My mini-writing retreat was just what the writing doctor ordered. My family thinks I’m nuts, my neighbours must wonder about the state of my marriage (“You’re going where? Downtown? To a hotel? Alone?) Don’t most people shake their heads at us writers anyway? We’re an odd, eccentric lot, after all, pursuing something with solitary passion that most people can’t wait to stop doing once they get out of school.
I fled the family sedan, waved to the husband and kids and entered the downtown hotel. I was a Banshee on a mission. Once I figured out how the door key worked, got myself a latte, and let my ancient laptop boot up, it was time to get down to the business if figuring out The Novel. (I briefly allowed myself to acknowledge the treat of having a proper desk with a proper desk lamp – and the blessed quiet.)
My first chore: figure out why or how my story felt so…off track. My main character was wandering the streets of London aimlessly, kvetching about what to do with her life. Ad nauseum. If I’m finding it tedious, imagine what the five future readers of this book might make of it. No one, not even my very kind mother-in-law, will want to watch this girl flail without end. I sipped my latte, and pondered possible solutions. Should I let her get hit by a double-decker bus? Should she have an epiphany about her life’s purpose just as she sees the iconic bright red bumper heading right for her? Tempting but a tad too predictable.
I turned to my Bible for answers. Whenever I am at a loss, I find my well-worn copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. By some miracle, it fell open to the chapter entitled “Character.” As usual, her wise and funny voice comforts me in my time of need. She is gentle as she makes me realize I don’t know my main characters well enough. Even though they let themselves into my bathroom and interrupt my showers all the time, we are not as well acquainted as we should be.
I opened a new document entitled, “Major Characters, Who Do You Think You Are?” Referring back to Bird by Bird often, I begin the interrogations. Questions like, “When you stand, how do you stand? What is your body language?” “If you were voting in the next election, how would you vote?” “What scares the bejabbers out of you?” “What are your strengths?” “How do you part your hair?” I know this stuff about the real people in my life; in order to bring life to my fictional characters, I must know these things about them too.
I’m sure this is the ABC’s of novel-writing to those of you who know what you’re doing, but it’s all new to me. I feel like I’m learning to swim in the deep end most of the time. Sometimes I am paralyzed by fear – the water is just too deep. I keep Bird by Bird on my lap as I write, my little paperback life jacket.
Next, I re-read the chapter on plot. Here, Ms. Lamott utters some rather anxiety-inducing words: Don’t worry about plot. If you’ve written good characters, plot will happen. She says it’s like sitting two people down who are getting to know each other – they will act, stuff will happen. Let it happen. Oh, God.
The three most terrifying words in the English language are: Let It Be. Something I am truly horrible at. I am a helicopter mom, wife, person – something I really need to go to rehab to kick – and the thought of letting my characters just “be” very nearly gives me chest pains. But, Ms. Lamott is quite firm (but gentle, of course) on this subject. She says we cannot impose a plot on our characters. “Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.” Their actions regarding what’s at stake will develop the plot.
So, I toil through the night with my characters. I interview them, follow them, harass them. I don’t sleep well but all the same I feel much better by morning. Before dawn, I began to write again – back on track – with Bird by Bird resting beside me.