Category Archives: Character

Cat’s Eye

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

– Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince

On page 27 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg tells us that it is not only with our eyes that we see.  Our inner eyes are comprised of three things:  instinct (“previous experience”), intuition (“gut reaction”), and imagination (“mental flash of possible  scenarios”).

The Prompt:

Look around at anything you literally see and visualize it more robustly by using the above three ways of “seeing.”  In doing so, we should observe which means of seeing is most difficult for us versus which comes easiest.  Today, I’m going to focus on a random image I viewed out the window two nights ago at a cocktail party.

Response:

Standing poised atop the intricately scrolling wrought iron railing of a second-floor terraced house window, the Ninja Kitty remains frozen with all four of its paws aligned in a perfectly straight line.  It holds its balance there for perhaps ten minutes, frozen in fear (or is it a calculating calm?) as it assesses the situation:  having tight-rope-walked itself to where the corner of an exterior wall juts out, separating the ledges of two different flats, Ninja Kitty stands with its two hind paws on the railing above one ledge while its front paws have traversed to the part of the railing where the second ledge begins.  At its middle, then, is the corner wall that, though an inch or two away, surely feels like a blade brushing against its fur, threatening the cat to jump as though it’s just walked the splintering plank of a creaking, renegade ship.

Ninja Kitty appears to have three choices:  1) leap off toward the sidewalk, testing the validity of the old conception that a cat will always land on its feet, 2) moon-walk backward to try getting back onto the first ledge, or, 3) keep easing forward enough that it can attain the leverage it needs to leap onto the second ledge.

Still the blonde cat hesitates, and I can almost perceptibly make out the “Fuuuuuuuudge” thought-bubble about to burst on the sharp tips of its ears; reflecting off the vertical slits of its pupils are the illuminated graphics of a mental decision-tree database, running through iterations of calculations as the cat sizes up its variables of physics.  Vectors and velocity methodically slide and sort and file away in Ninja Kitty’s mind until it’s the make-or-break moment.  This is happening.  And…NOW!  Ninja Kitty bows slightly and launches from its hind legs to alight gently and fully on the second ledge.

Victory is the feline’s, but, before it can even get its bearings and exalt in relief, there is a rustling at the shade drawn over an adjacent French door.  A flat occupant, I reasonably presume, who must have been looking on in peril from an unseen vantage, yet doing so impotently with no attempt at aiding in rescue.  Just as I judge the day-late and dollar-shortness of that cowardly individual, the dark pointed ears of another house cat materialize from underneath the shade.  Then and there, Ninja Kitty’s humility over its recent, dangerous, and embarrassing predicament is vanished, if it existed at all—within split seconds, the cats are rearing on their hind legs and clawing at each other through the glass, staking their outdoor/indoor territory as though it was one and the same.  Smack, scratch, scrape-scrape, they continue batting at each other with electric intensity, and, before I know it, Ninja Kitty is haughtily heaving itself back up on the railing (looking for a moment like it was about to do pull-ups) to no longer give this enemy the time of day.

And there it was, standing poised (in the opposite direction, this time) atop the intricately scrolling wrought iron railing, frozen with all four of its paws aligned in a perfectly straight line.  This was the point at which I looked away, disinterested.  That cat either knew what it was doing or didn’t learn from history and was thereby doomed to repeat it.  I conjecture it is living on its fifth life at most.

Reflection:

Ah, that was a fun little romp, though probably doing no justice to the profound quotation that opens this post!  And I imagine I could have taken it further and deeper if I’d chosen a human subject (sorry, PETA).

The whole scenario was amusing to actually watch, though (the glasses of wine I’d already consumed probably adding to the hilarity of the moment), and yet I can’t deny that I was simultaneously looking on in horror.  I couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities left to the cat in this seemingly impossible dilemma, yet my instinctive impression of how it was apprising the situation and would ultimately act was based on previous observations of cats and their cautious, arrogant mannerisms, as well as my intuitive understanding of what it means to be “catty,” as that feisty bitchiness is part of my own nature when I’m confronted 🙂  Monkey has claws!



Mad Me?

* * SPOILER ALERT * * – Ye be warned if you haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s Psycho.

YouTube embedding is being finicky...please click photo to access clip!

I was watching Mad Men last night and marveling over how much I continue to sympathize with the character of Don Draper.  Am I mad?  The guy has cheated on his wife for the first three seasons, even after she bears his third child, and still those dramatic shots of Don sitting in isolation as the camera gradually zooms out still pluck out a melancholy little banjo tune on a heartstring or two.

This brings to mind a post I recently read on Milo James Fowler’s In Media Res blog that discusses how the villains in books, TV, or film tend to fascinate us, to the point where we might find ourselves cheering for them.  When I read this, I immediately thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and how the director’s genius for creating suspense through cinematography and Anthony Perkins’s stutteringly shy Norman Bates always leaves me biting my fingernails each time Norman is close to getting caught.  The part directly following the infamous shower scene, for example, shows Norman pushing a car (with Marion’s  dead body inside) into a swamp.  As slowly as if the water was molasses, the car glub-glubs down until, suddenly, it just stops.  Norman swallows in anxiety, and after several looong seconds, the car continues to gurgle down into the swamp’s depths, now fully concealed.  There is something about the shot-reaction-shot sequence here that makes the viewer (I know it can’t just be me) tense on Norman’s behalf and want the car to keep sinking just as much as he does.  Why is that?!

