Life as a Canvas

When I write, I often develop extremely detailed histories for my characters.  I’ve always wanted to understand what makes people act and react the ways that they do, what in their past forms who they are, and my characters are no different.  So I create complicated lives for them and their families, and along the way I also acquire compassion for even the most unlikable characters.  I begin to feel empathy for them.

This exercise is nothing new for me.  I’ve always liked to sit in restaurants and make up convoluted stories about the people dining around me.  I do it for fellow airline passengers.  I do it for people I’ve never met, and for those I have met but just can’t seem to get a handle on.  It’s pretty lame as hobbies go, but most hobbies writers have are pretty lame in comparison to alligator wrestlers and sky divers and bullfighters.  We tend to play in our heads. (With the exception of Ernest Hemingway, of course.)

I decided to try out this little exercise on myself, treating Christy Strick as an undiscovered character.  Of course most of it is my history, known to me, but then I began to take known facts and turn them upside down.  I invented a new father, one who would not run away from the responsibilities of a family with four children under the age of 8.  One who loved me from afar though he couldn’t claim me.  (This little fantasy  would surely make my mother crazy.)

Most of my family contributed without me having to embellish, of course.  My mother, who taught me sacrifice and told me that I was special (which I still believe to this day, despite evidence to the contrary.) My maternal grandfather, whom I have mentioned before, who passed along to me his passion for learning, a lifelong curiosity, and a craving for travel as we read his National Geographics and World Book Encyclopedias cover to cover.  My paternal grandfather showed me what it is to be a courtly gentleman, a man’s man who smoked pipes and played golf and drank cocktails every evening.  And did it looking like an aging movie star.    My paternal grandmother who passed on to me a love of art, and beauty in nature, and the importance of good manners.  My maternal grandmother, who taught me about duty, and hard work, and determination as she slaved in a blue jean factory to make ends meet. And my great grandfather Bob, who lived to be 99, showed me the dignity that could be found in aging gracefully.  My aunts, Marie and Jerry and Carol, who always believed I was special and let me know it.  And lastly, my daughters, who are smart and funny and teach me things about myself every day.

Of course these are the good things.  I also learned from some of the people in my life to be wary, to not open up or trust too easily.

I think of life as a great big canvas, with people who touch our lives adding paint here and there, layer upon layer of interactions that change the picture constantly, sometimes with just one encounter, one stoke of the brush.  Each death, each love affair, each supportive teacher or mean girl, they all add color and depth to the canvas.  The only question is whether at the end of that life, the canvas will hold more yellow and blues and greens or more reds and black.

I’m thinking about painting a canvas about the character’s life I am working on right now, a sort of abstraction of life.  Maybe it will be the cover of this novel.  Maybe no one will ever see it but me.  But I’m visual, and I like the idea of making art out of a life.  Which is what we do as writers every day on paper.  The canvas is just my extension of that.

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How Old is Too Old?

Last week I read a terrific essay in the New York Times by Edward Kelsey Moore entitled “At 52, Not Too Old for a Debut Novel.”  He wrote it in response to the question he is constantly asked since the publication of his debut novel, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat: “Aren’t you too old for this?”

He says that the skepticism he received when answering that he’s not too old for anything made him consider what he is too old for. He goes on to list some of the things he has decided he is too old for at 52 – too old to drink to excess in public, too old to dress anachronistically.  Too old to believe time is on his side.

Just the fact that he is asked that question over and over again shows what an ageist society we live in.  As someone who my first short story published when I was in my 40s, I’ve always believed we can do anything we set our minds to, no matter our age.  His essay got me thinking, though, and I have to admit I’ve decided there are some things I may be past the age to do.

  1.  Wear Daisy Dukes.  In fact, if you are old enough to get the Daisy Duke reference, you are probably too old to wear them.
  2. Twerk.  On second thought that might not be an age thing.   Twerking is just not attractive.  (I do think I should get extra youth points for knowing what it is, though.)
  3. Think I am the center of the universe.  Hard to accept, but at some point most sane people do indeed accept this.  Usually not until their 40s, however.
  4. Care what everyone else thinks.  I’ve never been overly worried about this, but the older I get, the less I give a s*#t.
  5. Judge the value of my life by how much money I make.  Good thing.
  6. And most importantly, I am too old to believe it when others say I am too old to do something. Whether it’s to write a novel, or to skydive, or to skinny dip.

There will always be people who say you can’t do something, because of your age, or your sex, or one of a million other reasons.  Don’t believe them.  You are never too old to follow your dreams.

The Power – and Joy – of the Right Word

Many writers write for the love of story.  Many for the love of language.  But the best writers are those who strive for beauty in both the story and the language.  The story is not sacrificed for lyricism. It is told with language that serves the story, but that also often surprises us.

I’m currently reading Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, and as did his National Book Award- winning Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic reminds me over and over again of the power of the right word.  His descriptions are so clearly drawn, his word choices so strong and inventive, that it takes my breath away.

A few of my favorite lines so far:

TransAtlantic

“Sometimes it withered him just to keep his mind steady.”

“…an incidental skim of words across the surface of the day…”

“The children appeared marooned by hunger.”

McCann uses such beautiful, creative language.  It is the story that has drawn me in, that keeps me going on this journey with him.  But it is the way he tells that story – the language – that makes me love the ride so much.

When I read writers like McCann, I want to be better.  I want to challenge myself.  I begin to rethink my verbs, searching for stronger and more evocative ways of saying things.  I begin to play with my word choices.  And I remember again what is so much fun about writing.  I remember why I write in the first place.