camp nano

On a whim, I have decided to try out Camp NaNoWriMo this July.

Considering the amount of crazy day job deadlines coming up, my general emotional state (poor), and the amount of regular writing I currently do (very little), I am sure this is going to be a huge challenge. I am going to be revising my NaNoWriMo novel from November 2015, something I have been meaning to do since, well, December 2015.

I undertake a lot of writing projects on a whim. I assign myself tasks designed to achieve enormous, significant goals. This is most often a mistake; I design things that don’t really work for me and then get dispirited when I can’t keep the output up for more than a few days. I have wanted to write for a long time but I don’t even know if I can do it anymore. Hopefully Camp Nano turns out not to be one of these projects.

If you’re thinking about signing up, there’s only 6 days until the Camp officially kicks off! Hop to it.

the neapolitan novels (a.k.a. thank god for feminism)

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Over the last month, I have been reading just one thing, pretty much: the Neapolitan quartet, by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante. While these books are so huge I’m sure most of you already know what they are about, for those who have somehow missed the buzz, they chronicle the parallel lives of two women, friends and rivals, as they grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Naples in the 50s – then 60s, 70s, and present day as the series progresses. I read the first novel in the series, My Brilliant Friend, at the end of last year, and the next two novels (The Story of a New NameThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay) one after the other this month. Today, I am about to embark on the fourth and final novel, The Story of the Lost Child.

My year in reading, so far, has been … puzzling. The Neapolitan novels are just one more example of the ambivalent, confusing relationship I am having with the books I’m reading in 2016. It’s commonly referred to with a simple-yet-expressive tag: love-hate. I felt it for Maurice, for The Outsider, even for the near-universally beloved The Goldfinch. Yet with Ferrante, unlike the others, I feel I can grasp the why of it, put into words this state of literary bewilderment I find myself in.

One one hand, Ferrante’s writing is spare to the point of being unbearably blunt, dry, and emotionless. The subject matter is depressing, violent, bleak. When I began reading My Brilliant Friend I didn’t care a thing about the narrator, Lenu/Elena, or understand her affection for her best friend, Lila/Lina. I didn’t understand what motivated Lenu’s enormous inferiority complex – why she always, always saw herself as lesser than Lila, why she would always interpret compliments given to her in such a twisted way that she saw them as affirming Lila’s greatness and degrading to her; why she made life-changing decisions out of a desire to prove herself worthy of Lila, when that feeling was not demonstrably mutual. In short, I just didn’t understand from where Lila’s charismatic influence – over Lenu and the other neighbourhood characters – supposedly derived. The novels state it, repeatedly, but I did not feel it.

And yet – somehow – I find myself cracking the spine on the fourth book, invested in these characters, invested in finding out what happens next in their lives. I have lived with them from childhood through elementary and high school, through becoming teenage brides and university students, through unhappy marriages and affairs; read of how Lenu became (almost by accident) a best-selling novelist and how Lila became one of the early women in the then-burgeoning field of computing programming. Somehow, at some point, I began to care what happened next. I began to feel angry when bad things happened to the women, betrayed by Lila’s indifferent, often cruel treatment of Lenu, stifled by the atmosphere of an Italy before feminism.

(Oh my, thank god for feminism. Seriously. My recommendation of the Neapolitan novels comes with an enormous invisible trigger warning, if you are into that sort of thing. The women in these novels are beaten, raped, degraded; dismissed, devalued and under-appreciated in every aspect of their lives. It is the kind of text that you look at and just go: “Thank goodness I was not born any earlier.” People who want to go back in time are nostalgia-addled morons.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the most explicitly feminist of the the three I have read so far. By this point, both women have married and both have wanted out of the institution, felt their power stripped from them and their dreams thwarted by the expectation that they have children and then not want anything else again, ever. Lenu begins a tentative exploration of feminism in this novel, reading feminist pamphlets and attending women’s separatist meetings. When you read it, you get the impression that Ferrante has lived through everything that Lenu lives through, and more.)

I think part of Ferrante’s literary charm is to be found in the same things that I found off-putting and odd at the beginning: her bluntness, her dryness, her lack of emotion. I hate to compare one of the most feminist writers I’ve read in recent years with one of the most misogynist, but I have only my own experiences to go off here – but the last time I experienced something similar was when I read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Different books, different subjects, different prose, and very different people behind the work; but that same bluntness that somehow created the same experience of strong emotion.

How do they do it, these writers? How do they create so much with so little? I’m more than a little envious.

 

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second draft blues

I have a serious case of the second draft blues.

Okay, not blues – maybe what I have is more accurately described as a phobia. A second-draft-induced full-on panic attack. Second draft terror.

How do you write a second draft? How do you do it? Seriously, could someone on the internet somewhere have written an actually helpful guide to tackling this monster? A specific, non-vague, step by step list of instructions? Yeah, that’d be great. I guess writing doesn’t really work like that – no one else can write you a ten-point plan for how to write your novel – but man, it’d be so awesome if it did.

Part of why I am so fearful of this next novelling step is that I have never taken it before. I am the first draft queen. I can free write like a champ. I have notebook upon notebook dedicated to those initial, glorious bursts of inspiration, those moments when even the texture and motion of the ink on the page is the stuff of poetry. But when it comes to second drafts my experience is limited to much, much shorter works – reviews, essays, flash fiction. I have no idea how to take on a 50k manuscript and it is freaking me out.

truman capote

This picture of Truman Capote comes up when you Google image search ‘frustrated writer.’

Freaking out for me means watching Gilmore Girls and Harry Potter for the twenty-millionth time and starting another novel and letting that big hulking black folder containing my manuscript intimidate me into inaction. Occasionally I treat my unsuspecting friends and acquaintances to a babbling, hyperactive rant when they ask me how my novel is going (a side effect of not wanting to lie and say, ‘Great!’ and also of having no filter when it comes to my emotions).

Does anyone have any advice? I will take book recommendations, article links, anything. Just don’t be vague.

visiting gilead

Gilead

Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors who has been around for decades but whom I have only just “discovered.” Said discovery was not so much organic as it was the result of a friend of mine insisting that she was one of the most amazing writers she had ever had the pleasure of reading, coupled with the un-recommendation of my entire bookclub. Too depressing, they said. Nothing happens, they said. Everyone dies, they said. What was the title again? I said.

I read Housekeeping in the middle of November last year. The weather outside my window was a mixture of seemingly-endless pouring rain and asphalt-meltingly hot days, neither of which went with the frozen, foggy, water-logged world described in the novel. I loved everything about Housekeeping, from the bitterness of the landscape to the inscrutability of the characters; I loved that it was narrated by a woman looking back on her childhood but that you somehow got the sense that the narrator was a child, living through the events of the novel as you read them: it was nostalgic and immediate all at once.

So I picked up Gilead for my first read of the year with high expectations, looking forward to falling in love and having my heart broken all over again. The experience was not quite the same as Housekeeping – there is, after all, 23 years between the publication of it and Gilead – and although I was thrown by this slightly at first, the longer I read the more delighted I was; that two novels from a single author could produce such different reading experiences is in a way astounding. Nevertheless, there’s a common thread: nostalgia. The pull-and-push relationship the narrators have with their hometowns. The strange relationship between place and feeling, between history and the present. Gilead confronts these odd connections more directly than Housekeeping, something that I think is a result of its narrative voice: the novel is told in one long breath, part diary, part confessional, part therapy-session, and part farewell letter. The narrator, John Ames, a third-generation preacher who has lived his whole life in the dusty town of Gilead, is dying, and so he undertakes to write a work for his young son that is part family history, part fatherly-advice/time capsule: it is his hopes for the future, as much as it is about his life and his father’s life and his grandfather’s life.