Not that Don Draper exudes the villainy of a murderer with a curling black mustache and a damsel in distress bound in rope underfoot…but that’s precisely my point.  For me, if a villain is in the least bit complicated with a sense of vulnerability, I will sympathize.  The Don Draper character mesmerizes me because I can’t quite slide him into a specific slot; he is complicated by a darker past and an inner struggle between being a good person that does right by others and a psychopath that acts in complete disregard of them.  Norman Bates is a mentally unstable young man whose psychosis is likewise triggered by a difficult childhood; in his conversations with Marion before her death, we see the friendly, likable side of him that is tormented by the wicked personality of his mother that he’s invented in his mind.

It’s the classic struggle of the good versus evil within each of us, after all, and a great many fascinating stories have been written around this internal conflict, the most engaging of which (for me) tending to be when the protagonists and antagonists of the plot at times blur into each other.  (As you can see in the photos above, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of many films utilizing the imagery of duality—here, both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s faces are half in light and half in shadow—as who is the “hero” and who is the “villain” is called into question.) As it stands, Don is a flawed protagonist just as much as Norman is a well-intentioned antagonist.

So, in the end, what I think makes me want to pat someone like Don on the back and console him with a glass of Scotch along with a Lucky Strike cigarette is the fact that, while I cannot directly empathize with his choices/actions, I can sympathize (to small degree) with where he’s coming from.  Just something to ponder as we craft our own “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” in our stories, those complex characters that we willingly invite  to ride the carousel of our minds…


The Art of Lying

Okay, then.  Getting me arse back into gear with my writing prompts now that I’ve concluded my grand U.S. tour.  I had a productive writing/revising day yesterday, though, so hopefully this will help me accomplish even more later today.

I was just watching the film The Invention of Lying last night, and, funny enough, the next prompt in Room to Write is about lies.  The movie is about a world in which no one lies until one man discovers the possibilities of doing so, and it’s hilarious the utterly dull impact the inability to lie has on advertising, literature, and film—fiction basically can’t exist!  The fact is, everyone at some point tells a lie.  Our motivations for doing so can vastly vary—it might be out of kindness to spare someone’s feelings, or it might spring from more ill intentions like self-gain or pridefully covering up that we are not as all that and a bag-o-chips as we’d like to think we are.

The Prompt:

In light of the different reasons why a person might choose to tell a “good” or a “bad” lie, our characters’ motivations in doing so can be very telling about them, even more so than the actual lie that they speak.  Bonni Goldberg tells us that we can more convincingly portray our characters’ lies by considering our own motivations for lying.  So, page 20 asks us to write only lies.  We have these options:

1.  Write silly lies, like you’re confirmed to pilot the next shuttle to the moon;

2.  Write more realistic lies that you have told or would actually tell to yourself and those you know;

3.  Write lies you have told and reflect on why you chose not to tell the truth in that instance; and/or,

4.  Write a scene in which one of your characters considers telling a lie.

This is one opportunity we have to tell lies without judgment…well, I guess I’m setting myself up for more judgment than if I were privately scrawling these in a journal vs. publishing it in cyberspace.  As I’m concerned this might hold me back from revealing certain truths through lies (odd how that does make sense), I’ll do a variation on #4 and share a scene in which my protagonist tells a string of little white  lies, and reflect on her motivations thereafter.  As in my earlier post, “Dialogues of Destiny“, I’ll call her “Margaret” and likewise alter my other characters’ names.  I will also highlight her lies in red font (that’s red, right?  Or is it orange?  I will not tell a lie and confess that I’m color weak.  Not proud of that fact).

Response:

To provide some context first, Margaret (an American) is temporarily living in her British friend Ron’s London flat.  They have had a recent, inexplicable falling out while standing in the doorway of her room.  Afterwards, he goes out for the night with his girlfriend Wendy while Margaret takes a nap.  She has just woken up and been writing in her journal when he returns, and this is what happens:

Margaret started when a dull thud on the door sharpened into three knocks of increasing conviction.

“Margaret?”

She adjusted the dimmer to fill the room in starker light, bracing, and the desk chair answered on her behalf with a creak as she lifted her weight from it to open the door.  Dread permeated her heart as she stepped into the threshold with a clammy hand still on the knob.  In the silence, it took several seconds before she could raise her meek eyes to his.  The face she met was not the darkened, scowling countenance of the Byronic hero she’d imagined; Ron’s visage, perhaps shaded in uncertainty to counteract its enhanced pallor, was otherwise unaltered.

“Are you all right?”

His tone conveyed that he had not analyzed this to remotely the same extreme Margaret had, if he’d even given it more than a second thought before embarking on his planned evening.

Sure.”  Feeling short of breath and sickened by their resumed postures in the doorway, a déja-vu she could control, Margaret suggested they relocate to the living room.  Averting an instinct to go to the sofa, she sat timidly on the club chair like a child sent to the Principal’s office.  A chair for one could be safe, personal space for her.

“Wendy was here just briefly, then we went for dinner.  Pizza—seventy-five centimeters of it.  I have the leftovers here for you if you like.”

The simple act of kindness pressed her eyes from behind.

“Oh, that’s so nice of you.  I’m fine, though.”

“You did eat, then?”

