One of the perqs of being an alumna of the NYU Creative Writing MFA program is invitations to the master classes given by visiting writers in the afternoons during the school year. When I was working full time, I didn’t take advantage of any of them, but yesterday I attended my first, a master class on “Writing With Character” led by Andre Dubus III, writer of The House of Sand and Fog and Townie among other excellent books. He was an extremely generous speaker, making a point to learn all of our names and appreciate the little bits of writing and personality that the attendees could share in a 2-hour session. The session itself was inspirational, and I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, though I am also going to quibble with it a bit.
The purpose of the workshop was to talk about writing character, which is one of the hardest parts of writing fiction, and the most rewarding for a writer and a reader. People have said that there are only a few basic plots, but it’s characters that give books and stories their infinite variety. I don’t entirely agree with that, but I do believe that in the best literature, the plots seem to arise inevitably out of how the very specific characters act and react to the situations they are in, and in so doing create new situations.
He had us do three writing exercises during the class:
- Describe 10 people who are close to you, using only the sense of smell.
- Pick 5 of those people and describe how they are illuminated–the lights that shine on them.
- Pick 3 of those people and describe the sounds around them.
I picked several people, but the one I am most pleased with is my mom:
My mother’s sweat smells the same as mine.
Her sewing machine–with a long arm for quilting–has a light in it that shines white on her hands as she works. Outside, the overcast sky reflects on the lake, sending cool gray light in through the window.
With her is always the sound of small machines–the sewing machine, of course. Mixer, bread-maker. The fan of the convection oven. Before she retired: the centrifuge, the agitation bath, the inhale of the fume hood, the exhale of the sterile hood, and in the background the clicking of the Geiger counter I used to pretend was a microphone when I visited her in the lab.
(My mom will tell you that her sewing machine is not a long-arm. And probably also that she mostly used a sterile hood, not a fume hood.)
One of the interesting things about writing characters in historical fiction is how few of the signifiers that you find in my paragraphs above about my mom, are available to me. In this modern world, we make hundreds of choices about what to wear and how to spend our time that illustrate who we are. Those choices are extremely different in a historical setting, and have different meanings. In some ways that means painting with broader strokes. In some ways, that means putting my characters in more extreme situations where we can see their characters emerge from how they react to battle, death, illness. It also requires showing what signifiers mean in my historical context: the choice of sword, spindle, arm-bands should mean more to you after you read my novels than it did before.
Andre talked about how authors, including himself, have taken images like the above, followed them, expanded them, until a story grows from them. He talked about the growth of The House of Sand and Fog from following one of the main characters through her morning. He talked about the difference between “imagining” and “making stuff up”, where imagining is following an image, expanding it to all sense, seeing it, exploring it, going where it leads. And making stuff up is forcing it, making it happen.
He was also opposed to outlining, which he thought was part of working mechanically, rather than letting go.
I think the way he talked about discovery and imagining is a wonderful way of thinking about that dream state of creation. I have some stories and ideas that have evolved from one image like that. In the case of The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, I knew I wanted to write about Harald Fairhair and the founding of Norway, but it wasn’t until I realized he wasn’t my main character, but instead that was his right hand man Ragnvald, and saw a pivotal scene between them in my mind, how fraught it was and everything it meant to them, that I could begin writing this trilogy.
That scene won’t even happen until the third book. I’ve worked backward from history and character and imagination into the characters who we meet in the beginning of The Half-Drowned King. So I think that image exploration can go backward and forwards.
I also do believe in outlining, but as a tool, a map, a guide for the imagination. I still imagine and explore and record what I see there. I outline at the beginning when I am imagining too fast to write the novel’s prose. I outline when I’m stuck, to create more of the map that lets me imagine further. In the case of historical fiction, I am working with various battles and events that have to happen, but those helped me create the characters that I continually imagine and explore. But the outline is never more important than the novel’s truth.
Andre also talked about an author needing a good bullshit detector for their own work, an ability to know when something is wrong or not truthful. I think it comes in many different forms, but one of the ways I know mine is going off is when I’m not interested in a part of the story. That means it’s not truthful or it doesn’t belong. Another way is when every time I think about or read a part of my novel I feel a slight discomfort, and that usually means I’ve taken the easy way out, rather than, again, being truthful.