I love those “aha!” moments when a character sneaks up on me–and I suddenly realize I’m not writing the book I thought I was writing. It might mean big changes, but it invariably makes a deeper and more authentic story than the one I started with. This is just as true for memoir as it is for fiction
The keys are sinking, blinking and linking.
A hidden story is subterranean. To get there, close the door for uninterrupted time. Sit in a comfortable position, slow your breathing, and focus on a scene. “Going in” feels like literally sinking down, down, down. Keep going until you begin to see through the eyes of your character (or your younger self, as the case may be.) Where are you located in the setting? How do you feel emotionally? How is your body responding? More than once I’ve been surprised to find my palms clammy and my breath quickening as my character takes me to a difficult encounter. When I begin to write, the words that come out are strikingly full-bodied and true. I’m often astonished, later, that I wrote them.
This would seem to be the opposite of sinking—but it’s not. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink talks about world-changing decisions that were made in microseconds. To “blink” is to capture and use that fleeting thought at the edge of your subconscious. One way to do this is to write a series of questions and answer them as quickly as you can. Examples are “Who would I like to read my book to?” and “What must I never write about?” We did this in a writing class by “becoming” our characters and asking each other surprise questions. When a student asked my character, “What are you most afraid of losing?” I blurted, “My brother.” Up to that point, the brother had played a significant, but not key role in the book. “Blinking” led to rethinking.
What if you are writing a character and a story so different from you and your world that they seem to have no connection? This happened to me when I wrote The Legend of the Valentine, whose protagonist, Marcus, is a black child in the South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Since I’m northern, female and white, I strongly questioned whether I had a right to write the story. Finally, a wise education director at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga challenged me to sink into my 8-year-old self and see Marcus across the classroom. Only after “being” that younger self with her curiosity, biases and naïveté could I begin to link my own experiences to Marcus’s. I did know what it was like to have a storytelling grandmother, and to face a bully, so I sank into that, and Marcus came to life.
Here are some fall classes and writing events. I’d love to see you there!