No.  “Yeah.  But thanks.” Not wanting the gesture to be thought in vain, she added, “Maybe tomorrow for lunch.  Cold pizza’s always been a national favorite.”

“What were you up to tonight?”

“Oh, I just slept.  I’ve been really lethargic lately, and just taking advantage of the fact that I can.”

“You have appeared positively knackered.  I assume you’ve had some late nights studying.  That can take its toll.”

His words sound so sadly strained…forced.  “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to class in over a week now.  I never ditched class in high school or college, but, again, just finally realizing that I can, so I do.  It’s nice for a while to just be.  Whatever ‘being’ is.”

He rubbed his chin slowly between thumb and forefinger as speculation shadowed his piercing blue eyes.  “Well, you’re an adult.  I suppose you know what you’re doing.”

Not likely, but she was grateful he did not get didactic on her.  Still, she tried to salvage her studious reputation to an extent.

“Well, Ive still met with my project-mates, so they bring me up to speed.  A lot of this stuff is innate, or like something straight out of work experience, so I’m making good headway.”  This was half true; she had sporadically returned their phone calls and emailed bare-minimum contributions so at least their credits would’t be sabotaged.

“Interesting project?  Challenging?”

“Not really.”

Ron didn’t probe further, even though it was an area in which he himself had expertise; Margaret appreciated this in him, that he knew where to draw lines and let her be.  To a degree.

“What were you working on just now?”

“Huh?”

“You looked like you’d been at the desk writing.  In a notebook.  Documenting your stay here?”

Mm, sort of.  Just a blurb about something on my mind.”

“What is on your mind, may I ask?”

Shit, I handed him the perfect segue, garnished on a platter.

She was sincerely at a loss for what had come over her, remembering all the actions, but none of the motives, and she didn’t know where to even begin explaining something like that to her friend.  But she owed him a try.

“Not much.  I don’t know.”  She audibly expelled air from her lungs at the point of conceding defeat.  “Look…I’m…really, really sorry for my behavior earlier.  I don’t pretend to have an excuse.  I have reasons—I was tired and starting to feel positively nauseous.  But this doesn’t excuse me for my rudeness.  I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, you were a bit of a prat, weren’t you?  Rather unexpected.  What made you fancy laughing in hysterics like that?  Only to slam the door in my face all in a paddy the next instant?”

So he had thought about it.  Just took some classic British passive-aggressive beating around the bush to get down to it. “I’m really embarrassed; I’m not sure.  Did Wendy hear?”

His brows elevated. “Quite clearly, yes.  I believe that was the point, was it not?”

FuckBlame it on my hormones? “At the risk of making you uncomfortable, I think I’m approaching the end of my, you know, ‘cycle,’ so my estrogen levels are outta whack.”

“I comprehend the feminine chemical imbalance that occurs monthly, but, really now.”

This was a male attitude that never failed to royally tick off Margaret.  She lifted the tail from between her legs and automatically ignited.

“What the hell is with men being incapable of understanding that!  It would save your kind so much trouble if you’d just learn how to track a fucking calendar and know when to stay the hell away.”

Ron laughed through his teeth at the re-flaring of her incomprehensible temper.  “And what calendar is that?  How am I supposed to know your menstrual cycle, pray tell?”

“You could ask.”  Margaret realized this was an idiotic comeback.

“Oh, yes, quite right.”  He affected a Californian Valley Girl accent: “So, like, Margaret…when’s, like, your next period?  Need to borrow a sanitary towel?”

As funny as it was hearing the phrase “sanitary towel” articulated in an American accent, she was provoked.  “Well, hasn’t Wendy trained you to follow hers by now?  Or is she just bitchy all the time?”

“You’re out of line.”

Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.  And according to your own earlier statement, you don’t know Wendy.  So where do get off insulting her, offending me in the process?”

I was just making a joke.  I apologize that the humor doesn’t translate.”  The arrogant bitterness infusing her reply rendered the value of this apology null and void.

“What has come over you?”  She had never heard his voice raised before.

“This is getting all blown out of proportion.  I don’t even know where it started.  All I know is, I’m sorry for whatever misunderstanding is occurring right now.”

No, you’re not,” Ron repeated.  “Margaret, in just a matter of days, you have become a completely different person.”

Reflection:

And scene…well, to be honest in the midst of all these lies, that isn’t really the end of the scene, I just don’t want to give too much away about the plot and central conflict of the story.  In any case, beyond this point, Margaret shifts gears and becomes truthful to a fault, with more jabs below the belt.  But I will divulge what is hopefully apparent in this scene—Margaret’s emotions have become more erratic than usual, which, in all fairness to her, is just as perplexing for her as it is for us readers.  So, in her defense, when she tells Ron she isn’t sure what came over her earlier when she snapped at him, she really isn’t—nor does she understand why she’s becoming more disorganized and irresponsible.  However, she is not secure enough with herself to admit this to anyone just yet.  Rather than confront the possibility that there may be something psychologically imbalanced about her, she grasps for a commonplace explanation.

What is evident earlier in the scene is Margaret’s repetitious assurances that she’s “fine.”  Her motivations in this case also relate to her insecurity; she wants to hold up a brave face rather than show further vulnerability in front of someone she respects and in whose presence she just recently embarrassed herself.  This further explains why she half-lies about her coursework (she is taking a leave of absence to pursue summer professional development studies).  What is also going on here, though, is what I mentioned above about Margaret’s own confusion over why she’s acting the way she is lately.  In light of this, she is not only lying to Ron in this scene, but to herself.

