What do you write about?
This is possibly what I said to a classroom of Theater Arts students last Friday. I talked via Skype to Ms. April Vincent’s class at Munford High School. She asked me to talk about being a writer, and when one of them asked if I support myself through this profession, I laughed and laughed and laughed.
I’m lying. I didn’t laugh. I did let them know that, at this point in my “career,” this thing costs me money instead.
Then, they asked that inevitable question: What do you write about?
A little stumped, as I usually am at this question, I think I said, “Well, I write about people…doing…stuff…” Thankfully, I kept talking and found the word “conflict.” I write about people in conflict. Yes. Conflict. Conflict. Conflict.
When asked to describe something I have written, I couldn’t bring myself to describe the plot of a story called “West Memphis Bus Stop Drama Queen” where the character is sleeping with her professor, babysitting his thirteen-year-old daughter, and plotting the overthrow of the stepmother. The character ends up endorsing and performing revenge on a bus stop bully, a sacrifice to appease her urges to explode a marriage.
Yeeeaaaaaah. That I wasn’t going to describe to them. I described another story – a revenge one, too – but I knew that the students may ask if the story was based on something I did. It wasn’t. No adult women I know have purposefully embarrassed a middle school bully, but the story was loosely based on a friend’s experiences.
Writing from someone else’s perspective was liberating. I wasn’t bound to experiences that I have had. I wasn’t trapped by the way things actually happened. These things are like handcuffs on me. It can be very difficult to get away from the facts and let the experience influence the story rather than construct it.
I wrote a story last year that was from the perspective of a thirty-something woman seeking comfort in her mother, wanting to confess something she has done. The mother, incapable of dealing with such a thing, doesn’t allow the daughter to confess. She doesn’t play the role of mother that we think mothers are supposed to play. A few people have read this story now. It received some nice rejections. I eventually had to set it aside and stop thinking about it. I shelved it. We needed to take a break from each other.
I don’t know why, but a few weeks ago, I had the revelation that I needed to rewrite that story from the perspective of the mother. Why would this mother discourage her daughter’s confession? What kind of person would do that?
Getting into the mother’s head was much more fun. Having already written from the perspective of the daughter, I knew what both characters were thinking and feeling, yet I was able to develop a character who would deny her daughter comfort. Who would basically say, “I don’t want to hear it.”
I’ve heard lots of actors say that they prefer scenes with fights or arguments. That playing the villain is more fun than playing the ingénue. Of course it is! The good guy is kind of boring at the end of the day. We are watching the action movie because the villain has caused problems. Otherwise, it’s just a guy in a Speedo and flapping cape flying around in the sky.
I’m not calling myself a hero, but, of course, I understand my perspective better than anyone. For the most part, I understand why I do the things I do. Where’s the fun in that? A lesson I have learned during this experiment with Hananah is that writing characters with perspectives outside of mine yields a better story. It’s more fun to explore the question, “Why would she do that?”
The answer usually comes from a character’s flaws, those things that cause conflict. The things that make us so very human.
So what do I write about? I guess I write about humans being human. Other humans. Not me. (At least, not always.) I suspect I can’t get away from myself enough to expose my own flaws, which means I may inevitably end up on the page in a Speedo and flapping cape. And that’s just an image no one needs to see.
[Oh. Well. I just happen to have this picture of me in a Speedo. Indian Lake Swim Team. 1990.]