The way that that past intrudes upon the present is an unavoidable part of John Ames’ character, though, part of what keeps him up at night and part of what motivates him to write to his son. He worries about the church he has preached in all these years being torn down, about bits and pieces of it being destroyed because people do not understand or remember the significance of the painting in the hall or the roster on the spire. He worries about his friend, Boughton, and his son: Ames’ godson and namesake. He worries about what will become of his much younger wife and about the things he cannot control: that his family might need him in the future, but that he will not be there to help them.

Gilead is a sweet, sad novel with an arrestingly good narrator. He writes in his diary the way I write in my diary: to record things but also as a tool with which to marshall one’s thoughts. The supporting characters are all introduced quite naturally, without any forced descriptions or awkward moments of exposition: Ames assumes his son will know certain key people, and as a reader you put together their significance from context and as the novel progresses. It’s a deceptively simple writing style, the kind of thing that might seem easy to emulate from the outside. I am definitely envious of Marilynne Robinson. It also seems like a simple book, as though it is going to be a collection of family history stories mixed with the narrator’s present-day thoughts, but it ends up being something much more thought-provoking and insightful. With Ames being a preacher, a lot of the subject matter is religious, but even non-religious readers will find something to think about in Gilead. 

twenty-eight

A few weeks ago, I turned 28. It is hard for me to reconcile this number with my idea of myself; I still feel like I am exactly where I was at 18. I am still at uni, working towards completing my undergraduate degree, even though now I am in my final semester; I am still struggling to become a writer in the face of an often overwhelming fear of failure. I am nowhere near where I thought I would be at this stage in my life. I am still trapped in the previous stage, or still trapped in a mindset that expects life to unfold in neat, orderly stages.

But when I take a moment to look back at my twenties I am struck by how tumultuous they have been. At 21 I was depressed, suicidal. At 22 I moved out of home for the first time and fell in love – an insane, disordered love I didn’t know how to handle at the time. The year I turned 23 I fell in love again, and this time it was a love that made me feel stronger, safer. I was 24 when I lost my mother and 24 when I felt real grief for the first time – grief that I had no real concept of before, that I never knew I could feel. In that same year of my life I left my hometown and moved to a new city, an experience which has given me insight into the grief of others and which has redefined my idea of ‘home’. At 25, my partner and I bought our first house. At 26, I proposed, spontaneously, so in love I couldn’t keep it in. I never thought I could be the one to ask, but I am braver now. At 27, I got married.

Across all these years I have written and not written, struggled with writer’s block, struggled with anxiety, struggled with depression, re-enrolled at uni and dropped out and re-enrolled again, lost my ability to write and my desire to live and then found them both again.

I am afraid of 28. I am afraid it will be like 21, 22, and 24 – too much like these years and not enough like 23, 25, 26, 27… I am afraid I will get to 29 without hope or alteration.

Birthdays make me introspective; birthdays make me write, frantically, reminded of the finite nature of my life. It is trite, perhaps, to dwell on mortality as I age, and disproportionate the amount of worrying I do about death when I am not even 30 yet. I know it is useless to worry about death at all, as my worry won’t change anything. But I still meet every birthday in the same way: an uncomfortable mixture of hopeful and regretful.

My hope for 28 is that I will find optimism, despite all my fear and worry about this particular year of my life. My hope is that I will get to 29 feeling like progress has been made. My hope is that 28 will be one of the years I look back on fondly and think: 28 was a good year.

a note on criticism & a book review: joe meno’s office girl

[From the day I started Typewritten Tales, I knew I wanted to write book reviews. And film reviews, and TV show reviews, and restaurant reviews, and reviews of my day and mood and life. I wanted to think about and engage critically with the world. This is something that I want to do in my fiction as well: to think about the world that I live in and notice it, really notice it, to experience it in a fuller way. I am excited to bring you my first book review, because it means I am starting to do what I set out to do when I took up blogging.

I would like to add a disclaimer though: I am not a fan of negative book reviews. This does not mean that I only want to publish positive, meaninglessly supportive faux-criticism. If everything is awesome, nothing is. But I see no point in ripping into something for the sake of a punchline, either. HOWEVER, you have the following review. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, but I promise you I did not write what I wrote because I enjoy tearing people down, especially when I know how much hard work a novel is. I know it’s hard work, and I haven’t even finished mine.

