Thursday, September 3, 2009

Noodles And The Hard Journey Inward

A few years ago, I was part of a writer's group that included a man I'll call "Noodles." Noodles was new to creative writing. He was an older man, had finished one career in engineering, and was spending his time after early retirement on writing a book. What was this book about, you ask? That is a bit difficult to answer.

Noodles got a divorce about four years prior to when he joined the writer's group. He was literally thrown out of the house with only a few boxes of things and his car. So, he decided to take a road trip, and during that road trip, he went on a personal journey of learning how to date again.

So, if you asked Noodles what his book was about, he'd say that it was about how his wife had wronged him, and how he had to learn to be romantic and charm women again at an older age.

But, if you asked anyone else in the group what the book was about, we'd say it was about a man who neglected his wife, and how, after she left him, he travelled around the country treating other women as objects.

Why was there a discrepancy? Well, that was because Noodles believed that he could hide himself in his writing and depict a more likable man than he was. And, in moments, his main character was likable and charming. But, sometimes when Noodles didn't intend it, his true view of the world peeked through, and that's because, try as we might, very few of us can keep ourselves out of our stories.

Unfortunately, this means that, writing is even harder than we thought. Not only do we have to figure out how to create compelling plots and characters, not only do we have to learn all the rules and then understand how to break them, not only do we have to sacrifice our time--we also have to delve deeply into ourselves and confront our demons. We have to know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our biases, our flaws, so that we really know what we are putting on the page.

When you read, can't you tell when a writer is confident or scared or angry? Can't you tell when a writer has done her or his research on the topic, or when a writer is holding back or being completely honest? Even if we don't consciously attempt to write about ourselves, we reveal ourselves in our writing, no matter what kind of writing we do.

For me, that's one of the scariest things about writing, and one of the most beautiful parts of it. I love feeling connected, not only to the book, but also to the writer. I also believe this is why I tend to admire most every writer I've ever met. If they are even a little serious about what they do, chances are they have had to look inside themselves and understand themselves, which tends to make them more pleasant to be around.

This is just another reason why we should be proud of ourselves as writers. Often, it's more than just technique, emotion, and creativity. Writing is also a journey within ourselves, an internal cleansing that is necessary if we want to have any sort of control over these awkward things we call words.

So, if you are so inclined, take a moment and think about the character you play in your story. Can you see this character clearly? Can you see this character the ways other will?

24 comments:

  1. Whoa! Great and insightful post.

    I think it's probably close to impossible not to include parts of ourselves in our characters. I also think there needs to be a balance of beliefs in our characters.

    Balance? Well, every character in a single book can, but shouldn't, have the same viewpoints. Every character can, but shouldn't, be a staunch supporter of a single political party, religion, or stand on the soapbox and rant against the injustice of today's society. If all our characters are alike . . . well, pretty boring reading, if you ask me.

    I always find it interesting when my friends and I get in a heated debate over a subject. Those debates show that, while we have similar interests, we also have divisions among ourselves that, at times, really make us look at the world with different eyes.

    The characters in our books should provide similar perspectives.

    Do my characters show my personal viewpoints on certain subjects? Yes. Are some of the characters a bit snarky? Well, yes, they are, thank you very much. But . . . some of the characters have total different viewpoints and are just as passionate about those viewpoints as the characters similar to me are about theirs. Oh, and there's a snarky character here and there, but not everywhere.

    So, yeah, writing is hard because we (I) must present a balanced view of the world my characters inhabit. That's not always easy.

    Again, great post. Food for thought on this rainy morning!

    S

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  2. Davin, thank you for covering for me today! And with such a great post, too. I'm thrilled!

    I love this post. This made me realize one thing I've never realized before - why I like to be around writers, and what I missed about being around them when I left college.

    You are so right when you talk about writers having to delve deep inside themselves, and doing this in such a way as to create characters and new worlds, makes the writer look inside themselves that NO other way I can.

    So because of that, I can relate to writers more than I can relate to others in many respects. It goes the other way, too, that I relate to some of my non-writer friends in ways I can never relate to writers, but I sure did miss this interaction after college, this knowing what others have gone through - the weird soul searching to pull ourselves apart and unconsciously put some of those pieces inside other characters. I mean, who else does that!?

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  3. Scott: Great comment! I think I'm reading between the lines here when I say you're defending your characters from being YOU. I do the same thing, because honestly, I have only consciously poured myself into one character.

    It was a frightening, even horrific, soul-changing experience to see myself that way. Because she isn't a nice character, and I hate and love her at the same time. In fact, I had to do this to find things out about myself, and this was the only way to do it. My poor husband went on the journey with me. I spent lots of nights crying in his lap, wondering if I was her. I really should do a post about this sometime, and how it changed me.

    I think that although we might not see it, the mere fact that we have to step inside these characters that we've created, and see things the way they see them, we're still looking through our own eyes, and that's going to color, even just slightly, or sometimes a huge amount, how our story reads, how our characters act, etc.

    In that respect I see exactly what Davin's saying about our stories showing us possibly more than we ever want them to. It's scary and beautiful at the same time.

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  4. You post some interesting considerations in this post. I don't think we as writers can keep ourselves out of the characters. Many of mine share my sense of humor, for example. But, as there are many aspects to a person, there can be many characters in them as well.

    If I had to look for myself in my book, I'd probably be my antagonist. He's not a bad guy, but the MC and her friends are doing good things by going outside the rules, and he's trying to enforce those rules, not to be mean, but because the rules are good, too. I've usually been the one trying to work inside the rules instead of outside it.

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  5. Dominique: Interesting about your antagonist. I love it when things are switched around and we root for the "wrongdoers" in a story even though we know better. Good sign of a great storyteller!

    In my current WIP, I'm entering the head of a 50 year old male. That's been a weird journey, but I've learned one thing: It doesn't matter who I'm creating as a character - they will always reflect me somehow, whether I like it or not.

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  6. Davin, you really hit a nerve with this one. It's an extraordinary post.
    I just realized recently that many of my main characters tend to be people who make it on their own or, in a more derogatory word, are loners. And I realize this is because I am something of a tough survivor myself. There's nothing wrong with that sort of character as long as I, the writer, see the possibilities of growth and interaction for each one. As Lady Glamis says, it's beautiful and scary what we uncover as we open ourselves up in writing.

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  7. Davin, these past few posts have really got me thinking—why we do it; what makes us keep doing it; how we define ourselves; what are our expectations? You articulated many of my own struggles.

    Re: today’s post, I have a good deal of clarity when I envision the ‘characters I play’, however, I don’t know if I can objectively see them, the way others will. That’s what makes it scary—what is my work actually divulging? Sometimes I’m alarmed when I reread a part, written in the throes of some personal upheaval. Although I’m not necessarily comfortable leaving it for the world to see, I can’t bring myself to hit ‘delete’.
    How well do people actually know us from what we write?

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  8. Tricia, You make an excellent point, and one I'd like to stress. There is NOTHING wrong with the character you portray. I just think that it's very important to strive to understand that character. I think we grow when we know what we are actually writing, and that involves knowing ourselves. I'm glad this hit a nerve. :)

    jbchicoine, I think it is actually a great sign that you are feeling that fear when you let your writing out into the world. That shows that you are daring to expose yourself and that you are conscious of the consequences. For me, that fear is how I know I've written something important.

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  9. Lady Glaims - while there are parts of me in every character I create, there is one character that is so much like me . . . well, it's kind of frightening. I've had to step away from telling that story for a while because of all the roller-coaster emotions associated with the story I want (perhaps need, in a cathartic way) to tell.

    S

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  10. JB: I think people see what they want to see, and that's a scary thought, too.

    Also, I think it's important to remember that readers bring themselves to the table, too. They will project themselves into a character that has parts of you and parts of them and parts of who knows what else in them. I think this is why storytelling and reading is absolutely essential to being human.

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  11. Scott: I know. It's freaky, but essential, isn't it? This is the reason I came back to my novel over 10 years after writing it. I simply could not get that character out of my head. And after having a child, which is something she deals with, I had to rewrite the book and find out more what she was about. I had to know. And it took a long time.

    The weird thing is that I'm planning on taking this character's POV out of the book! But not because she's too much like me. Her story will still be in there. I just had to tell it from her POV and get it right before I could take her out.

    Good luck with yours! I know how difficult it is.

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  12. I took the 'write what you know' advice to heart when I started my current MS. My main character is me at twenty-five (where I worked at the time, my frustrations, my family issues) and then as the story delves into a fantasy world, I explore what I think is a deeper, darker part of myself, one that remains hidden most of the time.

    Writing has definitely become a process of introspection, one that is both fun and painful. I've tried to keep my characters as real as possible, as my goal is to write a fantasy that is different from most, dealing more with the internal journey of the characters and the personal growth that occurs when they are faced with fantastic, and sometimes horrific, situations.

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  13. Awesome post and a little bit scary when you really start thinking about it. I sure hope my character turns out the way I intended. Definitely something to thin about. Great post!

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  14. I don't know if I can tell when writers are holding themselves back when I read their work, but as a writer, I know there is a whole lot of me out there, in various characters. (In my MG novel, I think I'm in all but one or two of the characters, scary.)

    I don't consciously pour myself into so many characters, I usually identify with one main one, but little bits and pieces of me come out in the thinking or attitudes of others.

    The scary and painful parts come from hearing the reactions to those attitudes that I hold, maybe subconsciously, and have them described back to me in very negative terms.

    You're right, no matter how distant we try to be, or what we try to hide in our writing, things seep out. And when the reactions don't jive, boy, even more soul searching.

    Thanks for another excellent post.

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  15. Davin, this is such a great post. I know how I see my characters and I know how I want my readers to see my characters.

    I think I will look at my stories in a different light now. There is no way to keep ourselves completely out of our characters, but I certainly don't want Robyn getting in the way either. :)

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  16. I am, I admit, more amused than I should be about Noodle's lack of self-awareness. But in his defense I will say that it looks like he was being honest in his writing even if he wasn't being honest in the real world.

