On a crisp, sunny, mid-November morning, one of the first that might’ve required a coat, I found myself nestled on a plush couch situated in front of a large window in the new home of Richmond Young Writers in Carytown. The space was bright, airy, and homey. The people were warm, welcoming, and writerly. The event was The Tesseract: A Weekend of Experiments in Writing. I settled in for a day of inspiration, creativity, and fellowship.
The first workshop in which I took part dealt with character development, and began with the moderator asking each of us to consider who some of our favorite literary characters are, and why we feel drawn to them.
My list included Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye), Abra Bacon (East of Eden), Lee (East of Eden), Jim Casy (The Grapes of Wrath), the creature in Frankenstein, the dog in Up, and the wolf and horse in Dances with Wolves. It seems I am drawn to the conflicted but well-meaning characters, those who are the pillars of a family or community without meaning to be, or without knowing they are, or those who underestimate their own goodness.
From there, we were offered time to write a character sketch of someone we have encountered in our own lives. Mine appears below.
I don’t know what will happen to S. He didn’t come to school until a week or two after the year had begun, and even now, into the second nine weeks, he’ll disappear for a day or two or three now and again. When I called role on the first day of class, all the students chuckled when I sad, “S?” and no one answered. I looked around the room. “Am I saying it right?” I was–but he wasn’t there. When he finally did show up the following week, the class behaved as if they didn’t notice, or as if he’d been there all along. His absence the first day had caused more of a stir than his appearance on his first day. He came in, black hair, hollow brown eyes, gray fleece, blue jeans, and let his backpack fall off his shoulder and onto the floor beside his desk. And then he just stood there. That’s how he enters the classroom every day–wandering in like it was an accident and he’s not sure how he even got in the building. He lets his back pack fall, and stands silently at his desk, facing the back wall, mostly, sometimes turning in a slow circle or two to survey the room. He does a lot of nothing. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He sits like a statue. Sometimes I’ll try to encourage him, coax him along, prod him to do less of nothing.
“S, why didn’t you write your journal entry?”
He slowly turned his head, his empty, doe-like eyes eventually finding mine.
“I was supposed to do that?” he asked softly.
“Yes,” I say with a smile. “It’s a grade.”
He blinks. After a silent second, he asks, “Can I do it now?”
“S, journal time is over. But you need to write every Friday.”
After our character sketching session, we were given a short break to chat, eat, drink, stretch, step outside, etc., and then began the second workshop, which focused on revision. We were given a short excerpt of a story, along with an editor’s suggestions, and asked to act on the suggestions, thereby (hopefully) strengthening the writing and the story. The comment I acted on was: “Finish the paragraph with ‘outside’ moments to let us out of the character’s head.” The paragraph itself related the character’s thoughts about coming home from war in Germany, getting confused, choosing whether to go in this direction or that. My own additions are available to read below.
He can feel the sharp edges of the stones packed on either side of the track push into the thin soles of his shoes, hears the soft crunch as the rocks resettle under the pressure of his feet. His breath hangs in the still air, furling and unfurling like smoke issuing from a cigarette between two fingers suspended above an ashtray, and white moonlight lends a sheen to the metal rails of the track. The cold air makes his ears hurt–a sharp, red pain moving down his ear canals, into his inner ear. He can hear wind above, coursing through the hills that bound the valley on either side. He is alone. It is beautiful. He does not know why he is walking this way.
After making our revisions, we had time to share them with our fellow writers, and the observations and insights revealed were astute and perceptive. For example, one young man, a high school student, observed that an interesting element of my revisions was the fact that while the piece began inside the train, I wrote “outside” the character’s head and outside the train by highlighting the juxtaposition of outside the train–the shock of the cold, the change in pace, etc.–with inside the train. He compared the “claustrophobic train car” to the “striking contrast of the air outside.” I had not consciously done this, but it was true; he was right.
After another break, we were privy to a panel discussion between professional writers like the captivating Slash Coleman, and some of the teenaged members of Richmond Young Writers. Below is a list of some of the questions included, as well as some of my own answers.
1.Would you rather write a stunningly beautiful book you’ll never get credit for, or a pretty good book you will get credit for?
I’d love to say I’m not so vainglorious so as to prefer accolades to a contribution to the canon of great literature with a stunningly beautiful book I’d never get credit for, but my ego is probably not cut out for that kind of humble anonymity. I’m not sure if just knowing myself that I had done something great would be validation enough; I might need the recognition of others. And so, I think I will have to admit that I’d likely prefer to write a pretty good book and get credit for it.
One of the panel participants, a high school girl, offered a much more noble reason for giving the same answer I did: She is a woman, and for a long time, women had to write as men if they wanted any hope of publication. For that reason, they were often never recognized as the producers of some of their greatest works–and she feels allowing herself the recognition pays homage to the sacrifices the women before us had to make. They didn’t even have the option of literary fame. Their books became famous without them.
2. If writers earned merit badges, which ones would you already have earned, and which ones would you be working on?
I would already have the:
Published Poet Badge
Published Narrative Nonfiction Essayist Badge
Completion of First Novel Badge
Writing Conference Attendee Badge
Be Observant Badge
Sensory Perception Badge
Rejection Letter Badge
Fixing Others’ Writing Errors Badge
I would still be working on the:
Writing Space Badge
Eliminating Adverbs Badge
Write Every Day Badge
Fiction Published Badge
Published Novel Badge
NPR Interviewee Badge
Conference Presenter Badge
3. What is your most important rule, in writing and in life?
4. Do you have a soundtrack to your writing? If so, what?
5. What is the first thing you remember writing?
There are a few early projects I remember, and I am not sure which is the first. Here they are:
- A story about a bulldog with an old lady’s name, written in orange and purple marker.
- A typed piece about a horse that died–and the owner leaning against its still-warm rump (I was a rather morbid and sentimental child).
- A typed piece about a tornado that ripped through a town, killing several people.
- A piece called Fire in Her Eyes, about which I remember very little, other than it centered around a brother and sister, and something traumatic happened to the sister, leaving her changed forever.
- A nonfiction piece called Horses All the Way, which detailed how to care for–you guessed it–horses, and won second place in the Young Authors competition when I attended elementary school in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
6. Have you ever read a book and thought the writing sounded like your own? If so, what?
7. What defines your writing style? How is your writing recognizable, different?