I do this awkward thing where I cover my mouth with open fingers while I talk. It’s strange how our body learns to cope with our own awkward. My awkward is in my teeth, which coincides perfectly with my word nerdness. Anyway, this morning I went to brunch with a lovely lady named Epiphany. We had been in the same circles in high school, but never really “hung out.”
Epiphany is the girl who new how to french braid before everyone else. That’s how I think of her for some reason. She’s full of spice and innocence like Thumbelina, which is ironic because she just wrote a blog about that book not too long ago at The Golden Bookshelf. The Golden Bookshelf is a blog that has children’s book nostalgia, small furry animals, and a cute girl with a Mona Lisa smile and perfectly trimmed bangs. It’s the blog my blog would be if I wasn’t so vulgar, scatter-brained and concerned with the future of the princesses rather than the end-all, be-all of their happy endings. It’s perfect, the way Easter is perfect with it’s pastels and jubilation.
Anywho, we went to brunch (perfectly timed at 10:30) and discussed all things current, and past. GAH, pasts are exhausting aren’t they? They just creep right up and remind you that you were once someone who tried too hard, looked desperate, tripped over your own shoe laces getting off the bus, went to school pictures in the worst horizontal stripes, got bad haircuts (yes, plural, admit it), wrote a boy’s name a hundred times in your journal and then burned it. Silly little pasts.
I start here with this brunch because I’ve been wondering about the past lives of characters. Where do they come from before they’re in our book and killing each other off, or falling in love, or sweeping the front porch with a broken broom and callused feet? I especially worry about the mother characters. My mother has had her hands full recently with my brother and I. I’m moving to the land of corn festivals, and my brother is just a hot curly mess. Before she had us to keep her up at night worrying – slamming her body every which way to find sleep, I know who she was…mostly. I know what she’s told me about my family and the men who were important and the ones who just weren’t. But, I’ll never know who my mother was when she walked down a middle school hallway, or started to perm her hair (which is now genetically curly), or what she dreamed about in her bedroom because no one can tell me those things. BUT, and this is a big but, thus the capitalization, you CAN do that with characters.
I just finished The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. It wasn’t the best plot I’ve ever read, but it did have some quotable moments. Both main characters, Henri and Villanelle are suppressed by their past at different points in the story. Villanelle is unable to give her heart away (literally) because it was hidden under floor boards in a desperate house, and Henri spent 8 years under Napoleon Bonaparte that he will never get back. How they find each other leaves them historically undesirable. The past of each character plays such an important role in the book because neither of them end up very happy. Sometimes the author gives the reader a slice of the character’s past and sometimes the reader is just thrown into the train of thought and left to dust themselves off later. Here is where the BUT comes in…
I’ve been wondering about my favorite characters-if they aren’t written into a series, how do I know that they had an okay childhood, that they weren’t neglected or made the center of a piece of news. What gossip did they tell as teenagers? What boys did they love before they found their match in the stiff cracks of book pages? I’ve told you all before that I like to carry more than one book in my purse so that in case a character gets lonely he can hide in the zippered pocket with another and have deep conversation. Luckily, I have a purse with far too many pockets.
Where have they been. I’m hiding these people in my purse and I don’t even know their mother. I don’t know whether they have table manners, or drink tea pinky-up, or have swam in the ocean and let the salt water burn their eyes. I want to open up their mouths and search down into the esophagus for the truth. (When you yell down a throat does it echo). Wouldn’t you love to know what happened to Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) before he was found?
In memoir writing class, they teach you that you have to share your childhood. If you’re writing a life memoir (or biography), you have to include the moment you learned to read, or your favorite childhood book, because these are the questions that reader’s ask. If I’m reading your childhood memoir, then I expect to know how you read and that will explain how you write. Why can’t this be the case with fiction? For every novel published, there should be a one chapter back story that doesn’t ruin the plot.
“Heathcliff was abandoned on a stoop for crying too loudly and too long. He had colic for the first three months and due to the lack of laundry machines, there was no swift repetitive motion that would calm his cries. He drank water from the rain gutters after he learned to crawl and made homestead in a park using acorns as a main meal. When found, he had never had a bath indoors and was baptized only by the soft sound of rain against his pink sunken cheeks.”
That’s past enough for me, is it good for you? Why aren’t we allowed to feel the soft indent character’s scars make in their skin? Fiction gives us this small chunk of time and we’re expected to live with it, live with them for a year, or a day, and move on to others. We have a whole town of quarter-lived lives in our heads. A whole town of people we’ve known for a week and then they slip away between the pages, like notes folded into bed sheets. All I’m saying is that I want to know the good ones longer, draw each memory out.