    It's a tricky thing, this writing. In my current book, I'm writing about people who are doing bad things for personal gain, and the only way I have been able to understand those characters is to look at my own life and exmanine the moments where I have been selfish, cruel and uncaring. So in that respect, there's a lot of me in the book, and it's a lot of me that's uncomfortable to think about. I'd rather focus on beautiful language than on humanity's uglier traits, but I think that, as Davin says, when we are uncomfortable with our subject matter, we might be writing about something important. And oddly enough, once you get your own personal ugliness onto the page, it's exhilarating in its dangerousness and liberating in its honesty. Who knew sitting alone with pen and paper could be so exciting?

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  17. Great post! People have told me that they can hear me in my books. But really, it's just the online voice I choose to put forward. I do think there is a small part of me in every single word I write. It's only natural.

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  18. Morgan, your description of your book sounds fascinating! I hope I get to read some of your writing sometime.

    B. J., Yeah, it's scary for me too. I recently published my first piece that was officially called "memoir". That was also quite frightening!

    Yat-Yee, things seeping out is a great way to put it. Even though hardly any of my characters have the same statistical profile that I do, the worlds we create are based on how we see our own world--at least until we are as good as Shakespeare.

    Robyn, I hope you'll let Robyn get in the way! One of the things I love most about reading is learning about the writer by inspecting the places where they let themselves slip through. Something that is always fun for me to think about is that the ideas of every character in the story had to be the ideas of the one writer at some point, in some way.

    Scott, Yeah, I felt a little bad for Noodles and at the same time I admired him for putting out his life story. That pen and paper is definitely exciting!

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  19. I started out giggling at 'noodles'...just the name made me giggly. But, by the end I felt sorry for the guy (and his x). Sad. Still, you are right that there is something to be learned here. We do shine forth in our writing. Both by what we choose to write as well as how we go about it.

    Uplifting stuff, Davin. thanks.

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  20. Robyn: That's a good point about yourself getting in the way. I think we can go extreme either, letting ourselves get too much in the story, and keeping ourselves too much out!

    Elana: I think it's only natural too. Since you're choosing those words, they have to be tinted with something of yourself.

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  21. Excellent post, Davin--the comments too. As I think your post illustrates, probably because so much writing--and possibly reading--happens on subconscious levels, writers are sometimes unaware of what they've written. I've become such an expert on myself (:-S), and I like to think I'm usually aware of my words. However, it's true that sometimes I'm unable to see what I've between-the-lines said until long after I've said it, as I need more distance.

    Occasionally, this has informed me about me, the way Lady has described, and that's been very upsetting. It has ruined my life at times. BUT, I've trained myself to stop being afraid of myself. No matter if it's extremely personal, my art still isn't me; it's my art. It's like a piece of sprouted fruit from me, the tree; my artwork is my offspring and we're related, but we're still separate entities. If I don't like something I've created, it isn't the end of my world.

    I've always said I think everyone's writing really is personal, just maybe the degree of personal varies. And because of this, writers are better off accepting they must know themselves, and then figuring out how to convey their selves. Sometimes people must accept the confines of the human brain, they can only achieve so much, can only work within their physical limitations. Know them and make the best of them. I'm always looking for and then hopefully conveying the universal inside the personal--or at least the universal through the personal.

    But how your work will be received by others seems so very difficult to predict. I've stopped guessing at this, and instead continue worrying about whether my writing accurately and clearly represents what I'm seeing inside my head--and maybe persuading some generic hypothetical "reader" (I imagine myself as) to appreciate what I've written. That's all I can do. The rest is up to...out there.

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  22. The Incredible String VestSeptember 3, 2009 at 1:25 PM

    Seems there's the reader, the text and the author, and every piece of writing contains these components. They are an interplay. The act of reading--how it causes day dreams, associations into my own life-- that's natural (horrible to tell kids in school not to daydream--better to inquire what they are thinking about, then relink it into the teaching if possible). Readers will always have, often vastly, different interpreations of our work. We will interpret our own work differently, often, 25years after writing. Self-knowledge? On-going. I think best to remember that talking about writing isn't writing. When Chapman and Cleese were writing the Cheese Shop Skit, Cleese would be writing cheese after cheese and he'd pause and say, "Gra, is this funny?" Chapman would respond: "Yes, yes, get on with it."

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  23. Hmmm.

    Not sure what part I want to respond to....

    Okay, I'll take on Noodles. In my experience, those who are the MOST CONFIDENT* that they are WRITERS often have the most to learn about what their writing actually says to readers. Some of the best writers I know are actually terribly self-conscious about their work when sharing, because they care sooooo much about if they accomplished what they were trying to.

    Because it matters to them. Greatly. Writing, I think, is an honorable task. The result matters to those that put their heart and soul on the page.

    *I am talking about writers that you meet in person, like in a writing group. I realize that on blogs, we all have to be super confident about our book projects, because if we (the author) can't sell it, how can we expect an agent or editor to hop on board.

    Way too much more I could say, but I'll enjoy thinking about your post tonight when I do my real writing!

    Shelley

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  24. Davin: Thanks! I'd love to have you read it :)

    I'm hoping to get some serious writing done this fall and then I may be in need of some beta readers.

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