27 July 2006 | Comments Off

Ho Kelley! Have thrown back a few from the stool here and thought I might try to respond. Cheers baby!

I agree with what you said about truthful prose combining physical, emotional/psychological truth. In addition the cultural, national, religious, sexual, (‘ingredients’ ) etc. history of the person must have the appearance of consistency.

My first response (as a reader) is: Many fiction stories I read (even some non-fiction) seem to supply very limited psychological information for the characters/people to be the way they are. And in that sense do not feel “truthful”. This is the case even when most of the other ingredients are accounted for. Of course, I’m a psychologist. So, could there be enough??? The thing I’ve learned in listening to many, many stories from clients over the years — is that despite everything I’ve already heard and know, there was no way to predict how the next person would react to a similar situation. This is what I find so . . . boring . . . about a lot of fiction. There is not enough variation in how characters respond to even the most common situations.

And yes, there often does seem to be a rush to explain complexities of character. So, I don’t want the writer to beat me over the head with it but I also need enough to have a thread to grasp so that I can use my imagination and thoughtfulness to fill in the blanks. So the question for me (as a writer) becomes: how deep do I have to go, what sort of examples from the past or from the character’s thought process, etc., do I have to put out there so the character makes sense, is complex and shows consistency? And, how many characters within the story do I have to do that with? I mean in the example you gave from Solitaire, Mist tells Jackal it’s hard to always have to be nice to her. It’s a great example of characterization for Jackal, but tells us virtually nothing about Mist. I remembered reading that and I know my thought was something like “then don’t be, say what you think” and then wondering why she would say such a thing in the first place. Or another way of asking and again only for illustration — would it have been more helpful to understand the development of the psychology of Jackal’s mother to better understand its impact on Jackal???

. . . . so to get back to my original question . . . to be truthful, in revealing the character in physical, emotional, psychological depth, do you feel revealed? Does it ever feel like taking your clothes off in front of strangers? And, I’m not asking in a real sense, I mean it more like . . . when you’re sitting in front of the story and trying to get out what you mean, what is truthful for the character — in the silence of your own mind, in the privacy of your own home — do you ever feel like that? Like you’ve just peeled off all your clothes and are naked there on the page? The question is not about the truth you reveal about yourself to me as reader, but to yourself ABOUT YOURSELF.

I’ll have to find another way to talk about the rest of the question I’m trying to ask.

Perhaps I’ve fallen off the stool. Let me get another . . .


Hi Robin,

You’ve been very patient, thanks. I’ve been eyebrows-deep in a project for the last six weeks or so, but have been circling back to your question and chewing on it during that time. I think I understand it better, but I’m not sure that I can answer in a way that’s any more satisfying for you (grin). Let’s see how this one goes.

You’ve asked a writing question (how deep to go and what to show) and a writer question (what do I reveal to myself about myself), so…. writing first. It’s hard to talk about this, because so much of it is instinct (by which I really mean, practice and expertise so deeply integrated at this point that I no longer know how to talk about it as decision-making process). But I’ll take a whack at it.

It occurs to me that it’s in large part a function of the challenges of writing from a single, deep point of view. Solitaire is Jackal’s story, so as a writer I’ve tried to go deep with her, and then show in other characters whatever she needs to see in order to interact with them. In that example with Mist: we’ve already had a previous interaction (brandy and orange juice is disgusting), and we’ve been privy to some of Jackal’s opinions of Mist — she’s a fashionista, someone Jackal feels unconsciously superior to, someone she regards as fundamentally shallow, etc. And so in the interchange, Jackal is surprised by not only what Mist says, but how deeply she seems to feel about it. And since it’s Jackal’s story, we only get to know or see what Jackal wants (or is forced to) know or see. Jackal isn’t focused, in that moment, in wondering why Mist is who she is: she’s focused on herself, her own insecurity and embarrassment.

Would it help to understand Donatella’s psychological history to better understand its impact on Jackal? I guess my response is, helpful for whom? (That’s a real question, not me being snarky). In that moment, Jackal doesn’t need it — again, she’s focused on herself, trying to cope with the experience. Later, the reader gets the information that Donatella’s always been competitive in this way, and also the memory of the rescue on the cliffs. But Jackal doesn’t spend a lot of time dissecting her mother’s psychology. Jackal’s an impatient soul, more into doing than reflecting, which is how she gets herself into trouble sometimes.

I think that writing in this way (from a single, deep point of view) is a lot like the physical transmission of television: all the black on a TV image is not black pixels being beamed to my TV set, it’s the absence of any data at all that my brain interprets as black. If I’m doing my job as a writer, the reader will fill in the blank spots for herself because that’s what Jackal is doing.

Other points of view are more flexible. One of the things I love about Stephen King’s work is his facility in wandering in and out of everyone’s heads, primary and secondary characters, and combining their real-time thoughts with memory, behavior, observation and feeling to paint a complex picture in a few simple strokes. He’s fantastic at creating character.

As for the writer question, well…. No. I don’t feel naked on the page with myself. And I’m guessing this is not the answer you expect (I won’t presume to guess what answer you want), because it’s pretty much a cultural given that writers do expose themselves in their work, so it makes sense that it would start “at home,” so to speak.

But no, that’s not how I feel. When I write, it’s not about me, and I mean that in lots of ways. I do not write “about Kelley” in fiction — that’s what the virtual pub is for. I learn a lot more about my own psychology and process in the act of writing these pints than I do in the act of writing fiction. Fiction is not self-analysis. It’s story. It’s the joy of walking through the door in my head and finding myself in another place with people that I grow to understand and to love. And I am both there and not there during that experience — I’m there, in the story, sometimes in their heads and sometimes as an observer, but it doesn’t matter that I’m Kelley Eskridge, it doesn’t matter who I am in the daily waking world or why I behave the way I do. I’m not there to reveal myself to me or anyone else, and if I do experience a self-revelation, it will damn sure derail the writing. All that matters is that the writer is there with space in her heart and mind and soul for all manner of human behavior and feeling and action and relationship. The writer is the doorway. The writer is the physical transmission process for this TV of the mind. And Kelley had better get out of the writer’s way if anything true is to be written. Because it’s not my truth but the truth of the story that is important. Something doesn’t have to be true for Kelley in order for it to be true for the character — the writer’s job is to make space for everyone.

This probably sounds like I think that “I” am not “the writer,” but that’s not what I mean. The relationship between art and craft and artist is pretty complex. Craft is learned behavior that has to become instinctive, integrated, in order for the art to emerge and the artist to function. The writer has to both know, and not know, what she is doing in the moment of creation — be both hyperaware and deliberately not looking. The writer must control and surrender, simultaneously. It’s like riding a bicycle with no hands, something I enjoyed immensely as a child, which is surprising considering that I was in almost every other way physically risk-aversive. Writing, like those bicycle moments, is a rush that only happens (in my experience) after a lot of bloody hard work and a fair amount of falling on one’s ass. It cannot be done if the writer is busy looking at whether or not she herself is on the page in any way. If I am looking for the truth of myself in the work, I am missing the point. It’s not about me. The writer doesn’t give a shit about me — whether I’m tired or grumpy or wrestling with Big Identity Issues. The writer want to write. I’m finally learning that I am happiest when I get out of my own damn way and thereby help the writer, the opener of deep doorways, do our work.

And that’s the best that I know how to describe it right now. It seems like a clumsy description, and maybe it doesn’t make sense, but it’s the most naked I can get about it.

Let me know what you think.