It is because I am working on my own attempt at a novel that I think criticism is so important. If I don’t like something, the first thing I ask myself is why. There is always a reason. There is always something to be learned from every novel, good, bad, or in between. I want to learn. I want to dissect every piece of writing that I come across so that I know what I want to do with my own writing and can recognise when it is going astray.

On that qualifying note, I present to you my less-than-complimentary thoughts on Joe Meno’s Office Girl.]

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Joe Meno’s second novel, Office Girl (Akashic Books, 2012) is set in the year 1999. Its characters worry about the Y2K bug and talk about how the world is about to end. They listen to the Velvet Underground with disavowed enthusiasm. They ride bicycles through the streets of snowy Chicago and are described by what primary colours they have chosen to adorn themselves with.

Odile, the titular “office girl,” is lost. Spiritually speaking. She’s had a series of uninspiring telemarketing roles and flings with her coworkers. She’s possibly in love with a married man, but it’s hard to tell. She gives handjobs in the supply room and feels bad about herself afterwards. An art school drop out, she doodles and daydreams and expresses a desire to start her own Anti-Art Art Movement. She’s thinking about leaving Chicago for New York.

Jack is 26 and is already getting divorced. He, too, has had a string of dull day (or, more accurately, night) jobs, but he has the soul of an artist. He rides his shiny blue bicycle around the snow-covered city, recording its sounds on a little silver dictaphone. The sound of a balloon, apparently, is something you can capture on a tape recorder. Ditto, the sound of snow falling.

It’s all very poetic, but only in a way that a rather pretentious high schooler would appreciate. Odile and Jack are rather uninspiring, flat characters: their actions seem like deliberately symbolic movements performed for the reader, rather than the actions of believable characters. Odile, especially, is a frustratingly two-dimensional, marginalised-within-her-own-narrative character: a prime specimen of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl order if I ever read one. An early chapter, entitled ‘MEN WHO HAVE ACCUMULATED AROUND HER’ is the first indication that we’re entering MPDG territory; then, Odile thinks ‘Why doesn’t anyone make anything weird like this anymore?’ while moodily reading a zine and wearing a t-shirt for a band called Suicide and hating her art-world conforming performance artist roommate (who seems to exist only so a photo of a topless girl wearing a stormtrooper helmet could be included in the book). Icing on the cake, after 55 short pages, Meno abandons Odile’s point of view entirely to tell the remainder of the story from Jack’s perspective instead.

Jack, who is (of course!) falling in love with the endearing so-called weirdness that is Odile. Despite the fact that she consistently tells him that she’s not interested in a relationship. You can smell the ending, in which Odile will stop being such a handjob-giving slut and fulfil her role as fixer of Jack’s puppy-dog neuroses, before disappearing mysteriously after having altered Jack’s like in some ineffable/unutterable fashion, preferably after he has gotten to fuck her, from the first page.

The novel is wrapped in a bubblegum-pink cover, dotted with adorably lo-fi illustrations, and even has the occasional line where you think, ‘Hey, this writing is not so bad…?’ Ultimately, though, it’s not enough to save Office Girl from the clutches of cliché.

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student life

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My first week back at university is drawing to a close.

I have a complicated relationship with studying. A large part of me loves it: loves learning, loves thinking about interesting and intellectually challenging topics, loves reading and research, loves long hours in the library and required reading in the sunshine. I love the sense, when you’re on campus, that you are existing within a bubble. Not a sheltered, unrealistic, wait-until-you-graduate-and-see-what-the-“real”-world is like bubble, but a physical bubble: high walls, quiet spaces; the intended design of the buildings melding with the actual, inevitably disorganised way that people use them. The sense that you have passed through some filmy, soapy, invisible skin and into a different world where you don’t have to apologise for sounding smart.