When her temper begins to flare yet again, she spits out nasty comments (revealing her instability as well as tinge of jealousy over Wendy) and tries to backtrack by lying that she’s sorry; while he might not have noticed her dishonesty earlier, it is at this point Ron is able to call her out on it.  He knows she does not regret saying the spiteful things she does, and while it is offensive to him (and, oh boy, does it only get worse when the rest of the scene that is not posted here unfolds), his genuine concern encourages him to try to work through it with her.

One more white lie highlighted above centers on something Margaret wrote in her journal.  I’m not going to reveal what that’s all about, just that her deliberately vague response is likewise inhibited by her fear of revealing too much about herself that could be considered strange.

So that’s that for today.  I hope this dialogue comes across as natural and that the motivations underlying Margaret’s little lies do indeed say something about her character, regardless of whether it makes her sympathetic or not.  In closing, below is a tiny window into what the world might be like if nobody lied.  As it will reveal, lying is not an altogether bad thing in certain circumstances!


In the Beginning, There Was the Blank Page…

…or, these days, the blank computer screen.  Every true writer’s mind has a story just dying to get out of it, yet this doesn’t necessarily make getting started any easier.  Following up directly on my previous post regarding the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), one of the topics we addressed was beginnings, which cannot be more critical to a story, particularly if you want to get it published.

First of all, as far as how you begin to write each day, the key is:  1) ensuring that you do write every day, even if just a few sentences; and, 2) the authors leading the conference particularly advised us to write first thing in the morning.  That is when our heads can be freshest and leave us feeling for the rest of the day that we’ve already accomplished something massive (so you don’t have to feel guilty taking that nap 🙂 ).  While I wish I could discipline myself to haul my keester out of bed earlier than the minimum allowable time for getting ready for work, I have to admit I have my most significant rush of ideas in the morning as I shower, as though I’m massaging them out of me noggin as I shampoo my hair.  I always hate that I have to leave for work soon after then, just when I’m in the groove and risk losing the momentum by the time I return home drained from the daily toil.

As far as the actual beginning of our story or novel, we must note that the first chapter (indeed, first page) is the “imprint of the entire book.” The sense of place and voice established in that first page predicts the rest of the book.  My tutors also stressed the impact of including a sense of smell right from the getgo, as it creates a lingering impression unlike the other senses (and is unfortunately one of the most underutilized, as I’ve mentioned before in my “Smell No Evil” post).

With regard to place, we were advised to give places names, even if it’s a fake name to anonymize an actual place.  In this way, a place, if prevalent enough to the story, can become a character in itself.  Closely related in terms of setting, the time period in which our story takes place should be implied well enough to give a clear sense, yet we don’t have to preach to the reader when exactly it is.

With regard to the sample of best-selling novels we read in preparation for the course, we evaluated the following common denominators that we noted across each of their beginnings:

– Drama or sense of impending danger

– Character (be it the main character’s name or an archetypes to be represented throughout)

– Setting (again, the sense of time and place)

– Conflict (at least a sense of the issue at the crux of the story)

– “Filmic”—i.e., achieves ready visualization and engagement through drama and descriptive language

Finally, we may have a strong temptation to overly explain some aspect of the story right out the gate, be it the character, setting, conflict, etc.  To avoid this, we need to give our reader credit and exercise restraint—we can always introduce this information in a creative way later on.

I do believe I am at the end of discussing beginnings, so meet me here next time for a few words on dialogue.


My Inner Critical Beeyotch

Today is one of those days when I feel discouraged to write, even if simply in response to a basic prompt as practice. What I should be doing is working on my project or at least expanding on my previous blog post with the level of characterization detail I had omitted the first time around. But I don’t seem to be, do I? It’s not standard writer’s block, though…my ideas for my project are there and swarming around and ready to be written…yet there’s this paralysis in me noggin induced by insecurity in the face of all that’s been written by all the writers out there.

Why does this happen?  I throw the question out there because I know I am not alone in this.  How do I know?

Well, before I answer that question, I think what first triggered all this today was reading Waiter Rant on the bus home from work.  This should be a non-threat book in that it’s a nonfiction account of a guy’s experience waiting tables, something I should be able to read without comparing it to my own writing style and content (which has become a nasty occurrence whenever I read novels).  The author is a good writer, though; he’s not just ranting and chronicling like it’s Dear Diary and he just wants to catalog humorous facts—he actually has a flair for descriptive and figurative language that illuminates the people and incidents involved to a very engaging degree, and he structures it effectively.  And then suddenly it does become relevant content when he’s recalling a conversation with a fellow waiter who comments on his talent for writing, as evidenced by his blog of same name, the very one that eventually became the book due to its massive popularity.

Which reminds me of the close-to-zero viewership of my own blog, which then makes me question why anyone would ever want to read it .  Nor my stories or ongoing book project.  But it’s all fairly new and more for me anyway, so since when do I even care, right?  Right.

With that assurance, I then come home tonight and happen to stumble on other blogs that truly reduce me to clearance at 8 cents per dozen.  The cyber-smorgasbord of blogs to be had addressing the same content as both my professional and personal blogs is intimidating—all the creative talent scattered far and wide sowing their seeds so quickly and with such frequency and making it seem effortless.  I automatically feel inferior again…

Seriously, it’s one of those days that feels like everything keeps coming back to reflection on the art of writing, but not in the empowering way.

