Friday, July 24, 2015

Where Am I? Where's Everybody Else?

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Is your protagonist really you? How do you separate him/her from you?"—seems to be a pretty common one, popping up in the q&a portion of book readings and maybe inevitably crossing readers' minds whenever the author and character have anything remotely in common (age, gender, geography).

For me, the answer might seem an easy one. I'm a late-fortysomething guy, and Louise, the narrator of the stories in On the Road with Del & Louise, is a woman nearly two decades younger—and probably a lot better looking too, at least how I imagine her. Even in the stories I'm working on now, about a crime-solving duo—a bookseller and accountant (I'm not kidding)—there's great distance between me and them: Emerson Royce is agoraphobic, a full decade older than me, and he carries a linebacker's build, and Zoe Jacobs is mid-twenties, sports an attentively tousled pixie cut, and often suspects the universe is telling her something.

No similarities whatsoever, right?

And yet... Louise and I both grew up in small-town North Carolina, both remember fondly the smell of cut grass on a dewy morning and the taste of honeysuckles, and both had similar reactions to the price of wine tastings in Napa Valley. Emerson—Emmery, to his friends—and I drink the same teas and browse online for similar first editions and limited printings of rare books. And Zoe drives a Karmann Ghia convertible very much like the one I once wanted when I was a kid. Oh, and I read my horoscope every day.

Gustave Flaubert
Some of this may go back to Flaubert's famous statement, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Maybe each of us writers inevitably draws on his or her own experiences in crafting character, exploring situations, presenting some vision of the world. But on the other hand, we have to contend with Flaubert's other statements about the author and the book. In his letters to Louise Coulet, Flaubert writes of keeping "the author's personality absent" and contends that "Nowhere in my book must the author express his emotions or opinions."

So how do you draw from yourself and on your own experiences on the one hand and yet keep some distance on the other?

Each day lately when I've sat down to write, I've taken a moment to read a little about writing—just a way to kick-start the process, I guess (I hope), in the same way that I try to read a short story at some point almost every day to stay sharp on craft and structure. The book I've been keeping on my desk lately is Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville and suggested to me originally by the great flash fiction writer Kathy Fish (read Kathy's recent story "A Proper Party" here—charming, disturbing, and heartbreaking in equal measure).


The essays in Rules of Thumb range between a half-page and three pages usually, so a quick bit of inspiration, and just this week I read one that seems to speak to the questions at hand in interesting ways. In "The Great I-Am," Brian Kiteley offers the following passage, quoting William Vollmann before expanding and articulating his own thoughts:

"William Vollmann says, 'We should never write without feeling. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other as equal partners.' The Self in fiction is the given, and the Other is the icing on the cake—humor is possible only with two or more characters. Tragedy deals with individuals, and comedy with classes of people. We want fiction to explore someone else's consciousness—we read fiction to feel the way someone else feels.... Young writers should use the I sparingly. We should look outside ourselves, beyond our own small worlds. We can imagine a larger space than we usually do.

Too much looking inward, too much navel-gazing—that's a danger. Even as we must inevitably draw to some degree on what we know, there's a larger world out there too, a larger group of people very much unlike ourselves, and our job as writers is to let our curiosity, our sense of inquiry, draw us into that bigger world, toward meeting those people.  Whether I succeed or not, that's part of my aim in writing my own stories.


12 comments:

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Art. Although we probably all strive to make three dimensional characters that are different from ourselves (murderers, for example!), I think it's almost impossible not to keep our memories and opinions out of our stories. It's really part of our "voice." And those glimpses of "us" make our writing unique and enjoyable.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! ...though I wonder how many people writing villains are getting to indulge some of their worst traits on the page too (keeping them there instead of letting them out into the real world). Anger in traffic can surely be funneled productively into some of the senseless anger of a killer in fiction, yeah? (Maybe I'm saying too much....)

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Enjoyed this post, Art! (And now laughing about "Maybe I'm saying too much...")

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Cynthia!
Art

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

Great post, Art. A few years back, I took a mystery writing course and the instructor was Greg Fallis (great writer!). His advice was: Remember, to your characters, this isn't a story. That's exactly what you're saying here.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Judy --
Good way of looking at that, yes!
Art

Paula Gail Benson said...

What an interesting post and subject, thanks for your insight, Art, and for the recommendation of Rules of Thumb.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paula! I recommend Rules of Thumb very highly. Some of the essays are better than others (of course), but overall, there's some provocative comments and insights there.
Art

lisaljohnljc said...

I will be getting rules of thumb. Thanks for the rec!
Also, I like that u said that to your characters, this isn't a story.
I think that sounds right on!

lisaljohnljc said...

I will be getting rules of thumb. Thanks for the rec!
Also, I like that u said that to your characters, this isn't a story.
I think that sounds right on!

lisaljohnljc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lisaljohnljc said...

I will be getting rules of thumb. Thanks for the rec!
Also, I like that u said that to your characters, this isn't a story.
I think that sounds right on!