Month: August 2014

What gives a character, character?

El Capitan Lifeguard Station

Last week I had the pleasure of camping, alright it was glamping, near El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara. The first afternoon we ambled down to the beach, and while my son made a very impressive fort on the sand under the watchful eye of my husband, I was able to let my eyes wander down the expanse of pristine and at that time of day nearly deserted beach.

There were a few people sprinkled here and there, but one woman stood out to me for several reasons. She was young and slim-hipped with black circle-round sunglasses, very small, pert breasts (flute shaped they used to call them?) in a small black bikini top and bright coral bottoms. Her yellow hair was cut unselfconsciously in a long bob and sat halo-like and wavy near her chin. She had on an expensive looking watch, and she had the performance energy of someone who knew she was being watched. She was lovely and maybe too young to be called chic but certainly old enough to be well on her way.

I knew within moments she was not American. She was too far to the right of conventional beauty and too far left of funky (and I don’t give a sh*t)  for that sort of confidence in an American girl. I know that is not a politically correct observation, but when she opened her mouth and shouted to her beau in French, I knew I was right. (…and yes there are MANY EXCEPTIONS and yes, there are a lot politics involved as to why that observation might be true…but right now just letting the observations flow.) Please don’t be scared of those sort of instinctual observations. Because they may just strike that chord of truth in your writing. And we’re not writing to make every character, observer, narrator likable. Perhaps, I just rendered myself an unlikable narrator – but at least  made you feel something.

Our fair French friend climbed the lifeguard station behind me, a fantastic structure in swimming pool blue, abandoned by the lifeguard at this time of day.  I am not fluent in French but it was clear that she wanted her beau to take a slew of photos. It was a really good photo opportunity with her yellow froth of  blond hair, Mediterranean tan and coral bottoms. I felt her amplify as she picked up on my curious energy despite my back being turned to her. Sheltered beneath baseball cap and Ray Bans, I wondered if she thought me jealous or a great admirer. I was sitting far enough away from my family to be out of context.

She was quick to check the photos on her boyfriend’s phone and then ask for more. This made me think there was a self-consciousness to her sexy beach play. And who can’t relate to that ?

Again, these are all my personal observations and just fodder for a possible future character. They might have nothing to do with reality. She probably was a famous, Canadian model for all I know. But when something catches my eye, I try to see the humanity in it, the open gash of vulnerability and take note. Give my characters, a little character.

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Get thee behind me, Ego!

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A very dear friend read my post about having a beginning, middle and end when starting a piece, and said that was great and all, but what blocks her from getting started is fear. She is brimming with ideas (good ones from what she’s shared with me), but she says when she goes to get started she gets paralyzed by fear. I have a feeling this is quite common. What we’re afraid of might look a little different, but at its root I sense it is probably ego-based for most of us.

Yeah, so that’s not really very helpful is it?

When I was in art classes in college, we had to do gesture drawings to warm up. We would have to draw the model quickly, without looking down at our paper. The idea was to warm up the hand and the mind and  get out of that frozen, fear place.  Incidentally, I think the more we draw, write, cook, etc. the quicker our start time becomes. I think it is when time has lapsed between sessions, that we freeze up a bit. But the more we do it, the more it becomes second nature and confidence builds.

So what does gesture drawing look like for writers?

Ugh, this is going to sound trite – it looks like sitting down and writing (for me anyway). Maybe you clear your space before or workout or get a pot brewing – but you have to write out the sludge to get to the good stuff. (If anyone has other thoughts about this – please share!) For me, I have to sit down and start climbing the mountain one sentence at a time. Sometimes I even write, “This is really crappy and lame but I am writing because I know if I keep writing I will get there…” A body in motion stays in motion and all that.

I keep thinking, “Ooh, tell them to do a mandala first or set an intention for your writing…” but that feels like b.s.  You can do those things to calm your mind, you might deconstruct the ins and outs of your ego and the particulars of your brand of procrastination…but in the end – there is nothing like writing to remove the blocks. It’s like talking about running to get in shape versus actually running.

So tell your ego to go do something else for an hour. When I was an art therapist and people said they couldn’t possibly draw something for me – they were horrible artists – I would say, “Draw something really ugly for me. Something just hideous.” BOOM! They would draw with abandon.

Go ahead, write something really awful for me. Write some real rubbish.

…and let me know what comes of it.