And that was just today’s insecurity blast.  At other times it comes on that occasion when my otherwise delightful immersing of self in a bookshop–a moment that is one of hand-clapping and salivating wonderment over all the literary possibilities my fingertips might fondle on those bookshelves–becomes instead like a swift slap in the face by every hardcover and paperback to be had there, taunting me from their holier-than-thou pedestals as if to say, “We made it up here.  You’re still down there, and your writing is still just in your My Documents folder on a Mac.”  (Yes, the books are quite bitchy when I’m in this frame of mind)  Or I read the book jacket of a best-selling author’s latest novel and freak out that it follows a similar theme in a similar environment to the tale that I’m presently weaving, making me feel stupidly unoriginal and, even worse, like I’m crafting a version that could only be sub-par to this writer who has already had her first book adapted to a major motion picture.

It’s like looking at everyone else’s success as it accentuates my singular failure, and there is nothing more detrimental to the process of writing than letting that creep in and seize hold of your grey matter and squish it between its fingers.

So to get back to my earlier question of how I know I’m not alone in this—and, more importantly, that it’s okay—just as I’m revisiting Twitter tonight and esteem-crushingly marveling at everyone else’s links to genius, I came across this little pearl tweeted by Electric Literature, a blog post by Maud Newton.  Posting this just yesterday, what she addresses is exactly what I’m talking about above—the crippling insecurity one feels as compared to their favorite writers.  Oh gaawwd, I don’t even dare tread that path…it’s bad enough that I’ve come to measure myself against amateur bloggers…so needless to say, it’s very encouraging to see how this is a pervasive issue for writers, among both the published and the aspiring.

So I read this and I still manage to feel paralyzed, first looking at my writing project to see–if I’m not inclined to create new stuff–if I can at least read through what I did write over the weekend and revise it.  Not feelin’ it.  So then I click out of Word and onto this blog to either embellish on the character sketch of a real person that I initiated a few days ago or sketch myself as a character, as the next page of Room to Write directs.  Yet, again…nothin’.  With reluctance I then turn to the following page to just get the 3-Strikes-I’m-Out over with so I can shut down the computer and sulk behind a book to just leave it to the professionals and what they’ve already written when…aha.

Yes, I say to you that, lo and behold, page 13 is an A-Haaaa!! sort of serendipitous moment for me.

I am an avid observer of coincidence who becomes increasingly convinced by the day that there is, in fact, no such thing…so imagine my inner gasp when I see that page 13 of Room to Write involves confronting our CRITICAL INNER VOICE.  As Bonni Goldberg says here, “A critical inner voice taunts you as you create. […] The best that most of us can do is acknowledge it and keep writing anyway.”  Folks, I will delve into this today as an exercise/exorcism:  exercising my creative confidence as I exorcise the demon of doubt from my psyche.

The Prompt:

Page 13 of Room to Write, then, asks us to convert our inner critic into a character.  Consider its gender, appearance, smell, and favorite writers (if it doesn’t think that we‘re good, who is?).

Response:

My inner voice is female.  At the risk of stereotyping (for the record, I’m a female, so reserve the right to generalize my kind based in my own observances of self), I say this because she has bitchy tendencies to coincide with her vulnerable questioning of me.  She needs me to be secure, support her, and in this need comes a desperation and doubt that I can.  So, instead of inspiring me, she tears me down, tries to hurt me to make her seem stronger, smarter.  Classic insecure female, in my opinion.  Next, she’ll be asking me if I think her ass looks fat in those jeans.  Well, it does.  She is pale and sweaty and pimply with puss oozing out and her posture is horrendously arched.  She quivers like a nervous over-bred lap dog and would jump at her own shadow if she ever did dare step into the light.  She yanks on my sleeves to pull my hands away from the keyboard and dangles carrot-shaped published works within my vision but outside of my reach to reinforce that which I cannot have.  She is bug-eyed in Coke-bottle thick glasses, deteriorating my sight with her own myopia.  Her mousy brown, thinning, yet wiry tresses with the texture of pubic hair strike like foot-long lightening away from her head, and I can smell the swampy sourness of her body odor when overactive glands from overactive pessimism spit out their secretions to moisten her dirtied linen blouse.  Her preoccupation with bullying me absorbs her time away from tending to herself, though when she does indulge herself with her books (storing up on intellectual ammo to pierce and puncture me with later), among them are Fitzgerald, Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Rowling, Niffenegger, Maguire.

Reflection:

Ick.  Nasty little broad, isn’t she?  Well, that felt good.  This feels better.  I just described someone I loathe and would never aspire to be, so why should I be so concerned about what this chick would think of me?  She clearly has more problems of her own.  So step off, ya floozy, and leave me be with my writing.

With that activity and brief reflection complete, I’d like to close this post with 2 points of inspiration that Maud Newton’s blog directed me to.  First, in the post itself, she gives a precious word of advice—basically, keep a crappy novel that you’ve read nearby, always, so just when you’re feeling down, you can skim through it and remember how crappy that book is that still managed to get published.  Second, her post provides a link to an LA Times article, which in turn quotes Ted Solotaroff from his essay, “Writing in the Cold:  The First Ten Years”:

“Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Inner Critical Voice.

