Dealing with Personal Issues through Our Characters

 

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Spring is the season of renewal and new growth. It can also be a time to reflect on pleasant memories or to revisit excruciating challenges that still haunt us. I recently read an intriguing article, “Dangerous Writing: Go to Your Battlefield”, by author and teacher, Tom Spanbauer. (Poets & Writers, January/February 2016). At the risk of being too general, he speaks about digging deeply into ourselves, to address difficult topics that are important to us, in order to shape our fictional works. His words certainly opened my eyes.

Throughout the course of Spanbauer’s piece, I realized some important facts about my own work. As most writers of fiction, I borrow from reality and include snippets of this person and that individual in the characters I attempt to bring alive. What I hadn’t faced is that some of their problems, issues, and challenges are my own, and I may be using the writing to work through them.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that I’ve brought any of these  scenarios full circle to solutions. Guess that I’ve danced on the edge of danger, but haven’t really dived in. I plan to revisit my own “dangerous writing” and push it to the limit, getting everything I can out of the telling. I hope that the resulting characters will appear even more realistic and some personal answers will materialize, as well.

Spring beckons, along with buds erupting on trees, flowers poking through dark earth, and birds singing new songs. We don’t have to “start over” to begin again. Whatever we face might be just a little easier, a touch sweeter, or a bit brighter by giving in to the season and wringing it for all it has to offer. Use it to the extent of its worth. After all, we don’t have forever…do we?

Uprooted and Transplanted: ‘Moving’ and ‘Starting Over’ as Themes in Writing

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I’m moving to a different city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in a few weeks, so that’s uppermost in my mind these days. All the endless details, half-filled boxes, scratched-out lists, and memories of these past years that grab me when least expected, bringing tears to my eyes. I’m sure that most of you have been there in one form or another. At this point, what better topic for my blog post?

I’ve always enjoyed books where the main character moves to a new home in an unfamiliar town. In the new spot, there’s the painting, organizing, exploring, and then… Stories with this theme seem to fit into about three categories, I’ve noticed. First, you have the ones where everything starts out hunky-dory, and then things start to go downhill quickly. Author Ira Levin was a master with this type, as exemplified in both Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives. The protagonists’ new homes were great until they got involved with the suspicious and creepy neighbors. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, could also fit into this group, since the move made by the main characters from New York to Missouri was certainly a catalyst, fracturing an already fragile relationship.

Another plot line related to moving would be where it’s touch and go for a while, but eventually the lives of the characters you love turn out better than anyone could ever expect in their wildest imaginations. Think Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks. Girl runs away from abusive husband and hides out in idyllic location near the ocean. She meets handsome new love interest with adorable kids and, of course, things begin to go awry as her past threatens to catch up with her. After a breath-taking couple of twists in the plot, well, I won’t go into detail in case you still wanted to read this one.

The third group seems to be the most realistic, where the main character relocates for an often heart-rending reason and works toward building life anew. The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg fits neatly into this groove, with the main character experiencing the entire gamut of grief, introspection, doubts, small delights, and eventual self-actualization.

As I tape up my last box and throw away the final list, I’ll certainly be hoping that Ira Levin won’t be orchestrating my personal story from the great beyond, since I don’t think that I’d make a very good Satanist or robot. I picture myself more an Elizabeth Berg sort of an individual. Once transplanted in my new home, I’ll have to really get on the stick with my writing if I’m ever going to get a whiff of that self-actualization stuff. Knowing that I can use my new experiences and emotions as an impetus in my work is certainly a draw, and I can hardly wait to get back to it.

 

Culture Shock as Fodder for Writing

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An entire sub-genre of writing exists that zeroes in on people who leave their homes to set up housekeeping in radically different environments. The unfamiliar habits of the locals then make interesting and often amusing stories. Some of my favorites are offerings by Peter Mayle, Julia Child, Adam Gopnik and Frances Mayes. I love their books and often picture what it would be like to wake up and find myself in similar situations.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, while planning a trip to visit my daughters and their families in Texas. We lived there together, in what seems like another lifetime, after spending the beginning of our lives in Michigan. As the memories flood over me, I realize that I’ve lost sight of how alien everyday things sometimes seemed during those years. Many writers have experienced relocation to another culture, even if it’s not in France or Italy, and details of those experiences can add interesting twists to story plots.

For example, I remember the chuckles I received from several office mates one day in the “Lone Star State”, when I referred to stopping at the “party store for pop”. At the same time, I never understood why Texans called all soda pop “Coke”, no matter what the label said. At the end of a long workday, “See you guys” contrasted sharply with, “Bye, y’all”. There were differences wherever I turned. Due to the “Blue Laws”, sale of clothing on Sundays, at that time, wasn’t allowed, and many counties were “dry”, meaning they didn’t sell alcohol at all. Of course, the rich drawls and twangs took some getting used to, especially when my older daughter tried them on as her own. I had always thought of my speech as being just plain, but was told by my new friends that I spoke with a “funny accent”!

Travel outside the borders of one’s own state isn’t even required. Within Michigan, people living in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas have interesting differences in ways of speaking and in the foods they enjoy, just to name a few idiosyncrasies. If you’ve never tried cudighi, a type of sausage, or the meat pies called pasties, you still haven’t lived.

Do you think anyone will notice if I take notes during my Texas visit? I’ve forgotten so many of the cute little quirks and need a refresher for future writing!

For books about moves to parts unknown, my “Reading Lists” page details several authors with one of their titles, each, for starters.