In the last month or so, I’ve written at least two and a half short stories that center around the same, basic situation. I finish one story and then get that feeling. You know that feeling? The feeling that your story is like deeply uncomfortable clothes and it just doesn’t feel right? I imagine that with a little more time, I will have a book-length collection of short stories, all dealing with the same basic theme. Am I stuck? No. I’m figuring things out.
The characters you know
Writers are often asked, “So which character is really you?” I’ll confess that when I read certain novels, I do tend to assume that a character in the novel is speaking for the author. Usually this is true when the experiences of the main character lines up closely with the author’s own bio. Or when the depiction of a particular culture or world is so richly drawn that I can’t believe the author isn’t writing from personal experience. I really believe that Cheryl Mendelson must have been born and raised in Morningside Heights.
But if someone asked me about my own novel, “Which character is really you?”, I would have to answer that none of them are. They are all me, and they are all not me. Some of them are me at my very crankiest. And some of them are me at my least mature. And some of them are me on my best days. Some on my worst. Creating characters is like splitting off little bits of yourself and then fleshing them out.
The end result is that even if your characters do things that you would never do yourself, you can understand why they are doing it. When Olive Kittiredge steals one shoe from her daughter-in-law’s closet, you know you’d never do that, but you so understand the temptation; at least, I so understand that temptation.
The undiscovered country
Sometimes in real life, people do things that you simply cannot understand. They do the unfathomable. They depart for the undiscovered country. These are the kinds of situations that lead to two and a half short stories on the same topic. I don’t know what other people do when faced with incomprehensible behavior. Maybe they are wiser than me and simply move on. I write it out.
How do you know when you’ve reached the undiscovered country? When you simply cannot put yourself inside the head of a character because you cannot understand the motivations of a person who does [fill in the blank]. In other words, you truly cannot answer the question, “What were they thinking?”
I feel I’m pretty good at answering that question for a lot of situations; I don’t find a lot of things incomprehensible. I would never murder someone, but I’ve stood in a particular emotional state that’s somewhere along that highway and seen where it could lead. Which is not the same as saying I don’t find a lot of things wrong or stupid. But I can still understand why people do wrong or stupid things. Perhaps because of this empathic flexibility, when I do find something that just doesn’t make sense, I can’t leave it alone. I pick at it like an old scab. I ruminate. I write it out.
It’s not about the answer
I write it out. I try it from the perspective of the person who’s done the thing I cannot imagine. I try it from the perspective of someone close to the person who’s done the unimaginable thing. I try it from the cat’s perspective, the dog’s perspective, the omniscient perspective. I write it bare-bones, Hemingway-style. I write it as a fairy tale. I write it with a wry, humorous tone. I am like a dog with an old bone. I gnaw at it.
In the end, do I actually figure it out? I have no idea. Perhaps, no. That might not be the point.
The point is the stories–two and a half and counting. Stories in which I learn something from the attempt to write them. Stories which will perhaps someday enable other folks to figure it all out, even if I can’t. Stories, because that’s what we do in order to make sense of the world, even the things that seem insensible. We make them into stories. Sometimes compulsively. What else do we have?