Another, larger part of me hates it, even while I am loving it. And the reasons for hating it are far more nebulous and inexplicable than the reasons that I love it. Every morning, on the bus across town, I sit amongst a group of people five years younger than me and chastise myself for how much of a loser I am. Why didn’t I figure this out earlier? Why did it take me so long to reconcile my love of learning with my ability to show up and function? Have I actually reconciled this yet, or will this semester end like so many of them have: in tears, in failure, in forfeited grades and an enormous, nothing-to-show-for-it HECS debt.

I both love and hate the way that studying makes me feel. I feel dumber and smarter at once. My Philosophical Logic lecturer would probably be cringing, if he were to read this, but his class makes me feel this stronger than any of the others have so far. Coming out of his intensive two-hour first week seminar this afternoon, I felt that all-too-familiar mix of pride and dread. The weird sense of achievement at having solved a simple, introductory logic problem coupled with the crushing sense of foreboding I have about this class. I am probably going to fail it. I am not smart enough to pass Philosophical Logic.

I hate deadlines; they give me panic attacks. I hate group projects and public speaking; I hate paying large sums of money to have rambling lecturers condescend to me. I hate the long commute to campus. I hate awkward conversations with strangers and how desperate I am to have one of them talk to me, so that I don’t have to sit alone. I hate the feeling that the person behind me in the lecture theatre is reading my notes over my shoulder and quietly thinking I’m an idiot. I hate that I’ve somehow associated graduating with worthiness.

And yet I think all the time about what I am going to take on next. Whether it’s more study or pursuing a particular career path or finishing my novel, I am always taking on things that I have this weird, complicated, largely unhappy relationship with. These things that are essential to my sense of self that I, overall, hate; I hate myself in the moment of doing them. But I love them, too. Somehow.

_________

[Note: Again, this is another post dug up from a bloody, dark past, a.k.a. the beginning of semester. A few things have changed since I wrote this: I dropped out of Logic, but I also made some friends on campus and felt a little less lonely and worthless by the end of it. I got through the semester without crashing, burning, or failing anything. Regardless, there’s still a lot in this essay that holds true about my relationship with higher education, and I thought it was still worth publishing. I hope you think so too. LS]

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slump

blue

Slump. Slumped over. Going through a slump. Slump. Some lump. Lump. Lumbering, laboured, lagging.

People often speak of ‘going through a slump,’ an expression I always picture in the same way: a cartoon of a tired, defeated business man, in a dark suit, with cartoon lines under his eyes. He was walking on a sunny street a moment ago, with a straight spine and a smile on his face; but as he passes into shadow his shoulders droop in time with the corners of his sad mouth. I am going through a slump. I am walking down a dim, grey street. (I am recycling bad metaphors. I can’t help it.)

I am going through a slump. Actually, I am going through several kinds of slumps all at once. I am going through a reading slump; after a productive year in which I have read 50 books, I suddenly find myself bored and irritated by everything I pick up. I am going through a writing slump; everything I put on the page seems self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring, nothing like what it was in my head a few moments ago. I had a better opening line for this piece that had scurried away before my word processing program could be fucked to load. (Fuck you, technology.) I cannot even write letters to my friends, even though I want to. I cannot write replies to their texts, even though I want to.

I am going through a work slump; at my six-month performance review it was noted that I seemed less enthusiastic about my work. It is hard to be enthusiastic about my work. Six months in I have gotten to the point where I am no longer learning anything new, and my tasks have become mind-numbingly repetitive and frustratingly fiddly. There is nothing creative in my job, or not enough of it. My boss thinks I need reminding and for my hand to be held because, unlike her, I do not announce everything I am doing for the world to see how busy and important I am. That is unfair. I am in a slump at work in which I unfairly hate everything, including my perfectly nice boss.

I am going through a slump at my other work, too, as a subeditor of the film section of a magazine. Even though it has a strong creative element and is, objectively, an interesting job. Even though the writers I work with are improving every day, impressing me with their articulate analyses and amusing one-liners. Even so I find it hard to make myself sit down in front of the computer and edit submissions, or to come up with lists of films for the writers to review. I forget what I am doing while I do it. I forget what it used to feel like. I was so excited when I found out about this job; I jumped up and danced around the room with my best friend, squealing, while our partners looked on, confused. I felt like I was making progress. I was an editor now. I was doing something.

