I’ve been in, and led, book groups for years, and one of the most difficult criticisms for me, is when a reader doesn’t like a character and decides that’s synonymous with not liking the book, as though one must like the character (or approve of the character) or the story fails. I’m drawn to characters I have to work to like; they feel more real to me.
I’m thinking of Susan and Maud in “Fingersmith” or Lyra in “The Golden Compass”—they’re complicated, and ambiguous, and dangerous, and they appeal to me for those very reasons. Is it fair to say that I like darkness—that I’m drawn to bad girls? Not entirely, but I’m curious about the struggle to be good. Most of us are neither heroes nor villains, but something in between. The way we deal with that struggle is the most fascinating thing about us, the thing that literature, in particular, explores so beautifully.
Storytelling is a perversion. No matter which character is speaking, to some extent, she is expressing my point of view. All my angles still emanate from my own perspective. My narrator is my witness, and not the other way round.
In life we lend so much credibility to our witnesses. My ex was amazing while I was sick: patient and supportive and nurturing. A witness to my illness and my recovery. How often do we mark the periods of our lives by whoever was with us as we went through them? Our witnesses are like music in that way: specific to a time and place in our journey.
I know your struggle because I have seen it. I have watched your growth. I have listened to your story and I am your witness. We share this experience of living, you and I.
gods and girls
Some writers out there must enjoy the godlike power of creating characters and the worlds they inhabit, and revel in the ability to control every aspect of those worlds, characters, plots. I, on the other hand, am completely undone by my characters’ struggles.
I keep hoping for them to make better choices, to suffer less, to attain a bit more happiness. My characters, I think, are often just a standin for my own dilemma. Last night I wrote a scene and cried my way through it, distraught and exhausted and weak, just like my character. Maybe the pros are better at distancing themselves from their work. Maybe they remain objective and amused—or so firmly in control of their work that the boundary of self is never breached. I only know I’m not there. I am more like the body they inhabit than the creator.
Jack Gilbert wrote: “What we feel most has no name but cinnamon, amber, archer, horses and birds.” I’ve been feeling that line today. Oh, the failure of language. The inability of words. I think sometimes how much easier if we just sensed one another like predators in the dark.
But I’ve also been thinking that we develop a code for love, words that represent all those concepts for which description is inaccurate. Crocodile of desire, for instance. My heart is a pitcher: tipped to your mouth. Always between us the memory of lemons. Is it possible, then, to speak only in pictures? To remove context and futile explanation, to balloon language into metaphor: Your mouth like summer, I run, barefoot now, toward your kiss.
You can almost feel Gilbert wanting to end that line earlier: “What we feel most has no name.” What we feel most. And so, poems: If I were a painter, how would I invent you? What color could ever capture the red red of your hair, or the startling gleam of your eyes? How could I shade the lithe and slender grace of your body? Or your mouth — my god your mouth — a place of forgetting.
So to abandon light and color for language, I find there are no words. Nothing to describe the slide of your skin, or the rest of your body against mine. Your name in my mouth is an incantation. Between us is a crocodile of desire. I am alight when I look at you. If it is true that we met god in a garden would that account for this notion of fruit trees when I am with you? There is memory in our cells of leaves and lemons. My love, your voice is a tether; bind to me.
This is a heady rush like shots of whiskey. And you are working to support the arch of her back, the delicate line of her throat. There is unraveling here, as with all mysteries, and an ache of memory. You know in that shuddering instant before she turns, that you are new and old and saved and lost and hers. Certainly hers. Marked, like all of us, flung from the garden.
The girl is a butterfly
You’re studying the girl as though she were a butterfly. Writing down the musculature and wingspan, sketching the antenna and colors, charting the flight pattern and region in your field guide as though you’d discovered a new species. You observe unobtrusively. And the more you watch, the more apparent the patterns become: the proclivity for a certain flower, the skills employed to evade predators, mating.
In fact, you want to believe that the throbbing flicker of this creature in between your thumb and forefinger is your discovery, previously unknown, and unknowable. You want to believe yourself scientific, a researcher. What, after all, is your objective, but the furtherance of knowledge?