As previously reported, I am in the process of fleshing out and editing my NaNoWriMo novel. I don’t have a consistent schedule for when to actually sit down and work, but I think often of the miniature world I created, of the characters’ struggles and triumphs. Imagine my excitement when a couple of weeks ago L., an author and former editor, agreed to meet with me to discuss our mutual projects.
Moi? Discussing someone’s writing project? I had a feeling L. did not specialize in fourth grade book reports or progress notes for therapy sessions, the two forms of writing with which I am most familiar. Nonetheless L. arrived at my home armed with two copies of the first chapter of her current fictional work. I was armed with only one copy of my first chapter, because I didn’t know any better.
Over coffee cake we shared our respective synopses. I learned that L.’s protagonist is a teenager living in a United States of the future, while L learned that my protagonist is a middle aged woman living in the present in a town which does not exist. Next we read one another’s chapters. I was immediately pulled into the life of L.’s teenaged heroine. I had opinions on where she was going, and what she would do next. Clearly L. has the talent to write in such a way that the reader quickly develops empathy for her characters.
The meeting made me feel so…writerly, because L was generous enough to take me seriously despite my lack of education and experience. Somewhere in there we talked about mutual challenges for our work going forward. My dilemma was that I had been advised to begin my book with more action. Should I do as I had been advised or should I do what I thought best? And how could I think anything to be best when I had never written anything at all?
As we say in the South, bless little ole Miss L.’s heart!! She absolutely validated my intention to write a book about a woman’s interior life, the world others do not see. Her advice to write the kind of book I would want to read myself was the most grounding advice I could have heard that day. I doubt I was of much help to her, but I gave it my best shot. I hope points are given for effort!
Two days later I arrived at the Monterey Aquarium, where some scenes in my book take place. I wanted to see the place for myself in order to write more realistically about my character’s day there. I was curious; what would have caught my character’s eye or mind at the museum? What, if anything, would stay with her, lingering in her thoughts long after her day at the museum was over?
I suppose we see what we need to see when we are ready, for though I was wondering what my protagonist would feel, I was quickly making observations of my own.
As I made my way through the exhibits, folks were crowded all around the tanks, admiring the fish and taking pictures.
These sea creatures inhabit worlds we do not see, worlds that humans have been known to ignore or exploit. Each species is motivated by instinct to perform actions we may may not understand. Their ways of living and appearances are alien to us.
In the tanks the creatures grow and change, each ecosystem interacting with and depending on one another. For them it is business as usual but the humans are mesmerized. We cannot stop congregating, staring, watching, and eventually becoming hypnotized by the swirling colors and otherworldly life forms. It is as though we can see into their souls, if they have souls. As we stare we realize we are all interconnected parts of the same whole.
As I tried to sidle up to the tanks, camera at the ready, I felt a thrill of recognition. Why, this was JUST like reading fiction. A reader opens a book and finds an entire world, full of people and events that are strange to him. Though the reader may not agree with what happens to the characters, he becomes entangled in their lives just the same. Hopefully the author has used prose arranged so artfully that the reader, like one of those gathered by the fish tanks, finds himself compelled to read the words over and over, just to hear them or to see the mental pictures evoked one more time.
As we navigate the stories we read, we come face to face with ourselves. How do our inner lives correspond with those of the characters for which we have so much empathy? Would we respond as the characters have? What do their struggles have to do with our own lives?
It has been said that fiction exists for truth telling. Just as an endangered species takes us out of our complacencies, a work of fiction can disrupt our world. Characters can become permanent parts of our lives. While we may never meet Jean Valjean, Porfiry Petrovich or even Harry Potter in our actual lives, they live forever in our hearts. Raise your hand if you have ever pondered on characters and their predicaments long after you have completed your first reading of a favorite book!
I left the aquarium feeling more connected to the unseen worlds of the ocean, and grateful that such quirky but gorgeous creatures are on this earth. I got a sense of what would have caught my heroine’s eye, and how she would have responded to her surroundings. But focusing on these unseen watery worlds gave me even more permission to write authentically about what interests me, namely, this particular middle aged woman in a town which does not exist.
One day in the future I hope to have my heroine’s story ready to share. Her world is compact, but it is real, just as the lovely blue tangs and angel fish inhabit a small but tangible space. In the grand scheme of things her efforts in this life may seem minor, but her spirit touches many. Like the connections found in the world beneath the sea, like all the humans on this earth, she is a small part of that whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. That is exactly the book I want to write, because that is exactly the book I would most want to read.