"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

22 January 2011

Resist much. Obey little.

-Walt Whitman

Discipleship began as the first short story I wrote for my "Beginner's Fiction" course.  The short story came from a writing exercise we were asked to complete in class.  My professor (incidentally, the same professor referenced in my last post, although in an earlier class I took with him)  asked us to write a scene in which one character has something important--even life-changing--to tell another.  Somehow I managed to never exactly get to the prompt, but I've never been one for following creative rules.  Although it is hastily written and there are lines I'm desperate to edit, I think it's important to write out where Discipleship began, word for word.

"I had been able to tell for weeks.  Despite the facade that Julia thought she was so effortlessly putting up for Thad and I, her efforts had gone to waste.  I tried to fool myself into thinking that her stiff movements and lack of eye contact were all for Thad's benefit; that in reality she was conscious of my knowledge that she was leaving.  These lies were like a salve that I spread on daily before I greeted her; without them, I couldn't bear Julia ducking out of a room when her eyes filled with tears.  

'She's just protecting the boy,' I relayed to myself, choking down breakfast.

Thad, in all his innocence, lost in his Scriptures, was oblivious to the fact that Julia was leaving us.  Eldest cousin, surrogate-mother for our summer vacation, organizer of our daily schedules and chief-provider of the feeling others label 'home-sweet-home,' but we just called Jules, was taking off.  I wondered if Thad would feel abandoned.

After what I had come to romantically term, 'the summer never to be forgotten or remembered,' the betrayal hit hard.  Not only was I left to deal with my feelings, but those of Thad.  It was that night, as I read Bible stories out loud and cradled Thad in my lap that I began to feel anger.  

Several lines scrawled in Julia's uncharacteristically messy handwriting served as my only comfort.  The boy had begged to see it.  I hadn't let him; this was mine--the last thing from Jules that was all for me.


It is amazing that such a small exercise could spark a minor-obsession within me.  I became dedicated to these characters, and so intent on discovering them that I am still in the process of doing so, more than two years later.  I began to plan out their lives.  I wanted to see who they were, and manipulate the world around them.  It's a frustrating and beautiful process, and I'm still in the midst of it.

I think the most important aspect I was able to take from this exercise was the relationship between the characters.  I always knew that Henry would be devoted to his older cousin (whose name has long changed from Julia to Callie), that Thad would be devoted to religion, and that there would be a competition between the two boys for her affection.  Those aspects have never changed, despite the multiple overhauls the story has undergone.

There are so many decisions an author needs to make when crafting a novel.  I, for one, am having a semi-crisis point in that I'm considering shifting from third person narrative to first person despite the fact that I'm 125 pages into a manuscript.  There are so many questions that come up, so many characters that need to be re-vamped or deleted entirely, so many panic attacks late at night that what you're writing has been done a million times before.  It is comforting to know that, through it all, I have stayed true to these characters.  No matter what has changed, the excitement I had when I first discovered Henry, Callie, and Thaddeus is the same excitement that allows me to overcome my self-doubts and continue writing today.

The structure of the novel is nothing extraordinary; the idea is the same as it always way: three cousins spend the summer together.  For me, characterization is a far greater challenge than inventing an exciting plot.  I am so drawn to characterization that I often find myself overwhelmed at the thought of plot points and inciting incidents and falling action.  I have never written by a formula, and, for better or worse, I can't start now.  Instead, I'm forced to agonizingly accept that this novel won't come into being by organization.  I have tried numerous times to outline the work, only to see that what I want to accomplish cannot be confined to an outline.

I know that structure is implicit in a successful novel.  Believe me.  I understand the benefits of following the rules--I've been through a creative writing program.  I was forced to read books that told me the proper way to write, each professor flaunting a different theory or method.  But, for me, it is too easy to become entrapped in the structure to so great an extent that I begin to doubt my own process, or that I become overwhelmed to the point where I simply want to stop writing.  I know that I need to find a way to wrangle my thoughts into cohesion, but I also know that can only come about after I've discovered these characters from the inside out.  I cannot stifle their voices just yet, no matter how much I would like to rush the process, I just have to listen to Uncle Walt and trust my own. (Dead Poet's Society, anyone?)

I have always loved Walt Whitman.  I love the fact that Whitman is able to encapsulate the entire world within his "Song of Myself," drawing on his own experiences and yet broadening his take on the world until he creates a camaraderie implicit between reader and author.  He writes in the way I hope to some day, intensely personal and yet beautifully broad.  His advice is what I need to remind myself of each day I sit down in front of my computer to write.  I need to resist the little demons cropping up inside my head, whispering that I am not good enough, that I am not structured enough, that I don't have enough of a process.  I need to resist all of the doubts, and obey the little song of myself, struggling to make itself heard among the cacophony of self-consciousness.  It is a lesson I think every writer comes across at one point; and it is one I am determined to learn.   

Okay.  Enough of my scatter-brained ramblings.  I figured I'd give you a small excerpt from the present incarnation of Discipleship.  This is probably tough out of context, but since I've been going on about characterization, I figured I'd show you some of the character work that has found its way into the novel.  Not to mention, I just finished talking about inner demons.  This is part of a chapter dedicated to Thaddeus, and his relationship with religion...

"The first time it happened, he dreamed he had been swallowed by a black whale and was being digested day after day.  He couldn’t hear anything except the echo of the water splashing against the sharp, square teeth, and he sat cradled in a corner of warm tongue, where he eventually fell asleep.  Even when the whale opened its mouth, and a voice from outside woke him up to say that he was free to leave, Thaddeus decided he’d rather stay inside, tucked into a corner between teeth and cheek. 
He had thought it was only happenstance.  He thought he had been punished for being jealous of Abraham and his title of God’s friend or for forgetting to bring his plate to the sink.  But now it was happening more frequently, in darker corners of the night where he dreamed about Mary giving birth, about Jezebel being eaten by the dogs while he stood naked and watched.  He felt ashamed each time.  And when it happened, he woke up to the mocking snorts of laughter, sneering at him from behind the windowpanes.  The whispered conversations taunted him.  “Little boy.”  “Little religious freak.”  Then, the cackles sounded from behind the thin walls of the room, closing him in.  He held his hands over his ears to block out the sounds coming from all around him, from across the hall and under the baseboards, but he only seemed to hear the voices louder, piercing his mind.
“The Lord is my strength and my song,” Thaddeus said.  He struggled to block out the noises. “He has become my salvation."
The shouts became louder, calling his name.
“We’re coming for you Thaddeus,” the voices spoke deliberately, each one beginning a moment after the other, echoing in a terrible chorus. “Soon we’ll have you all to ourselves.”
He took his Bible in his arms and ran out of the room.  He hurried down the hall, yet the voices seemed to be closer.  He longed to run into his mother’s room.  When he was younger, she would only have to speak, and the demons would retreat in fear.  But he was too ashamed; he didn’t deserve comfort.
 “He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him,” Thaddeus said, louder. 
“Thaddeus, you’re just one of us,” The dark voice whispered.
Thaddeus closed himself in the bathroom at the end of the hall and locked the door.
Taking a seat on the edge of the bathtub, he flipped breathlessly to the book of Revelation, to the story of destruction and the final battle between good and evil."

Thanks for reading.  I welcome any comments/suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding the opening prompt, the assignment was to write a scene in which acharacter has something important to say; not explicitly where they say it. I think you accomplished that. Good writing as I'm sure you know isn't always about what you write, but often what you withold from writing. I find myself as a composer writing too much sometimes - filling out harmonies better left implied, thickening musical textures where restraint and transparency would be more effective. Keep doing what you're doing - structured or not!