As a kid, when I complained about doing anything particularly onerous, my mom would say, “It builds character!”
It’s been a character-building day.
And if, as my childhood experiences have led me to believe, “character-building” equals “annoying, difficult, trying, irksome, irritating, and generally lame,” then I’ve got character coming out my ears right now. I’ve got enough character to stage a one-woman production of Macbeth.
I’m trying to juggle about fifty speeding objects while wearing several dozen hats. I suspect that I may be the only woman in the world who works her honeybees and feeds her chickens while wearing heels. There’s just not enough time to change clothes some days.
The most precious and trying of my speeding objects are my children–the human ones, the animal ones, and the word-ones–my characters. And none of them will behave. Why does the orange cat most fervently adore me when I am wearing black dress pants? Why does the dog throw up on the carpet when the vinyl floor is inches away? Why do the chickens appear to hate the outdoors? (Am I raising vampire chickens? Where did I go wrong?? How did I fail them???) Why does my three-year-old throw fits when he gets what he wants? Why is my five-year-old afraid of the dark when the lights are on? (Is it because of the vampire chickens?) And why, why, why won’t the characters in my novel behave??
Sometimes I’m afraid I’m a far too permissive writer.mom. Or too laid-back, at least about writing and parenting. I’m compulsively neat and tidy, my planner is an extension of my body, and I’m enamored of the idea of having a daily schedule, but when it comes down to it, I’m just not that into imposing structure on other people, whether real or imagined. Sometimes I am very afraid that this makes me a poor writer and mom.
My kids don’t do “enriching activities.” They’re not taking any kind of formal lessons. They don’t play team sports. They don’t belong to character-forming organizations. I think I’m good with that. They’re three and five. If and when my boys become joiners, I will support them with all my passionate stubborn love. I don’t want to shape my children into who they’ll become. I want to turn them loose in the wide world and watch. I want to find out what they’ll choose to be. But as always, when I encounter other ways of parenting, my inner monologue of self-doubt picks up where it left off the last time. Should I sign them up for lessons? Should they be in Little League? Should we be zooming everywhere in pursuit of “enrichment,” whatever the heck that is? I think their lives are rich. I hope they are. But I wonder if I’ve got this parenting thing right. I’m not sure.
I know my characters’ lives are rich. I know this because they live them despite my best efforts at guidance. I am in awe of writers who plan and outline their books. I don’t have outlines. I just have characters. I spend some time getting to know them, and then I release them onto the page, and they start behaving badly. They don’t listen to me. They’re never ready when it’s time to move on to the next plot point. They pick fights, and start whining when other characters cross over into their parts of the story.
Don’t make me pull this story over, kiddos!
Today, my characters gave me the silent treatment. I sat down at the computer, prepared to be overwhelmed by my muse, and she flipped me off. The words fell flat, or just wouldn’t come. I lost sight of where the story was headed. The main character got into an incredibly dull conversation with another character who’s so boring that I’m seriously considering disinviting him from this novel. If my characters were on Facebook, I would unfriend them with extreme prejudice. If they were buckled in their car seats in the backseat, I would pull this novel over right now.
Writing, like parenting, is for me a long dance of “one step forward, two steps back.” I’m constantly evaluating, doubting, reevaluating. And I’m so, so tired.
But today, I wrote. It stunk, and I didn’t like it, but I did it. Because even when I don’t like it, I love it. Because that’s what it takes to build characters.