Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Identity Check

Last night, my five-year-old daughter presented me with a handwritten note:

Der Mom
I <3 you
sow much!
Bee cus
you'er a 
Good righter

First of all, I was blown away that my lesson about silent 'g' had stuck, even if she employed the wrong 'righter.' And how she used the more difficult 'sow,' rather than 'so.' Obviously, she shares my affinity for homonyms. My kid is the next O'Conner-in-training, and don't you dare try to tell me otherwise.

Anyway, her note was sweet and adorable and I loved that she recognizes my profession. It reminded me of another time (Yes, it's going to be one of THOSE posts. Deal.) one of my spawn called me a writer. In fact, it was the first time.

When my eldest was in first grade, he had to fill out a little Getting to Know You questionnaire. Name, Age, Pets, Hobbies... and then it wanted to know what Dad and Mom do. I helped him spell his dad's profession. When it came to "My Mom is a ___" I started to spell out 'homemaker.' But my son, with his pencil poised over the paper, looked at me and asked, "How do you spell 'writer?'"

That one question, those five little words, absolutely floored me. At that point, I'd been writing for years, hoping for eventual publication. But it never crossed my mind to call myself a writer. It felt presumptuous. I wasn't published. I wasn't paid. I wasn't anyone. But to my son, I was a writer. He gave me the courage to say it out loud. To own it.

That's me... Spicy mystery AND Satan's
daughter. Just ask my ex.
Allowing others to identify us can be powerful for good or for ill. I'll never forget the time a person I once loved called me a whore. I rejected that label with my whole being, and it created an irreparable breach between us. Even though I know it was hurled at me in anger, I'll never forget it.

Something else I'll never forget: I had a friend with whom I used to sit for hours, discussing literature and art and philosophy and religion and politics and absolutely everything. He asked questions, and he listened to my answers. Over the course of months, he turned me inside out, examining everything about me. Finally, he proclaimed me to be intelligent and restless and passionate. He said I couldn't be contained by convention. He made me feel worldly and intriguing, like I might be a fascinating person to know. Whether or not that's true, I wanted it to be. He saw something inside of me I hadn't recognized in myself, and put words to it. Ever since, that feeling has stayed near my heart. Now and again, as I'm going about my mundane, domestic routines, those words float to the surface of my mind. They feel like a secret identity. I might be over my ears in laundry and social studies projects, but really, I'm the woman you wish would give you the time of day at a cocktail party. 

While we must ultimately decide our own identities, there is something so powerful about having someone else recognize an aspect of ourselves and put a name to it. Whether it's a young child dropping a truth bomb, an abusive partner filling our ears with lies, or a friend boosting our confidence, the words by which others name us make an indelible mark upon our souls.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Total Recall

Actors of the stage and screen are in the business of convincingly portraying a character as part of a larger storytelling effort by the entire cast and crew. There are many methods actors might employ to get "into character" as they call it in the biz, but most of them rely on some form of sensory or emotional recall, in which the performer summons memories of an event in his or her own life similar to that which must be portrayed, and attempts to channel the physical and emotional state they experienced at the time.

I bring this up, because as I've been working on my current work-in-progress, it occurs to me that authors are a lot like actors in this regard, and then some. To write good fiction, an author must submerge herself in the point of view character. This means feeling and writing everything that character goes through. To a lesser extent, we must understand and sympathize with the motivations of even minor characters, even if we don't take you into their heads.

Romance novels often feature at least two point of view characters, the hero and the heroine, sometimes more. My current release, Once a Duchess, has at least four point of view characters. Perhaps five. I'm loathe to pick through and count right now.

These are all me.

In order to bring the best realism to my work, every aspect of my life becomes fodder. Every humiliation and heartbreak; every love and longing; every loss and rejection; every anxiety and fear; every arousal and impotence... they're all fair game. I may not have experienced the precise scenarios my characters go through, but so many of the feelings are my own. This is why a life well-lived is the greatest resource at a writer's disposal. The ability to accurately portray human experience is invaluable.

Also me.
Quite recently, I was on the phone with a friend while in the grips of some Big Emotions. While I cried and gasped and stammered my way through a feeble attempt at articulating myself, she said, "What you need to do is take all of this and channel it into a great scene." And she was right. Right then, I took a quick mental and physical inventory. What does my body feel like? Which muscles are tense? Which internal organs burn? How difficult is it to draw breath? Why can't I string together a coherent sentence? I filed away the information for later use.

Writers are scavengers of emotion. We horde our own experiences and we pick the carcasses of others' tragedies for useful bits. Our memories are our databases. Our bodies are forced to relive the traumas and joys of our lives, over and over again. All in the service of telling a story.