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March 2013 - Using the Self as a Source for Characters

I recall vividly this lecture from Professor Claeyssens. Eyes widened; head cocked; nod in my direction; slow, intriguing, deep voice: “There is the you that you think you are, and then the you as others see you. Just think of all of the you’s running around.”

The statements were enough to frighten me. I have never forgotten them.

Part of my fascination with F. Scott Fitzgerald is his use of his own person, the use of Zelda (always Zelda), and anyone else in his current life for fiction. I believe that, at times, the experience did not even get processed in his mind as personal: it went straight into a work of fiction. This instant abracadabra of life into art is something that I cannot do. I must integrate the experience into some objective reality so that it is pliable for the use of fiction. Those mental and emotional processes take time, sometimes a very long time. Anton Chekhov sagely suggested, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”

The major foible of F. Scott as a writer was that he tried to resolve in his fiction problems and conflicts that he could not resolve in his life. It was a drastic error and it marred many of his works. Life has to be lived, not written out. Moreover, art mimics life but it can never be a substitute for it. I have, however, seen objects outside of my window (butterfly, cat, birds, irises, goats, roses) and used them in novels. One afternoon, while I was working on my laptop, revising “Nottingham,” I called my husband to complain about the latest noisy neighbor. He said something to the effect that there is nothing like warm weather to bring out the blooming idiots.

That statement was directly turned into this comment by Arthur in the chapter that I was revising -- Chapter 89 (known by me as “The Gestapo Chapter”): “Nothing like warm weather to bring the blooming idiots up here.”

I do indeed use portions of my self – my habits, quirks, likes, dislikes, personal traits, interests – for characters. I know my self best, at least instinctively. During my days in the office world, an engineering colleague once explained to a contractor, “Don’t let her think; it slows her down.” The observation was truer than I was prepared to admit at the time. In that sense, I know myself best.

I also draw upon actors, actresses, musicians, historic figures, and the people from my past (rarely from my present) for characters. Objectivity is once again the key: I cannot feel free to do what must be done to a character with any material that hampers my sense of freedom to mold, shape, form, and even discard, certain characteristics of a character. Much of the creative work with a character is done instinctively, intuitively, and without too much contemplation (thinking would slow me down!). There are, however, countless times when I must make conscious judgment calls on whether or not a character would or would not do or say something, largely in terms of that action or statement being consistent with who the character is.

Why I am willing to use portions of my self for fictional purposes is something I can’t explain. It is very true that I do not see myself as others see me. When I was told that I have “an inner Granny,” one that I lovingly nurture, the statement threw me for a loop. I was also unaware for a long time that I have an internal “committee” that I must contend with on a daily, if not hourly, basis; this subtle dynamic is always within me, even when I am happy and calm. My committee is smaller than it used to be; it contains only a few members now. It used to have a solid majority of twelve.

The committee is always at odds with the writer, but the writer needs the committee to be at odds with (a good counter-irritant). My very dear friend once said to me with excitement, “I’ve never known a writer.” I guess I haven’t either! But I think the committee knows her very well and has very definite ideas about what she should and should not be doing!

There is also the fact that I don’t find myself intriguing on my own, but there are aspects of myself that I find intriguing in a character. For example, a little over a decade ago, I had to undergo an MRI for a sports injury to my right shoulder. The nurse asked me if I was claustrophobic. I said, “A little.” She thought I’d do fine then in a closed MRI.

No, I did not do fine in a closed MRI. After three minutes of the tormenting noise and intense claustrophobia, I yelled to get me out of this trap! The technician opened the thing up. I jumped out of it, ran from the small room, and vaulted, with my good shoulder, over a half-wall and down to a lower level where my husband sat, waiting for the procedure to be over. I informed him the procedure was most assuredly over. Only then did I understand how extremely claustrophobic I am. (My very dear friend finds the closed MRI comforting! I told her that for me it was the closed casket, waiting to be lowered into the open tomb.)

When the time came (seven years later!) to form the character of Guillaume de Vallon, the French resister in THE DAWN, I thought it would be absolutely fascinating, funny, and fundamentally a part of this man to be claustrophobic. His passion for liberty and his claustrophobia went hand in hand. I believe mine do too.

There is one side of me that I know quite well because I have played the role of the “take-no-prisoners commander” early, often, and enough. Opportunities continue to abound for me to fulfill this role. It is an integral part of my nature. The behavior was best displayed in one crucial scene in the Howard Hawks film, “Rio Bravo.” There is an interchange between the Sheriff, Chance, played by John Wayne; and Dude, his former deputy, played by Dean Martin. A friend of Chance has been shot in the back and the killer has fled into a barn.

“How you goin’ in?” Dude asks.

“Right through the door . . .” Chance states. (The front door, of course.)

“I guess there’s no sense in me telling you to cool down first,” Dude quietly states.

“No, there isn’t,” Chance growls in a low voice.

“I thought so,” Dude relents.

At that point during our home viewing of this film, my husband would turn to our children and sigh, “Do you see what I have to contend with?”

Personally, I prefer the role of Feathers, played by Angie Dickinson, and my husband has assured me that I’ve got that role too down perfectly.

Once I’d completed THE DAWN in November 2011, I had to emerge from my almost constant media blackout of three years. Tiptoeing out into “the world,” I discovered that my “recovery” was a rather fatiguing and lengthy experience. It would include minimal revising of my first novel while I created the digital form of it; and the intense, rapid writing of a short novel. NOCTURNE was a completely spontaneous, unplanned achievement. After I emailed dear daughter about it (the classics scholar was studying Roman art and architecture at university over the summer), she commented to Dad, “So Mom wrote a short novel in her spare time?”

I wrote to her, explaining the cathartic event.

“Catharsis is good every once in a while,” she suggested. I heartily agreed!

After those three novels were simultaneously published, there occurred within me the need to withdraw those bits and pieces of my “self” from my fiction; then detach myself completely from the completed novels; and then re-enter life as simply “me,” Debra, without the need to become consistent with plot, character, theme, and previous scenes that have to show continuity. I’d been unaware that any post-creative phase even existed, or that it would be necessary or exhausting. Live and learn!

I have learned that eyeing the latest fashions online and perusing shoes to buy for the next season possess remarkable restorative powers! Retail therapy has its proper use.


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