*


Character Sketch (Part I)


The Prompt:

Page 11 of Room to Write gives us some practice in developing character description.  Certainly, in creating our characters, they are not necessarily people  that we know in real life.  We might incorporate aspects of real people into our envisioning of them, but the remainder may lie sheerly in our imagination.  To ensure that we are offering the proper level of description to these characters, then, today we are to have a go at describing someone we already know–either closely or arm’s-length–with whom we have regular contact.

This will be an exercise in discovering what it is we actually notice about people first.  I’m sure you’ve taken a personality quiz at some point that profiles you based on what you notice first when you look at someone (e.g., eyes, teeth, hair, etc.), and this will be similar, just taking it to another descriptive level.  In identifying what it is that we automatically look to in a person, we will identify what it is that we automatically describe in a character.

Chances are, we’re limiting our characters in some way.  So, after I write this, I’m going to reflect on not only what I did write about but also what I didn’t.

Response:

His eyes are blue, though I still sometimes question if they’re at all green…must depend on the lighting or what he’s wearing.  It isn’t a crystal, cold, icy blue, but a muted, soft one that I’d feel comfortable dipping a toe in, then submerging into fully.  They’re kind eyes that don’t penetrate with menace or even cloud over in sorrow, but they surely twinkle when he’s happy.  They’re eyes that I can see looking exactly the same, with the same good humor, when looking out of a far more aged face.  His face now, though, is young, though showing the lines of maturity, of laughing, of squinting in the rays of the sun or the gleaming fresh powder of a snowy mountain.  His skin is sensitive to dryness in the air and wind-burn when rushing down the slopes or bouncing along the pavement.  It will redden then flake, so he moisturizes it often.  Left to its own devices in the absence of the natural elements, it is fair skin to go with his fair hair and fluffy fair eyebrows.  His blond is more sandy, darker in the winter months when shielded from the sun’s bleaching effects, and becoming increasingly peppered with grey on the sides, which is giving him that handsome, distinguished presence that befalls all lucky men who retain their hair and physique, the fellows like Cary Grant and Sean Connery who only get better with age like a fine wine.  He’s a man who can wear a beard and not look unkempt; the whiskers grow in dark and give a tanned shadow to his fair skin and protect it from the irritation of the daily shave, though it is only on holiday when he’ll let it grow this way.  Otherwise, he’s the clean-shaven type, keeping his hair trimmed close to his neck in the back and parted neatly at the top, though in casual circumstances will lightly gel it into a more naturally tousled look.  Even when casual, however, he’ll wear a buttoned shirt and leather loafers, with denims or khakis in between.  He’ll smarten up a day of air travel with a wool blazer, and every day at the office sets that bar high with his well-tailored suits and the rainbow’s spectrum of Charles Tyrwhitt shirts accented with cufflinks and ties of unexpected patterns and hues.  His answer to the proverbial male-profiling question is undisputedly “boxers,” and his socks have found new voice through multi-colored stripes.  He’s a man who does not need his wife to dress him in the morning.

Reflection:

Okay, so that’s my first pass on describing a real, living, breathing human being in my life.  What are the things I noticed first in my mind’s eye?

Face/Head:

– Eyes (from their color to how they reflect the temperament behind them)

– Skin (its physical description, including external influences that portray one of the man’s favorite hobbies–skiing, running, and, apparently, moisturizing)

– Hair (primarily physical description, which to extent reflects personality)

Body:

– Clothing (again, physical description that may reveal underlying personality)

So what didn’t I describe, then, that I could have?

– what his smile looks like

– body physique

– the way his body moves

– what his voice sounds like

– how he smells

– what he feels like

– nervous habits

– ANY habits–the way he behaves in different circumstances

– sense of humor and other personality traits

See anything that I’m missing?  Please list in your comments if so.  More importantly, give this a try yourself!


Dialogues of Destiny


On page 10 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg informs us that, whether we’re intending to explicitly address it or not, our views on “destiny” inevitably come through in our writing.  I suppose on now considering this, it does seem avoiding it would be nearly impossible, as such a perspective would be firmly rooted in our worldview and how we approach setting our life goals.  Whether our belief in destiny is definitive or something we’re exploring, our characters will ultimately portray that belief or exploration themselves, even if to the contrary as our little Devil’s Advocates.  As a matter of fact, in one of the more recent chapters I’ve written, my protagonist does outright discuss her views on destiny with another character, so perhaps I was destined to get this writing prompt so soon thereafter, to help me revisit and develop that concept further.

The Prompt:

As for what today’s prompt does indeed ask us to do, we have two choices:

1)  Write about “destiny” for two pages; or,

2)  Write a dialogue between characters  from one or more of our pieces discussing their respective beliefs in destiny.

I’m opting for numero deux.  However, my spin on it is going to be as such–in homage to the recent passing of JD Salinger, my character will be speaking to none other than Catcher in the Rye‘s own Holden Caulfield.  I’m also going to conceal my character’s actual name for demented reasons known only to me.  Let’s call her, “Margaret” for now.

Response:

Seated on parallel wooden benches in the echoing open hall of a grand urban train station, Margaret is no longer able to ignore the penetrating glare  narrowly skimming her shoulder, fired from a bench directly in front of her.  Normally, she would retreat into the safe cavern of her shyness around strangers or move seats altogether, but she senses something troubled in this young man’s gaze akin to her own melancholy.  He doesn’t appear threatening; he is quite clean-cut and looking smart in a well-tailored overcoat.  It is only the red hunting hat that he dons that signals a mild alarm that something about him might be off.

