The Curious Case of The Writer's Life: How Characters Teach Us How To Listen

The writer’s house sits at a crossroads. To her left is the sea of opportunity, new ideas and characters being channeled by her very own Long Island medium, her muse. To her right is the black pavement of ideas and characters stuck in concrete, latchkey kids left behind to swelter in the unbridled heat of stagnation. They melt into the dead-end road, like the Wicked Witch of the West. They have come undone like Wally Lamb’s Dolores Price. 

My main character hovered over her lifeless body. She was a hollowed shell bereft of youthful ideas, more like the walking dead. Once full of life, she sat by my side and told me her story, taking me through the hushed silence of Mississippi trees and half-gallon Mason jars of sun tea to her oceanic Floridian paradise. And she lost the framework of what had once made her alive. 

Ann Bisky, a fellow writer on Twitter, retweeted a tweet that asked if a ghost and a zombie could coexist. My female protagonist can answer that question with an emphatic “Yes!” Something drove her story to an early grave. Her tale roamed mindlessly in the void, the purgatory of writing paradise lost. Something severed the connection between the writer and her story. My character was having an out-of-body experience. Something blocked her reentrance into her narrative.

That something was University of Central Florida’s CRW5020 Graduate Creative Writing Workshop.

I was taking doctoral classes in education at the time, and I decided to work on my writing. Even though the writing courses were mainly for MA English students, Professor Susan Hubbard read over my writing sample and allowed me to take the online course with a very notable writer, the late Jeanne Leiby.

The course revolved around producing a short story involving a historical period. Jeanne taught us short story basics and we applied them while revising our stories during various stages. We participated in peer review workshops throughout each writing stage. With each critique, my peers expressed their desire to know more about all of the characters. Towards the end of the course, Jeanne mentioned the difference between a short story, a novella, and a novel. A short story was like a one-night stand, a novella a three-day weekend, and a novel a marriage.  After so much constructive and positive peer feedback and the best writing instruction, I decided to enter a marriage.

My female protagonist did not like prearranged unions.

I delved into her backstory, and she enjoyed this honeymoon stage. I discovered the backstory of her and her late husband’s romance, their wide arrangement of personality-driven daughters, an unexpected connection and another prodigal daughter, a town nestled beside the Atlantic Ocean and hidden behind palm trees and old bones that refused to be buried.

As I sat down at the roundtable with the supporting cast, their storylines drowned out her voice. So much information poured into the narrative that it became overcrowded, like a womb full of sextuplets. Too many vied to be the firstborn in the story. I tried to make it work anyway. So many people had said that it was a good idea. Every good idea must be developed, regardless if it evolves into something totally different from its inception, right?

I considered multiple-point-of-view chapters, and even linked stories. The crushing blow: I replaced my main character with a minor character who was the Southern Blanche of a crowded and cracked glass menagerie mess.

Each new direction resulted in a dejection of her true nature. I was trying to force the work into something that it was not meant to be. As I continued to play around with the “other men” and “other women” of the story, voiceless and screaming without sound, my female protagonist passed away.

Her absence emphasized the loss of her presence in my work. 

I could not hear her voice anymore. She was gone.

As writers, it is funny how we view ourselves as our characters’ scribes, listening to them and communicating their stories. In trying to write this novel, I failed to realize that there is a difference between listening and communicating. Listening is hearing what the other person has to say without interjecting our own agenda. Communication is a way of projecting what we want to say. 

I wanted to communicate her reality instead of listening to what she had to say.

Fast-forward ten years.  Last night a distant voice filtered in and out of my consciousness like the white noise of a CB radio while I was listening to music.

As the strings of the guitar strummed in sharp pitches, my twisted mind (aren’t all writers’ minds twisted? We do come up with the eccentric stuff that no one’s dreams are made of) immediately turned to thoughts of Jody Foster in the movie Contact. My stomach lurched a little. If extraterrestrial or paranormal beings were trying to communicate with me, this was an inopportune time. My hair wasn’t even done. I didn’t want to be the fodder of galaxy gossip. I had to represent Team Earth to the best of my middle-aged ability. Besides, as my writer friend Julie Luek would say, I didn’t have a bottle of wine chilled for them. Any gracious host must have wine.

Seriously, my protagonist had returned. This time, I listened.

Her story would start from the beginning, right at the point of infancy. She would communicate to me how this fictional fetus would develop into a mature masterpiece.

Whether it would be a short story, novella, or novel, she would decide.

Scene from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Image taken from Google Images)

Starting over, often considered a regression, is really a new beginning in a writer’s life. 

It reminded me of the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Our writing life and our work go through a life cycle of stages. We mature through our careers, our beginnings a stark contrast to our present state. We may even walk away from the profession and take a long-needed sabbatical. Our work also changes. We may find ourselves starting in one genre and ending in another. Our characters change our perspectives. Some of us may go through multiple life cycles as we juggle different types of writing, roles or careers. 

The most important thing is that we continue to grow to the next level in our writing.

Hopefully, I can continue to share my growth with you. 

Alexandra Caselle is a native Floridian author and poet. She writes short stories, blogs, and dabbles
a little in the following genres: paranormal, YA, contemporary/literary fiction, & romance. Her blog,
Rhet Effects (http://rheteffects.wordpress.com), features author interviews, creative writing, & unique
perspectives on writing conventions. She often believes there is a phoenix bird inside of her, waiting to
be unleashed--or maybe it’s heartburn. Follow Alexandra on Twitter @AlexandraCasell.

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Comment by Tamara Hamilton on October 9, 2014 at 7:12pm

I simply enjoyed your illustration. It was dramatically informative. I learned a lot. 

Comment by Alexandra Caselle on August 2, 2014 at 6:35pm

@Caroline  You're welcome!

@Zetta  Lol.  Yes, I guess Stella has her groove back. Again, I see how we writers share the same experiences. When you are in your own bubble, you think that it is only you.  I agree with you about putting distance between you and your work.  Congratulations on having a story win a regional competition.  I think I am just going to let the work lead me this time.  Thanks for commenting! :)

Comment by Zetta Brown on July 31, 2014 at 4:44pm

I can't believe you're the same woman who wrote about rejection in my blog! LOL

Never have I heard such a common writing experience explained so eloquently. I can relate to this with regard to 2 stories of mine. One was a short story that won a regional competition but not the national because it was a short story that "deserved to be longer" according to the judges. I was inspired to write the short story but totally uninspired to pad it out and make it longer.

The second example is my current WIP. It started with an idea and grew and grew that I, too, contemplated multiple viewpoints, turning it into a family saga, etc., and as a result--I moved away from my main protagonist and got stuck. It took some very wise advice from my good friend Laura Castoro to help me regain and keep focus and now I think I'll have a better story as a result. Sometimes you need to put distance between you and your work and sometimes it takes another person to kick start you and get you back on track.

Comment by Caroline Gerardo on July 31, 2014 at 4:18pm

Thank you Alexandra!

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