I am going through an everything slump. An agoraphobic slump. I dislike intensely having to leave the house and feel disgusting when I do. Hyper-aware of my disgusting fat stomach and legs, my greasy, sweaty skin. I am going through a sleeping slump, sometimes. I am exhausted but I cannot sleep. I am awake, alert, but I fall asleep as if I am passing out and wake feeling drugged. Sluggish.

People think the way to help me get out of this slump is to tell me how to fix it. Go back to volunteer work, set goals, exercise more, eat better. The fact that they are right only makes me angry. I do not seem to be having an anger slump; that one part of me is functioning perfectly, overtime, anytime, all the time.

They are right and they are wrong. Getting out of the house would  be good for me. If I exercised more and ate less crap I would probably feel better. I do not think they are right about the goal-setting thing; I have plenty of goals. Large, impressive, oppressive goals; goals that scare me, or that I am scared to think I might not ever meet. I have the weight of my own expectations, I do not need yours too.

They are right but they are wrong. If I could leave the house, exercise, prepare healthy food, I would. I think that I would if I could. It’s hard to explain that these simple things are hard for me to someone who has never found them difficult. Or worse, getting advice from those who have, at some point if not currently, experienced the same difficulties with getting out of bed, having a shower, focussing on a task long enough to finish it, making themselves a meal instead of ordering something deep-friend to be delivered. Have they forgotten? Or they are living with the same cognitive dissonance I am: the knowledge that these things would heal me, but that I could only do them if I weren’t already sick. If I could do these simple things with the ease with which people say the words, ‘Just get up,’ then I wouldn’t need to be told them.

These are the things I can do: watch TV, scroll through tumblr, masturbate, pick fights. These things are easy; these things make me feel alive, if only briefly. These things distract me from the gradual frittering away of my limited time. These things can be done in a slump; in a hunched over, balled up, listless position; things that require no effort or thought and contribute absolutely nothing, to anything or anyone.

I didn’t mean for this to happen but this blog has become a way for me to write about not being able to write. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. I am not writing any of the things I want to write. Is it enough to be writing? I started this blog because I wanted to teach myself discipline: I wanted to update this regularly, and hopefully about my writing successes. I had just been paid for writing and performing something for the very first time when I started this blog. I had all these ideas bubbling around in my brain, itching to be put down in words. Instead, I use it for those self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring bits of writing I mentioned before: these clichéd attempts to articulate what it feels like to be so depressed you can barely move; apologies and self-justifications for why I am not writing anything else. It’s not enough just to write, regardless of what you are writing. The words matter; what you are trying to say matters, whether or not it is any good, even if it is just by your own standards, matters. That you are writing something that contributes to something larger matters; just writing here, to fill up space on a page and be able to say, yes, I blog does not matter. There is nothing worthwhile in spewing your thoughts onto the page and posting it on the internet; this is insubstantial, this is the opposite of what I want. I would not be proud to say I wrote this. I will not tell anyone this is here.

Who does it matter to? Me. Me, my harshest critic. My slump does not prevent me from being angry, and it doesn’t prevent me from being angry at myself. Angry for these thoughts and I feelings that I cannot prevent. Angry that I waste so much time sitting around on the couch doing nothing. I am just the same as everyone else, telling me to pull my socks up: I think this is my fault. I think this is something that can be fixed by great effort, by sheer willpower. I start to plan. Fix-it plans: no more TV, yoga every morning, a blogging schedule, a plan to complete my novel. Some part of me still thinks this slump is something I can help.

on character

[Note: I started writing this post late last year, during last semester’s English course at university. This means the chronology is a little off (i.e. none of this happened “the other day” – try the other month) but I liked the way it sounded, so I exercised that poetic licence of mine and left it as it had been started. Indulge me. LS]

______________

My English lecturer put forth an opinion regarding the constitution of a ‘good’ literary character and, to be frank, it has been bothering me for days.