Overwhelmed in fearful curiosity as to what his attention may be directed to at her side, Margaret summons the confidence to speak.

“Are you all right?”

Perhaps the ear flaps of  his hunting cap muffle the sound from reaching his notice.

“Are you okay?”

The young man’s eyes dart up with a start as he recognizes he’s being addressed.

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, I know I’m being random, but I was just wondering if there’s something near me that’s bothering you.  Hopefully, it’s not me.”

“How’d you be bothering me just sitting there?” he notes, trying to affect a blank expression, though unable to conceal an innocent bewilderment.

“I don’t know.”  Margaret reddens, feeling silly that she brought this all upon herself.  “I guess I might remind of you someone you don’t like.”  That sounds logical enough, she thinks.

Becoming conscious of his hat, Holden takes his turn to flush, and as he slides it back genteelly off his short, unexpectedly graying hair with his left hand, he extends his right over the back-rest to invite Margaret to shake it.

“Holden.  Nice to meet you.”

He’s a gentleman; and soft skin. “Margaret.”

“Sorry if I creeped you out and all.  It’s nothing to do with you.  I’m not a madman or anything, I was only looking at the graffiti.”  He gestures to a word carved in the wood a mere couple inches from her right arm.  “It’s nothing to do with you.”

Margaret interprets this repetition as a polite way of telling her to butt out.  “No, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to pry.”

Picking up on her embarrassment, Holden replies, “No, don’t worry, I don’t think you’re being nosy or anything.  I shouldn’ta been looking like I was staring at you and all.  I mean, I don’t mean to be rude.”

Seeking to get past this mutual awkwardness, Margaret rotates her head and leans forward to better read the carving.  “Destino,” she reads aloud.  Huh.

“Means ‘destiny,’ I guess.”  When Margaret doesn’t speak, Holden nervously rambles on.  “You know, I hate graffiti.  I hate messing up stuff that’s supposed to look nice.  Just the idea that some phony would sit there and have a goddam knife to pull out and slice into this nice varnished wood that’s here for everybody else too depresses the hell outta me.”  On observing her furrowing brow:  “Pardon me, ma’am.  Excuse my language.”

Conscious of her expression, Margaret tries to shake it off flippantly.  “Oh!  No, no.  Not at all.  Takes a lot to offend me, trust me.  I was just thinking about what you said.  I totally understand.”

Encouraged, Holden continues.  “It’s just that I see this stuff everywhere, and it depresses me, if you want to know the truth.  I saw a goddam ‘F*** you’ written on a wall in my little sister’s school, for Chrissake.  I hate that.  It’s lousy to write something like that in a kid’s school.”

Margaret grins inwardly at Holden’s critical cursing about cursing, and  she finds her interest piqued by this complex youth approximately half her age.  It seems he might be game for waxing philosophical for a brief while, at least to kill time.

“Well, I’m not a fan of graffiti either, but you have to admit this is a nicer form of it.   I mean, maybe the person wasn’t ‘phony’ at all, but seriously contemplating what that word means.  Maybe they were celebrating that their destiny had just been fulfilled, or praying so.”

“Believing in destiny is phony.  There isn’t any such thing, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a goddam phony bastard himself.”

“You’re quite cynical for your age!  I take it you see yourself as the master of your own fate, then?”

“I don’t think I’m the master of anything.  We’re all stuck falling through this phony world, laughing at jokes we don’t even think are funny and taking an exam or doing work that we’re brainwashed to believe is important and stuff, and for what?  Money?  Reputation?  Pay a dime to dance with a pretty girl?  None of it adds up to a pile of beans when all’s said and done.  We work ourselves to the bone to end up dead, and then what?  We can’t take it with us.  No, I’m no master of anything.”  Just then, Holden looks off into a realm of thought invisible to Margaret and quiets to almost a whisper.  “I’d like to be.  I think I could be.  If I could just catch those crazy kids when they came falling.  I could be the master of that.  I really think I could.”

Trying her best at interpretation without being too invasive, Margaret asks, “You’d like to help those that can’t help themselves.  The ones that Destiny hasn’t been kind to?”

“I know it sounds crazy, like I’m some sort of madman and maybe I am, but I can’t stop thinking about those kids.”  He raises his red hat back to his head as though unconsciously and pulls it over his ears snugly.  “Goddam graffiti.”

Though she has no clue what kids he’s talking about nor where they’re falling from or why, empathetic soul that she is, Margaret attempts to soothe Holden by relating the best way she can.  “I feel that way, too, sometimes.  That life can be random, and we just have to keeping rolling with the current with our heads above water as best we can.  But overall I think that flow might still be taking us somewhere, with or without our consent.  Or not.  I feel for others’ disillusionment, too, and would like to think someone would be there to catch me if I fell.”

She doesn’t expect it when Holden looks her directly in the eye just then.

“Too late,” he shakes his head.  “But don’t worry, because it’s too late for me too.”

Margaret is perplexed at the seeming sage quality in this kid.  “How so?”

“We’ve grown up.  We can’t ride the carousel anymore.”

