Monday, June 4, 2012

Writing Your Age

When I began The Qualities of Wood, my first published novel, I was in my late twenties and the main characters were similarly aged. Like Vivian, my protagonist, I was married for a few years and exploring new surroundings. The similarities end there, in terms of externals. But I did relate to many of Vivian’s contemplations about age, having children, art, and finding your purpose in life. There were older characters in the book—Vivian’s parents, a self-possessed, funny neighbor, and of course, the brooding gentleman who liked to canvas the woods and sneak up on people. I didn’t give much thought to writing characters who were older and more experienced, perhaps, than I was. Over time, they seemed like people I knew and I just wrote down what they said and did.

As many of you may be aware, I am not still in my late twenties. That is to say, I have finally published this first novel some years after I began writing it. And one interesting aspect of this time gap for me was when I started reading and editing the book at a, well, at a more mature age, I found I related much more to the middle-aged characters. Katherine, the neighbor who relays local gossip and a balanced attitude that stems from experience. Even Margery, Vivian’s emotionally distant mother, was more understandable to me. She had work to do, after all, and couldn’t be coddling Vivian every moment of the day!

Fortress for One,” a novel I recently finished, is about Gina: middle-aged, slave to routine, guard of secrets. She has worked many years at her job and is beginning to develop a certain understanding about family and relationships that only time can germinate. I suppose it could be said that I am near Gina’s age; however, we seem to have nothing else in common. So I can’t say whether having the same amount of temporal life experience helped me “write” her or not.

When an idea for my next project occurred to me, at first I rejected it. Too hard. Too much research, perhaps. Too painful. Because this new character is a young adult, probably a teenager, and my own youthful days were full of heady highs and dramatic lows. As most are, I suppose. And I’ve been wondering what some of the difficulties would be in channeling the perspective of youth: the hope, the drive, the singular moments. The sparks, the darkness. The world a wide, fresh vista that feels at times, utterly inaccessible. The self doubt. The energy. The obsessions. The hormones! Actually, that part I may be able to manage.

Is it possible to write characters in different phases of life when the author has passed the phase, or has yet to reach it? I think about books with a main character who is young but seems too wise, too worldly. The author’s perspective seeping in. Is it possible to avoid this, or should we even try? It would seem that I'll find out, because this story and these characters are my new go-to mental diversion. And when I spend time with them, I feel very, very young.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka