The great thing about being an ordinary person is the ability to be completely incognito. Think about it, how many times have you studied someone at Starbucks to realize she looks just like a character in your mind? Or, become giddy at the sight of an orphaned nametag at a convention because that is the perfect name for a secondary character.
There are professions where it is extremely helpful to recognize those individuals right off the bat: seeing that policeman walk out of the gas station behind you before you speed to an appointment – good to know … witnessing a gaggle of nurses on a smoke break while you impatiently wait – annoying, but hey, you know they’re there … actually, come to think of it, it would have been helpful if that cute guy I met in the dorm lobby my first week of college told me he was a RA before I offered him a contraband beer. But I digress.
Thank the Muse we don’t have to wear our professions on our sleeves. Imagine what would happen if novelists had to wear a T-shirt that says, “Careful, or You’ll End Up in My Novel.” (And yes, I have that T-shirt as well) Suddenly, we would be conscious of every little tic, every over-used phrase and every uncomfortable conversation held in a public place.
As writers, we have a desire to document every significant (or -in) moment with the hope that it will add depth to our work. I think to an extent, it’s a good practice, but it shouldn’t become a crutch. Robert Olen Butler once said that as writers, we should never look away. I doubt he means that we need to chase ambulances – let’s leave that up to the attorneys (sorry guys!) – or rubberneck at every car accident we see. I think what he means is to catalog everything we feel – mentally or with a journal.
Let’s take, for instance, grief, a pretty extreme emotion. As mentioned in my last post, I lost a dear friend nearly two years ago, and I also lost my grandmother two years before that. These two women inspired me to write and their loss hangs over me every day. Now, I don’t go around crying or frowning – that’s just hell on the mascara and I don’t like needles enough to consider Botox. Instead, I channeled that emotion to a character in my novel. One that is so stricken with grief that it clouds everything she does. I recently came across the very first draft of Phoenix, and read a few pages of Shiloh, the character. She is so much deeper of a character now – partially due to my maturing as a writer, but also the fact that I didn’t look away from my grief, I faced it. Head on.
So, if you ever meet a novelist at a bar, don’t run in the other direction for fear of reading about yourself in pulp. We don’t bite. And if we do, we’ll be kind enough to change your name.