Margaret lowers her eyes.  “I don’t think we should give up on ourselves just yet.  I’m not giving up on me, anyways.  I think Fate has something in store for me yet.”

“So you think you can still do anything about it?”

“Yeah.  Well, I’d like to think so.  I mean, I do believe in free will.  More than just tossing my hands up to the skies and saying, ‘Ah well.  So be it.'”

“You’d sounded more like you believed in destiny before.”  Holden is looking at her skeptically now, sizing up her capacity for phoniness.

“I do.  I guess I’ve just always figured we still operate ‘freely’ within that larger structure already put in place—by God, or whatever you might or apparently might not believe in.  What I’m trying to say is that I personally think we have an ultimate destiny, even if the paths we take to get there and the experiences along the way are for the most part controlled by us.  There might be those ‘little events’ planted here and there for a purpose, then, like occasional guideposts or guardrails to keep us on track.”

Peering at her stoically from beneath his cap, Holden does not look convinced.

Margaret presses on with the proverbial college-try.  “I remember reading somewhere, in someone’s blog, that that was their theory on deja-vu, that what we see that feels so familiar are actually signs that we’re on target…like on some level we’ve already lived out our destiny, and what we see as deja-vu is the playback, in brief clips, to show us that what we’re doing, at that exact point in time, is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing and where.”

“I don’t know what a ‘blog’ is, but that’s an interesting thought.  It really is, no kidding.  I get those sometimes, too, those deja-vus, but I don’t tell anybody about them or anything because those Pencey crooks’d think I was a damn sissy and knock my lights out.   They really would.  But still, I get them.  The deja-vus, I mean.  I figure they only mean that I’m crazy and all.  Like my brain is on the fritz.”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what they are, but I think it’s safe to say they’re not a sign of insanity.  Whatever those ‘Pencey crooks’ say, it happens to everyone, even them, whoever they are.”

“They don’t matter anymore.  Never did, really.  You’ll probably think I’m crazy for saying this and all, but it’s my kid sister that’s got everything figured out, if you really want to know the truth.”  Holden instantly appears to glow from within at the mention.  “That kid kills me, she really does.  You would like her.  I mean, it’s not like she’s perfect or anything, but she’s really likable.  Old Phoebe’s the real deal.”

Margaret smiles kindly at the sibling sentimentality.  “So, do you think Phoebe would believe in anything like Destiny?  Does she not need you to catch her?”

The corners of his mouth turn down a perceptible degree.  “No.  She doesn’t need me for anything at all.  All I do is let her down, but I don’t know what I’d do without her, though, that’s for sure.  That kid’s pretty much got it figured out, she really does.  She’s not going to need to rely on Destiny or anything because she’ll make her own.  She’ll grab the goddam reins of that carousel horse and get it to race around the other way.  I really think she could do it, too.  If she wanted to and all.”

“Holden, if you can believe that of anyone, you can’t be a total fatalist.  Surely you can believe it of yourself, then.”

Holden eyes Margaret up and down, only just then noticing that she’s an attractive woman.  He always did like them older, but this time he isn’t feeling sexy about it.  He isn’t quite sure what he’s feeling, except that it’s the same sensation that dissipates through him when he is hanging out with his sister.

“Old Phoebe,” he says, pretending to ignore Margaret’s insight.  “She kills me.  She really does.  If I could stuff it all and put it behind a pane of glass, I’d do it.  I would.  That’s the problem with Destiny, you know.  She moves life forward, closer to being older and supposedly wiser and all that crap.  No, we’re all just tumbling through space, even Old Phoebe.  Some’ll get a softer landing than others, is all.”

Holden does not so much as jolt a fraction of a millimeter when the loud speaker unexpectedly blares its announcement of a train ready to depart its platform.  Margaret, conversely, is thrown from the jumbling and intersecting thoughts coursing through her mind in the wake of Holden’s words, the speaker’s static-y proclamation slicing through her reflection with familiarity.

“Oh my God.”  She leaps to standing.  “My train.  Holden, I have to go.”

Margaret knows she needs to flee with hyper-speed to make her train, yet the morose energy surrounding Holden is compelling.

Holden, young gentleman that he is, likewise rises onto his feet and removes his hat with a modest bow.  “Ma’am.”

“Margaret.”

“Margaret.  Meeting you just now has been sort of like–“

“Destiny.  I know.  Holden?”

He extends his right hand out for her to shake.  She makes a motion to meet it when the loud speaker bombards them again.  Distracted from thought, she operates on instinct and embraces him firmly.  On reluctantly disconnecting, she sways back and, on pivoting on her heel toward the direction of her platform, she rewinds the movement only to seize the red hat out of Holden’s hand.  Reshaping it with her fist, she finds solace in the body heat it has retained.  She briefly brings it to her lips to offer a fond peck–closing her eyes to inhale its fibers simultaneously–before affixing it back on Holden’s head.

On resuming her pivot, she turns her head counter to the spin to ask again, “Holden?”

“Yeah.”

“Catch me.  If you can.”

Holden, the warmth of his hunting hat trickling down to consume his entire being, sucks at his lower lip for a second.

“I’ll try.  I really will.”

He offers Margaret a quasi-salute behind her back as he watches her meld into the masses that carry her like a current toward her next destination.

Reflection:

* sigh *
Rest in peace, Mr. Salinger.
Find peace in unrest, Holden.  (And you, too, “Margaret”)


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