Writing Yourself as Character

Last night in our Wild Women, Wild Voices writing group, our focus was on Body Writing: Voice of the Senses. The session included several writing explorations, and as always, there wasn’t enough time to write all we wanted to write, discuss all we wanted to discuss, and share all we wanted to share.

One of our writing exercises, which I hadn’t done in a group before and which I found more than a little interesting, was to write a character description of ourselves.

The set-up for the exploration came from my book, Wild Women, Wild Voices, in the section “How We See Ourselves,” from the Body Writing chapter:

“When describing people in stories, fictional or otherwise, I always tell students to look for that telling detail. What is it about this person, this character, that is specific to her? Does she have a loud laugh? Or does she laugh “in a foghorn-like blast that drew stares in public”? (Mary Karr). Is he tall and good-looking or does he have “the wholesome good looks of the nice one in the boy band?” (Rebecca Mead). Or perhaps she resembles this character “She wore her usual Betty Grable hairdo and open-toed pumps, and her shoulders had an aura of shoulder pads even in a sleeveless dress.” (Margaret Atwood).

To these descriptions I added a few more, as further examples of describing a character through specific, telling details: Alexis Soloski on Sam Shepard “He is still strikingly handsome, with his cowboy mouth and sidewinder gaze…”; Annie Proulx describing the protagonist Coyle in The Shipping News: “a great, damp loaf of a body” and “head shaped like a Crenshaw.” Janet Malcolm, on George Jellinek: “… the air of someone who knows his suit is well cut.”

These were the instructions for the writing: “You’re the character. Step back from how you might describe yourself to a stranger who’s to meet you at a café – five-foot-five, blonde, wearing a green jacket – and describe yourself as though you’re describing a character in a story. Let all your self-knowledge and years of mirror gazing drop by the wayside, and look at yourself from a different perspective. Instead of stating common characteristics, write what is unique, the “telling” detail, the detail that provides subtext and backstory. Write how you walk, how you lounge against the wall, the sound of your voice, the curve of your neck.”

Then we wrote for 14 minutes, creating a one-page (or more) character description of ourselves in the third person (“She,” or our name, but not “I”).

After the writing, someone said, “It feels so confessional.” Someone else commented that she was surprised; the description came out so differently than the story she’d believed about herself since she was a young girl. It was how she saw herself now. A few of the women read, several chose not to (no one is ever required to read). I read my piece and I was surprised, too, at how revealing it felt. Like telling on myself. But, another surprise, it felt good, too. Instead of being modest, just factual or even self-deprecating, I could be honest: This is how I see myself, know myself. At least it was last night, as I wrote it.

Give it a try yourself and see how the exploration works for you. Tell me about it in the comments section below, if you’d like. Maybe even give me one line that you think is a true statement.

Here’s my one telling line: “She likes to wear clothes that draw attention, but not stares.”

My Love Affair with Writing Prompts

I always think of writing prompts as music that invites the writer to dance. Or, to use another metaphor, they’re like starting blocks a runner uses to kick off for a race.

Prompts aren’t “exercises,” which tend to give directions—“Two strangers get stuck in an elevator; write their dialogue.” Instead, writing prompts suggest images or events or spark memories—each prompt evokes something different for each writer. And because they aren’t directives, the writing can take off in any surprising direction.

timed writing

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Stuck Happens

This afternoon my landlord, a hero of a guy, is in my bathroom plunging the sink. It’s been a slow drainer for months. Over that time, I’ve used gallons of deadly stuff that comes in unwieldy plastic bottles with skull and crossbones images on the label. Still, the sink won’t open.

As I was kibitzing over Scott’s shoulder, it came to me that this stuckness in the drain is a beautiful, albeit sludgy, metaphor for what happens to my writing occasionally. You know, how slowly and reluctantly the words sometimes come, how they sometimes don’t come at all. I try all manner of tricks to get the writing flowing again—staring at the screen or the page, writing one (wrong) word or another, rewriting what I’ve just written, going back to the beginning of the page, the paragraph, the sentence, and starting over, getting up and moving away from my desk, getting a glass of water, hitting the stash of almonds, taking a walk, taking a shower, taking a nap. Coffee! Still, nothing.

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