Dedication through Destruction: Thoughts on Writing Practice
My fiction is compelled by the seemingly unbridgeable boundaries between different minds (particularly the boundary between child and adult minds), and by the prismatic relationship between a person’s identity and an outsider’s perception of it. In other words, my inspiration comes both from an interest in psychology and a strong personal desire to connect with other human beings.
It would stand to reason, then, that I start with character—yet, that’s rarely the case. I start with images, situations, tactile things. A girl polishing a boot; a boy pinching a pine needle. However, the idea that kicks off a story (or, as has more often been the case lately, a novel) is frequently discarded in the process of revision because it no longer feels true to a character, once I know them better. And I always want to know them better.
Off the page, I can accept that complete knowledge of a person or thing is impossible—there will always be mysteries too obscure to unravel, secrets well-kept, scraps of information thoughtlessly discarded. Living in the world means recognizing that there will be holes in your understanding—religion actually caters to this with its conception of faith. (You don’t need to comprehend how God is related to the Holy Ghost, because according to Catholicism you aren’t meant to. The real test is in accepting the paradox.)
Fiction, however, has the privilege of intimacy, and I try to live up to that privilege by diving not only into a character’s psychology but also into their body. Precise physical details, used to evoke sensual experience (what a person hears/tastes/feels with the hairs on the back of their neck), enrich a reader’s understanding of a character’s emotional experience, too. I want to look at as many sides of the people in my stories as possible, even when achieving this means throwing out a lot of work that’s already done. “The Dimensions of the Anomaly,” for example, began as a radical revision of a different story about the narrator, written in the voice of his nanny, Laney. After spending so much time trying, with Laney, to figure him out, stepping into this character's mind was as easy as opening a door—and more than twice as exciting.
So what does that all mean for my process? Push further, push harder, and don’t be afraid to throw everything out and think the work through in a totally new way. My insight into characters will sometimes be at odds with their own view of themselves, and it’s the dialectic between those two perspectives that creates enough friction to bring a story to life.