Students are the Best Teachers
Another event involved a basic classroom visit for a Q&A. Although the students were required to ask me something based on my reading they attended, for the most part I could feel their genuine interest on the other side of such questions. One of the more seemingly simple questions caught me off guard: “How do you deal with characterization in your stories?” Without hesitation, I confessed that characterization isn’t something I think about very often–and not because I shouldn’t, rather, because I’m really still learning exactly what that is. I know it when I see it, but I can’t produce it on a whim. And I sure as heck haven’t reached a point where I can describe the character as a whole person without seeing him/her move around for 100 pages or so. Who are these people I am creating? How have their lives shaped their fears and desires? Once I feel I know the answers to these questions, the novel should be over. At least, that’s how I’m carrying on right now.
I used to wonder how my friends that wrote novels could stand to put hours and hours into their chapters, knowing that in a few months they’d very likely make some major craft or plot change that rendered those chapters useless (or, in the least, required a major rewrite). But I can see now how, especially on a first run-through, the pages I’m writing are only very faint glimmers of the places, people, and events I hope to bring to life by the time this thing reaches a final draft. I have to start somewhere, and if what I can start with are pale imitations, I’ll take it. I trust that what I’m doing now will inform what I have yet to write, and any pages that get tossed in the meantime are in some way going to add depth and believability when I have to write new scenes and come at something from a different angle.
A third experience was with a staff writer for the student newspaper. This young woman was so delightfully self-possessed, articulate, and professional…and I was her first subject for her very first newspaper article ever. I felt quite impressed by her! One question she asked me, “Why do you write about war?”, is one that I know I am going to need to be able to answer repeatedly over the next year. My first response to this question, which I never say out loud, is “How can I not?” I don’t say that out loud because if I do, in the next breath I’ll start citing statistics (50,000 soldiers with one or more missing limbs; $2600 per soldier per day, $300 milling dollars A WEEK in Afghanistan alone). As powerful as statistics can be, they can also put people on the defensive, and that’s not what my fiction is about.
I tried answering this question once in a blog post, and another time in a radio interview. Each time the question is forced on me, I like to think I’m getting closer and close to an answer, but I don’t know if that’s true yet. Preparing for the book launch, I’ll need a short answer and a long answer. Depending on my audience, I’ll also need a craft-based answer for writers and a creative-process based answer for readers. For now, I can thank the students of Randolph College for being great teachers to me this week. They kept me on my toes, and I’m better for it.