Christine M. Rice
Friday, May 4, 2012
Hundreds of characters are rumbling around my brain. Last night was my final class of the spring semester and, over the last three weeks, I read over 1,000 manuscript pages. My brain feels swollen, character-logged. They’re packed sardine-close up there. They pop up in my dreams, bump into me at Trader Joe’s, swerve around me in crosswalks, chat me up at the dog park. I see an elegant older woman, hair freshly set & washed, Kleenex tufting out of the sleeve of her cashmere sweater, and think: that’s her. That’s the character that seduced her sister’s husband. She’s standing right next to me, in the frozen food section. I want to ask her if the plot really spooled out that way, if the dialogue seemed right, if the point of view did justice to the story. I want to know if we made the right decision to publish her story. I want to touch her. See if she’s real.
I settle for standing next to her, gawking, as she leans in to snag a bag of frozen mango. My stare catches her attention (in the story, she’s a retired law professor, after all). She whips her face toward me with just the right combination of irritation and inquisitiveness, “Yes?”
I mumble something about mango, lean in, grab a bag and hold it next to my face like a prize. She probably thinks I’m crazy. She probably thinks I’m a Chicago-area gypsy; that I’m sizing her up, preparing to snatch a fat wallet out of a sensible handbag.
How do you switch from that imaginative world — where you’ve been steeping — to real life? I mean, really? How do you?
It’s worse with your own work. This morning, I was finally able to get back to a section of my novel-in-stories. I’d neglected my characters. Missed them terribly. For their part, they were pissed. And who could blame them? It had been two months since I’d visited. All the usual obstacles prevented me from opening the document: jobs, chauffeuring, doctor and dentist appointments, student conferences, soccer practice, PTA meetings, etc., etc. Solid Mt. Rushmore commitments. Then there’s the I-need-to-do-that stuff like cleaning the cat box, walking the dog, wrangling tumbleweed size dust-bunnies, folding laundry. You know: that stuff. The stuff that piles up to become roadblocks between my writing and me.
Rereading the work from a few months back, I found that it really worked. The dialogue flowed. The point of view and narrative distance and dueling plotlines seemed spot-on. Today, though, those same characters wouldn’t play nice. Their dialogue felt flat, stilted. The point of view felt all wrong. The writing wasn’t going well. I had been looking so forward to this first day back to writing. And it sucked. It really did. My characters didn’t seem happy to see me at all.
At ten-thirty, I broke away from my agony to take my mom to her wash & set (i.e., Mt. Rushmore commitment). She got in the car and looked at me, “You look tired.”
She’s so small. She reminds me of a tiny bird in the bucket seat, “What?”
I take a deep breath. I raise my voice, “I said, thanks.”
She ignores me and plucks two letters from behind the visor, “You didn’t mail these? I’ll get a $20 late charge. I don’t want a $20 late charge.”
“I’ll mail the letters.”
“I’ll mail the letters.”
“After I drop you off. “
“I’ll mail the letters after—“
“I heard you. You don’t have to yell.”
“But you said, What?“
She flaps her hand, “I heard you.”
She’s irritated. I’m irritated. We’re snapping.
After an hour or so, I pick her up. Her hair’s been washed and set and sprayed into a golden, impenetrable helmet. Her entire demeanor has brightened. Her grey eyes snap. She clutches my arm as I help her into the car. Her hair looks nice so I tell her so.
“Not bad,” she nods. “You mailed the letters?”
“What letters?” I say loud enough for her to hear.
She doesn’t even acknowledge the ruse, “Thank you, honey.”
I jump into the driver’s seat and we’re off. Something has shifted. Could be her. Or me. Don’t know. Don’t care. I want to kiss her cheek.
Three writing hours before I have to pick up the kids from school and I attack the writing with new vigor. The characters are softening under my touch. They’re unfolding. They’re cooperating. They’re damaged and scared and broken and lonely and betrayed. They start talking and I listen. They react and I get it down.
Something similar to the conversation I’d had in the car with my mom makes its way into a scene. It becomes a memory, an internal perception, of the main character: an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother has committed suicide.
There’s this unbreakable link between my real and imagined worlds. Magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, straight up lit fiction: for me they all come from something. It might be a glance. The turn of a phrase. The way an older man tips his hat. It’s all there. Even when I’m running at 90 mph, unable to write, I’m hoarding the moments, jotting them down in my journal, so that when I finally get in front of the screen, I put them to work.
It’s that cotton-candy spin to combine the feather-light and weighty moments. I just have to notice them. And, some days, that’s about all I can do.
Chris blogs at CHRISTINEMAULRICE.COM.
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