“You’re so lucky,” she said. Outside, the rain beaded like quicksilver on the blooming hedge of hydrangea. Inside, a pot of steel-cut oats burped from its perch in the yellow Aga.
“Lucky?” I echoed. We’d met the day before. I knew about her as much as she did about me: we were writers, living on opposite ends of North America, seeking solace and inspiration on a wind-tossed island in the Atlantic. “How am I lucky?”
“To have had such an easy life, to have things work out so you can write and publish your first novel before you’re twenty-five? That’s lucky.”
Fortunately, I’d already swallowed my mouthful of toast. Otherwise I may not be writing to you now, a couple of months after this amazing assessment of my life.
“How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“You couldn’t be more than twenty-three.”
We were sitting closely enough at the small table for her to see the June light dancing with the silver in my hair and pleating the fine lines around my eyes, to see the tendons underneath the dry, spotted-brown backs of my hands shifting like ropes as I gripped a coffee mug. Surely, jet lag had done me no favors.
Flattered? No. I felt dismissed. An adulthood—all the heartbreak and blessings; hard work and sacrifice; the careers, the moves, the losses, the triumphs, twenty-three years of marriage—denied by someone who would have been a high school senior to my freshman. This woman had created an entire story about me, had appropriated my history for her fiction, and then thought to recount her version back to me as if it were fact.
You always think of the perfect thing to say in the hours, days, weeks, after someone blows your mind. I still haven’t. What I did say was this, “I began writing when I was forty-one. I’ll be halfway to forty-seven when my first novel launches next year.” Breakfast continued in silence.
Being on the engineered side of someone else’s story startled me into reflecting on my own behavior: how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? Not the stories I put on the page, where they should be, but of the flesh-and-blood characters in my life? How often have I not asked, not listened, but jumped right into assumption, motivated by envy or impatience, by detriment of unrecognized privileged or sheer mental laziness?
As writers, we assume that we are keen observers of the human condition. Perhaps we turn to the page because it’s an outlet for the overflow of all that we take in and churn over, trying to sort out and make meaning of the unknowable. It’s our job to witness the world and then to bear witness in our essays and poems, our stories, our streams of thought. We don’t always write what we know; more often we write what we observe, how it makes us feel, and through our imaginations we construct plots to hold all the seeing and feeling together.
I begin work my novels by learning about the characters. Sometimes I have the thread of an idea floating, untethered, but I let it drift and spend the early period of discovery—before I begin writing a single word of story—crafting the personalities, goals, and motivations of the people with whom I’ll be spending the next months. I ask dozens of questions and as I determine the answers, themes coalesce and a plot etches a distant outline, like the silhouette of a mountain range emerging from the mist.
“The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.” Lidia Yuknavitch
We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected. This applies not only to our fictional narratives, but to our real world encounters, as well. And what’s required of the writer is required of any human being: we must set our personal narratives aside—our histories, assumptions, envies, fears, rules—and invite in others’ realities.
The key to creating empathetic characters is to work them through the questions we raise as we write; the key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.
To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work. Mary Oliver
All good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. George Saunders