Characters out of the bag.
Currently, I’m having fun in my spare time writing again. I say it’s “fun,” but am not sure that’s true. Is writing “fun?”
In a story I’m working on now, the main character shares a lot of qualities with who I was in my 20s, some of the same pitfalls and heartaches. But how much is loosely biographical, and used as a launching point, does an audience believe or trust? In other words, will they read it, and think it’s all about me, and not an exploration of bigger themes?
Right now, we’re working on a creative writing assignment, an idea I borrowed from my mentor, and she borrowed from someone else. The idea is to take a brown paper bag, and put a variety of objects in this bag. As a class, we decided not to use anything that wouldn’t normally fit in a gym bag, backpack or purse. For example, you couldn’t put a car, but a toy car would be fine. In order to speed things along, students could print or draw pictures of the objects. (In the future, I don’t recommend this. Having the tactile objects is much more engaging. Live and learn.) This has a caution, too: students should not put anything in their bags that they would mind never seeing again, because they trade bags.
Students’ reactions were interesting:
Do they just write about the objects?
Do they write about themselves?
So, here is what I modeled:
In the bag: movie tickets, hair bow, cell phone, picture of a puppy, and a bag of cookies.
We went through the list, and determined some of the character’s basics: gender, age, etc.
My off-the-top-of-head story: (I said this out loud, not writing.)
She sat alone in the darkened movie theatre. Credits end, and house lights go on. She sits there and stares at her cell phone for the twentieth time. No text from him. She had been stood up again. She reaches in the bag of homemade chocolate-walnut cookies, the ones she promised him she’d make. This was the third time he has sent her a text asking her out. She believed him. There was usually some good reason why he didn’t show. She shouldn’t have eaten the cookies. She was trying to lose a few pounds, to impress him, and the butter alone would put her off her goal for a week. Glancing down at the cell phone again, no text or message. Blinking in the bright sunlight of the afternoon, she didn’t see the three girls across the street, laughing hysterically. They had gotten her again, and couldn’t wait to put up the pix of the fat girl walking out of the movie alone on Facebook.
Now, every 8th grade kid gasps, and some say, “Oh, Mrs. Love, that’s GREASY!” — Translation: “greased” to be ill used.
Then some asked, “Is that a true story?”
Well, I wasn’t a chubby teenage girl. I have never been stood up (a personal record), and Facebook didn’t exist when I was a teenage (and, again, thank heavens!!).
Explaining that writers are, and are not, their stories, when writing fiction, is a tricky concept for the literally-minded adolescent (and adult). That we take little gems, seeds, nuggets, and springboard to telling tall-tales when we want to explore a burning question or theme is complicated. I was thinking of what actors and actresses must go through when portraying a convincing kiss on screen. There is a whole crew watching, and their own loved ones at home. They must kiss someone that they are not in love with (with the exception of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), and make it convincing, real, and get their audience swept up in the moment. However they as individuals feel about that kiss is moot.
Allowing ourselves to play those roles on paper is both terrifying and exhilarating, and may be the essence of what is so powerful of the written word. And it’s tough to keep that one in the bag.
Postcript: Some of my students’ stories are absolutey amazing. Love being a teacher: get paid to read and write most of the day, and share in the creative process. Wow.