So one of my favorite parts (one of many) in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, comes in the “Character” chapter. In this particular part, Lamott discusses the need for letting bad stuff happen to your characters–not that it all has to be bad stuff, but just that it has to be life stuff; it has to ring true.
To bring home the point, Lamott writes the following: “My Al-Anon friend told me about the frazzled, defeated wife of an alcoholic man who kept passing out on the front lawn in the middle of the night. The wife kept dragging him in before dawn so that the neighbors wouldn’t see him, until finally an old black woman from the South came up to her one day after a meeting and said, ‘Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.'”
That advice speaks to me poignantly right now, as I begin draft seven of my new novel. Yes, draft seven.
Without going into all of the boring details of how I added and subtracted a love interest, a sidekick, and some comic relief in drafts two through four, pared back a villain in draft five, and completely took him out and replaced him with a new villain in draft six, let me just sum up by saying, I’ve done some major overhauling, also known as a lot of frickin’ work. And despite that, said novel is still not working.
But after my last conversation with my magnificent agent, who convinced me not to throw the whole thing or myself in the literary trash compactor, I remembered Anne Lamott and that story she told and I thought about my characters. And I realized I’ve been pulling a number of drunk people off of the lawn at four a.m. This is problematic for several reasons:
#1: Jesus feels like I’m not respecting his work. It’s kind of like taking a Lysol wipe to a Jackson Pollock painting. Hands on hips, scrutinzing, shaking my head. “Looks like someone made a mess! Let me just clean that up for you.” When people get flung, it’s even messier than paint, and the impulse to fix it and make it better is strong in me. But it’s not helpful or respectful of them or whatever life force got them there or might get them up and to a shower.
#2: The characters feel forced and boring because I’m moving around their arms and legs like that creepy double jointed John Travolta doll my sister had when we were little, or as though I’m Laurence Olivier/Zeus, playing with my clay human models, ripping them from their natural homes and putting them in some amphitheater where they have to hang out with Burgess Meredith.
Either way, as you can tell, I’m acting like I’m some sort of deity. And I’m not. I’m a writer. And when I write best, I let the story and the characters lead me rather than the other way around. I listen. I curl up with respect at their feet. I let their lives speak. And then I write.
I’m sharing this with you in case you might have some characters in your work or some people in your life who could be more interesting or at least learn to be more self-sufficient if you let them wake up hungover in the grass. And then maybe hosed them down to spite them.
Okay, not that last part. That won’t work either.
Just let them lay where Jesus flang them. Let them be (which actually isn’t a bad idea to apply to yourself either). Take a break from your notebook or computer or the stapled stack of cocktail napkins you write on, and go get something to eat. The fact that I’m eating pasta primavera right now helps. In fact, pasta primavera is a lot like Blue Star Ointment, a cure for everything from “winter itch” (yes, that really exists) to a bad attitude (also really exists; demonstrations later).
And once you’re done with your food or your ointment, return to your writing–or your life–and listen. At least that’s what I’ll be doing.
Thank you so much for reading. You might notice that I don’t have a space for comments, but I’m certainly open to conversation about what’s written here. If you’re so inspired, feel free to start a conversation with me via the contact form on the homepage of this site.