Wednesday, December 14, 2005


A statue of Sarasvati sits atop my journal notebook, which rests on my computer keyboard. The screen behind the goddess holds my current fiction draft, to which I added several thousand words yesterday.

According to Merlin Stone in her book
Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood (Beacon Press 1984), Sarasvati is at times described as the wife of Brahma and "revered as the presiding deity of the arts: music, painting, carving, and especially associated with the acquisition of writing." While 2 hands play the lute, the other 2 hold stylus and tablet.

By the time I finished the interview it was 4:30 AM yesterday morning. I had been headphoned into Herbie Hancock's "Theme from Blow-Up" on Bobby Hutcherson's Oblique album, listening to the same track for hours on auto-repeat. It had transported me into the fugue state that allowed this conversation to take place.

And the woman I spoke with was on another world entirely....

I finished drafting a trilogy earlier this year and then discovered that my characters aren't done with me yet. They appear to me as I sink toward sleep or as I awaken. They walk beside me as I do my errands. Visions and ideas hit as I stroll down the block or sit in a waiting room, and I whip my journal notebook out of my fanny pack and start scribbling.

I'm a note-taker. I normally don't "interview" my characters, but I was feeling stuck and one character in particular has been after me to get unstuck. That's when I realized TS and I needed to talk, because the characters are often wiser than I am. Sometimes they insist on doing a scene their way, and when the dust has settled I've found that they often have a good reason for "going against" my original intent. TS had been one of two major protagonists in the trilogy, though her role in the sequel material is diminished because the main dramatic thread now belongs to her mate.

And to think I'd almost killed him. Up until the end of the trilogy he'd fought me tooth and nail for his life. I'm glad he won.

During our talk TS stood in the woods outside her birth-village, though in current story time she is far from home. It didn't matter; she was stepping out of the narrative to give me what for. We talked about story structure, character development, plot dynamics. There's no guarantee how many of the ideas will make it into the draft -- I write scads of notes that never see the light as I make mid-course corrections and rewrite scenes until they work for me.

But TS told me things I hadn't known before, that amazed me at first but then seemed perfectly logical and right. She unstuck me, and did so gloriously.

Psychologist Mary Watkins addresses this phenomenon in her book Invisible Guests: The Development of Imaginal Dialogues. She demonstrates the value of imaginal others in shamanism, various therapies, and conditions such as multiple personality disorder. Her chapter "The Characters Speak Because They Want to Speak": The Autonomy of the Imaginal Other explores the role of imaginal others in writing.

I'd heard about the book shortly after it was published in 1986 (Analytic Press) and had run out and bought it. Watkins confirmed what I had known and experienced for decades. I've omitted the bibliographic references in these excerpts.

Marina Tsvetaeva, a great twentieth-century Russian poet, described how she was moved to write by the imaginal being "which wanted to exist through" her. The hand of an artist, she said, belongs not to oneself but to that being. In a letter to Pasternak, Tsvetaeva said, "We dream and write not when we please but when it pleases." She would often experience herself writing against her own will, motivated instead by the beings that chose her to give them life.

* * *
Enid Blyton describes how, in the process of writing, her characters let her know what is going on, rather than the other way around.

I shut my eyes for a few moments, with my portable typewriter on my knee -- I make my mind blank and wait -- and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind's eye. I see them in detail -- hair, eyes, feet, clothes, expression -- and I always know their Christian names, but never their surnames....I don't know what anyone is going to say or do. I don't know what is going to happen. I am in the happy position of being able to write a story and read it for the first time, at one and the same moment....Sometimes a character makes a joke, a really funny one, that makes me laugh as I type it on my paper -- and I think, "Well, I couldn't have thought of that myself in a hundred years!" And then I think, "Well who did think of it, then?"

* * *
Henry James, in his preface to The Ambassadors, described how the book arose from an anecdote told him at a garden party in Paris. The anecdote concerned an older man telling a younger one about his philosophy of life. This was to become the central scene of a book. "But what else?" James asked himself.

Where has he come this older man and why has he come, what is he doing....To answer these questions plausibly, to answer them as under cross-examination in the witness box by counsel for the prosecution, in other words to satisfactorily account for the character Strether and for his "peculiar tone" was to possess myself of the entire fabric.

Now listen to James describing himself in relation to the development of this novel.

These things continued to fall together, as by the neat action of their own weight and form even while their commentator James himself scratched his head about them. As the case completed itself he had in fact, from a good way behind, to catch up with them; breathless and a little flurried, as best he could.

* * *
Similarly, Flannery O'Connor in her essay "Writing Short Stories" speaks of how she often did not know where she was going when she sat down to write a short story. She cites the experience of writing "Good Country People" as an example of how her writing was like discovery.

When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable.

* * *
For Alice Walker the writing of the novel The Color Purple entailed a year of speaking with Celie and Shug and the other characters. She experienced them as "trying to contact" her, "to speak through her." These presences did not ignore Walker's day to day life. Indeed, they pressured her to move from the city to the country, expressed opinions about her work life, and enjoyed a relation to her daughter. They offered other perspectives on situations than the ones Walker identified with.

Just as summer was ending, one or more of my characters -- Celie, Shug, Albert, Sofia, or Harpo -- would come for a visit. We would sit wherever I was, and talk. They were very obliging, engaging, and jolly. They were, of course, at the end of their story but were telling it to me from the beginning. Things that made me sad, often made them laugh. Oh, we got through that; don't pull such a long face, they'd say. Or, you think Reagan's bad, you ought've seen of the rednecks us come up under. The days pased in a blaze of happiness.


Recently I read Ursula Hegi's novel, Intrusions, which blew me away. In it, characters butt into the author's life and home, the author butts back, and their stories run in marvelous parallel. In my ideal world this book would be required reading for every budding (and flowering) author. I've already used it -- along with Watkins -- in my own teaching as one of many examples of process. Not all writers relate to their characters in this way, and one member of my critique group had wondered, just a little, if she was crazy for doing so.

I told her that if she was, she was in very good company.


Blogger Brenda Clews said...

This is a very rich post, Melissa! I shall have to come back and read more fully... I do like the way you've written it as a counterpoint with stunning and profound writers... xo

10:37 AM  
Blogger Brenda Clews said...

Elissa! Sorry!!

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes writing does feel like "channeling." I suppose all art is like that.

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love it! Interviewing your characters! Oh, I'm not crazy after all! Mine are real to me, too, and I can't wait to start scheduling interviews with them! Thoroughly enjoyed this post! Wonderful!

9:19 PM  

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