I am not used to this, this doubting of my professors. Those from the English department especially have been admirable, intelligent, articulate folk from whom I absorbed knowledge, wide-eyed and hungrily.

(Except for the one we called Goblin Man because we couldn’t remember his name and he had an unfortunately-shaped head; and the one we called Cat Lady because we were cruel and impatient things. But even Goblin Man made some good points and even Cat Lady knew what she was talking about if you could get her to focus for long enough. )

And this current guy, he’s not bad. He tends to interrupt himself and forgets the name of films he’s trying to reference, and he doesn’t seem capable of surmounting the technical difficulties that plague anyone trying to use a computer within the university network, and he makes grammatical and typographical errors in his powerpoint presentations, and he doesn’t cite his sources particularly well, which is a bit surprising/disappointing in an academic. But still, he’s a pretty good guy. I might risk being a little overly effusive here and say that I don’t hate him.

But then: we discuss “literary character.” What makes a good one, what makes a bad one. I’m studying Literary Theory (its complexity and pretentious nature indicated in the otherwise-useless capitalisation of its title) and now that we’ve slashed and hacked our way through the utter pile of bullshit that is New Criticism we’ve made it to Character.

Character. A construction or an indefinable substance. A person or a plot device. If you ever want to give yourself a headache (though I’m not sure why anyone would want that) just read Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination. Just quietly, in the middle of another sentence, my lecturer put forth this argument: that we, the readers, don’t want a particularly strong main characters because we want our characters to be relatable. In order for them to remain relatable, the author has to leave gaps: no strong, fully formed opinions, or we won’t be able to put ourselves in their shoes quite so easily.

Which I think it complete and utter crap.

If I want a completely substance-less character I can wear like a human-skin suit (ew) I’ll pick up a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. Or Twilight.* If I want someone without an opinion… well, why would I want to read about someone like that? Is the assertion here that we all read to be mollified? To be told our own opinions over again? If you are looking for reassurance, it is my humble opinion that literature is the wrong place to go looking.

The whole argument seems off-base to me. If you’re striving for that kind of blandness, you’re not really looking to create a character: what you want is a narrator. Someone like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who basically exists as a vehicle for the story, a petty functionary, a well-crafted plot device – Nick’s hi-jinks that fateful summer are glossed over in a few innuendo-laden sentences, but that doesn’t matter: we’re reading for Gatsby and Daisy. On the other hand, if you’re reading Catcher In The Rye, it’s all about Holden Caulfield. Holden is a character – a fully-fledged, idiosyncratic, contradictory, thoroughly-human mess. You might, (like my other half – it’s a source of tension in our relationship, I won’t deny it) think he’s a total douchebag, but regardless of how much you like him, Holden virtually exists in his own right. He is a character.

‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.’

– Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye

I don’t want a character that slips on and off like a pair of shoes. I don’t want someone bland, or easy; someone interchangeable and insignificant to the story they tell; I don’t want that awareness of artifice, that moment in a bad book when you resist the suspension of disbelief: why would they be there, oh how convenient, they just happened to be in a completely implausible place, able to overhear everything, yeah right. 

I want an argument. I want you to call my favourite character a douchebag and feel defensive, protective, when you do. I want someone who makes me angry. I want something who does ridiculous things not just to drive the plot forward but because you believe that character actually wants to do them. I don’t want my perspective: I want someone else’s. I don’t want to escape, I want to understand, discover, learn, fight, wonder. I want Fiction, not lies.

I want a character with Character.

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*EASY-TARGET BURN. On a serious note, however, if you want a detailed explanation of why Bella Swan is fiction’s most boring, thoroughly-bland, so-called “character,” you should check out Jennifer Jenson and Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant essay ‘Buffy vs. Bella: The Re-Emergence of the Archetypal Feminine in Vampire Stories.’

self-destructive criticism

When I woke up this morning the first thing I did was check my email.

