The other day, my friend Michelle and I were having coffee at Java Joes, shooting the shit and talking–as we do–about the general nature of life. Why is it, we wondered, that people get stuck?
We were talking about the nature of stagnation. The person who stays in the job they hate even though it is sucking down their soul. The person sleeping in the bedroom that reminds them of death. The person in the unfulfilling relationship who stays because it is easy and safe. Instance after instance, person after person, so many examples it is impossible to count. Every person rutted. Every person only moderately happy.
“This is my biggest fear,” I said. And then, remembering my novel, I asked, “How does one get out of it?”
My novel, The View From Here, is told from the point of view of four different characters. Each character is stuck in her own way. Coincidentally, I’ve been spending the last two months working on the chapters for a character who is also named Michelle. This is what I know about Michelle the character: She works a lot. She travels a lot. She is having an affair with a younger woman. She is married to a very honest and good man named Jim. She is unhappy. I know that she and Jim will split (sorry for the spoiler), and though I’ve written many many drafts already, I’m still ironing out HOW this splitting will happen. And so when I asked Michelle, “How do you get out of it?” I was trying to find an answer to the thing I’ve been struggling with for weeks.
Michelle, in true Michelle fashion, diverted the conversation. She began talking about something else. I brought her back. “I mean it,” I say. “How does this happen? Do you know anyone who has gotten out? Who’s changed their life for the better?”
Michelle shrugged. She sipped coffee. “Not really,” she said.
Dan Mueller, one of my teachers/mentors at UNM, likes to describe characters as eggs. In a story, he says, there are many forces exerted upon a character. Each one adds more and more pressure to that character’s shell until eventually, the pressure is too much, and the character cracks.
We may love our characters, but we want them to crack. We need them to. Otherwise, we don’t have a story. Today, writers, try using the pressure of fear. Let fear push your writing and your characters closer to that necessary edge. And to get us there, here’s a writing exercise I snagged from Alice La Plante’s The Making of a Story. I did this one with my English 321 class, and it is, perhaps, my favorite writing exercise ever. I don’t have the book so this isn’t verbatim, but here is the gist of the exercise:
What’s behind the door of Room 101?
In George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-four, room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most.
- First, take a character you are working with (or use yourself if you are writing Creative Nonfiction or Poetry), and imagine the character walking into his or her version of Room 101. What does he/she see? The key here is to stay specific. Do not use abstractions (loneliness, anger, lust, etc). Instead, render through concrete significant details (think of your five senses here. We want to hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it, and see it). Write for 10 minutes.
- Then, for the next ten minutes, render a scene (or poem) in which the character encounters something that reminds him or her of this fear. DO NOT mention the fear.