Friday, February 24, 2017

First Things First

One of the first questions the writer of non-fiction needs to decide is how present he or she wants to be within the piece. Is the story better told from the first person point of view, with the author as an active participant? Or would an arm's length, third person approach, be more effective? Each have merit, and there are wonderful examples of both. John McPhee usually writes in the third person. For example, in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (all 192 pages of it), he used the word “I” twice. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote entirely in the first person. Both are classics, both successful, both very different. This is one of the beauties of literary non-fiction. 

So which to choose? The answer is partly a function of what kind of story you want to write. Your childhood may be better told in the first person, but if you are writing about the families suffering from water contamination in heavily fracked lands, for example, it may be more effective to place yourself - as a writer - at a distance from the issue.

It might also, though, come down to personal preference. How do you like to write? What do you like to read? Personally, I am not so interested in third person journalistic pieces. Perhaps it’s narcissistic but I like to be in the story, and if I’m not in it, I want to have an opinion about it, and I want to be able to express that opinion clearly. I like to reflect on the things I write about. I try to roll them around in my mouth, taste them, chew them a little, smell them, touch them, and sense their texture. I like to speculate as to their larger meaning.  And I like to express those thoughts on the page. If I could not do this, I would not bother to write.  

Philip Lopate put it well: “I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read non-fiction is to follow an interesting mind…I’m arguing more for reflective non-fiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.” Me too. I want to read writers who lay it out there, who expose themselves and their thoughts and I want to write this way too.

To be able to write nonfiction with the skills of a storyteller is a rare gift and I enjoy reading such work. I wish I could write that way; it’s an art. But I don’t want to immerse myself in the organ transplant industry, or in the history of astronauts, or the business of fracking, just to tell a story. Such topics are fascinating, for sure, but I am more interested in the things that are going on right here, right now, in the small but interesting sphere of the world that I find myself in. And I want to make sense of those things. If I can find a way to make them interesting to others, well, that would be just fine.

The writer Jennifer Bowen Hicks sums it up for me: “When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?”

Kevin Brolley is a first year MFA student. This is not his first career. The others worked out pretty well, mostly, but the jury is still out on this one.  His long-term ambition is to become the most caffeinated man in America.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Beyond Cute, Loud, Obnoxious, and Innocent: Writing Children as Literary Characters

Some of the most enduring characters in literature are children: Scout, the March sisters, Harry Potter and his friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner from The Book Thief leap immediately to mind. Each of these characters is as fully-rendered on the page as any of their adult counterparts.
Filling your stories with children will add an element of complexity and authenticity to your writing. Whether you are writing children as main or secondary characters, considering these few points will help you create realistic, identifiable characters for your readers.

Children’s emotions and personalities are as complex and unique as adults’ are. It helps to remember yourself at the same age as your character. While you certainly didn’t know a lot about the world at large, you knew a lot about your world. You were curious and smart and kind and frightened by things that might seem silly now. You navigated relationships with siblings and friends and teachers and neighbors. You had your own sense of humor, your own varied interests, your own insecurities, your own rich and secret imaginary world. Write these into your child characters.

Children are motivated by goals and desires. One of the elements that separates static characters from dynamic characters is desire. Children long to fit in at school, for a parent to love them, to be given a guinea pig for their birthday, to negotiate more screen time or a later bedtime. Much of their mental and physical energy is consumed by wanting things and figuring out how to get them. In fact, since most children don’t need to worry about careers, mortgages, taxes, and politics, it is possible that the children in your stories are even more defined by their desires than adults are.

Despite their rich inner lives and wonderful brains, children are children. Your readers will have a hard time believing that your eight-year-old protagonist has the experience and emotional intelligence to counsel a drug-addicted parent, or the culinary knowledge to whip up a gourmet meal. If readers don’t tire of precocious children who spout zingy one-liners or use obscure four-syllable words in their dialogue, they will certainly begin waiting for “the twist” that explains why these children are so uncharacteristically wise. Readers will also be suspicious of impeccably well-behaved children. Children are sometimes loud. They are impatient and restless, and they don’t always adhere without complaint to adult agendas.

If you’re having a hard time tapping into your own memories, it can help to consult photographs and videos from your childhood. Observe your own children, or your nieces and nephews, or your students. Children are everywhere, but if you’re living in a retirement community or feel uncomfortably voyeuristic observing children to whom you have no connection, consult the internet. Child development charts like this one can help you determine what a healthy (or unhealthy) 10-year-old might do.
Children under the age of fourteen make up more than a quarter of the world’s population. Include them in the landscape of your own writing.

Trina Sutton is a second year MFA candidate in Fiction. She loves teaching students to be logical and critical thinkers.