I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t even open my eyes; I just rolled over and groped blindly among the shoes, books, cardigans, bags, wool, charger cords, newspapers, plastic bags, unpaid bills, and empty drinking bottles until my hand settled on the familiar shape of my phone. I hung off the edge of the bed and scrolled through my notifications. Right at the bottom, beneath a string of marketing emails alerting me to sales I had no interest in, was an email from my editor.

I knew before I opened it that this was not going to be a fun email to read, because I had known when I submitted my last piece that it wasn’t good enough. I had known, and I had sat in front of my laptop the entirety of the day before until my head ached, trying to get the words out, but they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a complex piece, it wasn’t something dear to my heart – it was just a film review, of an interesting film that I had quite liked, but not loved, and in my head I knew why I felt the way I did about it. It shouldn’t have been a hard piece to write. But for whatever reasons the words wouldn’t come out and so I had typed up some rambling approximation of what was going through my head and sent it in before I could talk myself out of “finishing” it. I wanted to be done with it. I knew it was bad, and I knew I was too frustrated to keep looking at it, and I knew the deadline had already whooshed unhappily past. I was starting to feel a little scared, as I always do when it comes to the crunch, that I have chosen the wrong career and that I cannot handle writing.

Writing is hard to handle, harder than movie-montages of Shakespeare-types dipping their quills or hyped-up Beats frantically typing out scroll upon scroll into the madness of the night: writing scares the fuck out of me, and sometimes I can’t face it. Not every day, just some days, writing will suddenly be inexplicably more difficult to do on that day than on other days, and I have no idea why. On a bad day, everything I write comes out as drivel; every intelligent thought I have is obscured by my sudden inability to find the right word; all my good ideas whither under my cruel, unforgiving gaze.

I open the email and it tells me exactly what I already think of myself. Nice try, Lauren. Did you even go to high school? Did you not see those spelling mistakes? Have you ever heard of grammar? Good ideas – wish you’d had the brains to develop them. I hyperventilate quietly into my pillow, and when this stops seeming like a good plan I go and hyperventilate in the bathroom for a little bit, so my boyfriend won’t hear me and ask me what’s wrong. (If he asked me, I’d have to explain: I did this stupid thing, I knew it was stupid, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I just can’t handle this.) I look in the bathroom mirror, like people in movies do when they are having existential crises, and I ask the exhausted face in there if maybe it mightn’t be time that I gave up on the idea of having dreams and picked something else I could settle for.

For some reason, the utter absurdity, the completely self-pitying foolishness of this thought snaps me out of my panicky little spiral. Give up on having dreams? Did you really just think that? I know I am starting to sound a little bit like an American talk show host when I write this, but really – who, in their right mind, thinks Oh, you know what would be sweet? Having no ambition and being content with a really dull job. I could get really good at gardening. My life could be like one long Dilbert strip. 

And so I go back into the other room and this time the email says: ‘Thanks for your review, Lauren. I really liked x, y, and z – you should develop those more. Also, I’d like you to watch your spelling and grammar mistakes.’ Because the first time I read it through, I wasn’t really listening to my editor – who is lovely, and knows the value of constructive criticism (and probably a thing or two about the fragile egos of writers) – I was still listening to the panicky, scared, stupid girl who thinks a bad day means the end of a career. Or that a bad day makes a bad writer.

So I had a shower. I went to the bakery and got a coffee, and a muffin I probably shouldn’t have, but what the hell. I sat down in front of my computer and did the crazy-writer thing, where I mutter my sentences to myself and my boyfriend looks at me funny. And today turned out to be an equally inexplicably good writing day, and when I went looking for the words I found them, and my sentences made sense, and my ideas seemed pretty good, actually, once I got the chance to look at them again. And I learned my lesson for the day: whether it be first drafts or feedback emails from editors, read everything through twice. Things will look different in the morning.

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*Actually, from time to time I have wished for apathy. Most often I’m in the middle of a panic attack when I think this – I think, god, if only I didn’t care. But this, like the panic, passes.