattern-stamped suburb neighborhood, gone back to school, am married, have a kiddo, have swam in a river, have gone to Romania, have pooped in an outhouse, have had older adventurous brothers that I loved and wanted to emulate SO badly, have been religious, have been not religious, have been sexy and have been plain, and more, so much more. And the key to life as well as writing: hope and compassion, always.


  1. Fantastic post, Heather! This is why it's so important for us to love our characters since they reflect all the parts of ourselves, even the parts that are really difficult to like. (I can tell you're in grad school because you use phrases like "binary oppositions." Love it!)

  2. Lol, you are so right about the phrase "binary oppositions"! Academics are in love with it, and it's trickled into my psyche!

  3. I keep meaning to buy Natalie's book, but haven't yet. :( Soon! I think once I get my advance check I'll go on a book buying spree.

    Also, you've been to Romania?? That is awesome.

  4. Ooo, Jenn, when you go out book buying, I suggest getting Writing Down the Bones first. I've read my copy back and forth to pieces.

    And yeah, Romania! My husband is from there (all his family still lives there), so we've visited a couple time :)

  5. Jenn, I'm also VERY impressed with your ability to wait until AFTER the advance check comes to buy things!!!! ;)

  6. I love this post, Heather!

    Also, are those your new author pics I see up on your site? They are gorgeous and so are you.