by Marisa PC
One day about twelve years ago, I met with Sarah, a then-MFA student in poetry, to talk about her first attempt at writing a short story. It was a good story, a good discussion, and a strong stride toward friendship. I wasn’t Sarah’s fiction teacher, but as her friend, I had the pleasure of reading each of her stories and hearing her ideas for fiction. I distinctly remember when she ran one of those ideas by me: “I imagine my point-of-view character as a man who has a large aquarium with tropical fish. He likes to sit in front of the aquarium and think.”
“Good,” I said, “but he can’t sit and think in front of his aquarium during the story.”
Sarah wrote the story. The POV character was too busy juggling his duties as the husband of a dying woman with his affair with another woman to sit in front of his aquarium and think. But the aquarium was there, filled with tropical fish who also needed caring for, and now merely a feature of the story’s setting. Sarah knew of her character that spending time contemplating his fish calmed him. She also understood, after our conversation, that letting him sit and think on the page would create a lull in the action, a lull from which the story might not be able to recover.
It’s worth noting that the central syllable of the word “character” is “act” (even though I can’t find an etymological relationship between the two words). And this part of my advice is nothing new. Characters must act; action propels narratives.
“Dive in!” my first fiction-writing teacher used to say. “If you hesitate, you lose.” She was speaking about our characters. She didn’t want to have time to think—or at least she didn’t want to see their thinking represented on the page. How much more interesting it would be, she encouraged us, to make our characters act on their impulses or do things we ourselves might never do in similar circumstances.
Now I’m going to shift direction a bit. I teach undergraduates: freshman composition and upper-division creative writing classes. And whenever the students have a research paper or short story or essay coming due, I always ask them what sort of progress they’re making. Do they have words and pages, or is everything still stuck up there in their heads? Usually, a handful have already produced pages—or possibly a draft of the entire assignment—while most students are still generating ideas and intend to wait till the night before the work is due to write it.
I confess that most of my writing is done in my head. In other words, I think about writing. I think up ideas for stories and essays. I think and I think and I think. And this is fine when, for example, I’m walking the dogs or pulling weeds—that is, doing something else. But too often, I have thought rather than acted. I have thought about writing, I have thought about what I’ve wanted to write, and I haven’t taken the action necessary to get it written. Admittedly, I’ve done a lot of that as part of my Writer’s March. (Most days, mine could be called Thinker’s Standstill.)
So today, I have two pieces of advice for you. One is to make sure your characters are acting and not merely thinking. Two is to make sure you’re writing and not merely thinking about writing.
And I’m going to do the same. I don’t want to get caught staring at a metaphorical aquarium of tropical fish. I’m going to dive in—to the writing—and see what happens.