My Character (‘s) Flaw

Several days ago we stood on a beach, looking out across the Salish Sea, our shoulders hunched against the briny wind. Brendan turned to me and said, “Our lives are changing.”

Freighter on the Salish Sea

Not so many years ago, this sentence would have been “We are changing our lives.” Hard-wired for motion, we grew restless every two or three years. We switched jobs, home loans, states, cities, countries with ease – not seeking anything better, not out of dissatisfaction for where we were or what we had – but out of a spirited curiosity, a determination to embrace adventure. And like magic, the opportunities appeared. A better-paying job offer materialized after I submitted a letter of resignation to my current employer; buyers snapped up our house before it went the market; Permanent Residency was granted when we’d hoped only for six-month work permits. It seemed that each time we decided to leap without a net, the Universe said “Go on! I got this.”

But then we landed here, in this green and gray city of whey-faced, over-caffeinated hipsters and North Face puffy-coated soccer moms and we fell in love. We fell in love with the city’s sparkling waters and downy peaks, its bookstores and beer, its endearing neighborhoods of Arts and Crafts bungalows and small-batch gourmet cupcake joints. We found fulfilling work, a cheap rental in a great neighborhood, created a community of friends and thought, “Right. We’re home, let’s set down stakes and dig in.” And dig in we did. Five years in one city is a record for our nearly-21 year union. And it felt right. Mostly. Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

Here’s my Solstice blog post. I’m all “It’s been a pretty rough year, but now the light is shining again” Zen-like reflective, thinking the year had closed and I could move on, right? I can’t reread it. I’m afraid I might cry and not get through the rest of what I want to write tonight. The thing is, in the final hours of the year that was, our settled little life shattered.

I am easily disappointed by people. Classic introvert that I am, it’s a major character flaw. But I don’t want to be that person, so I work to pull my heart out, open it and offer up bits to strangers and loved ones alike. Then something happens and all my demons snigger and shout “See? See! Just like we’ve said all along. People Suck!”

Maybe that’s why I read fiction. Make-believe characters are far more satisfying than the real things. And if they aren’t, I can toss the book aside and move on to the next. Or, if I make my way to the end, I can pound out a review, holding the author entirely responsible for the flaws in his characters.

And it’s very likely why I write fiction. But this isn’t to suggest that the fiction writer is a puppeteer stringing her characters along. When you are fully engaged in your story, writing from a place of authenticity, your characters lead you. I’ve spent six months getting to know my protagonist and just this morning did she finally tell me what she wanted. I’ve asked her since day one, knowing as any good student of writing does that all characters want something and it’s the writer’s job to put obstacles in the way of those desires – that’s what makes a plot. But there sat my protagonist with a phone cradled to her ear, listening to a friend sharing news that will allow her to make choices, and changes, to her life, to live where and  – after a fashion –  how she wants. Suddenly she’s faced with deciding what that really is. And telling me, the writer, in the process. I just had to have the patience to let her tell her story and to remain silent so I wouldn’t muck it up.

Last Saturday I participated in an extraordinary workshop, “Salon at SAM”, co-sponsored by the Seattle Art Museum and Hedgebrook, a retreat for writers on Whidbey Island. We selected a work of art from the SAM exhibit Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, created a character based on that work and wrote a monologue in his or her voice.

I selected a short, continuously looped black and white film. The artist filmed herself on a beach, rotating a hula hoop around her hips. You couldn’t see her head, only her naked, beautiful body. And the hula hoop wasn’t what you tossed around your waist in the 4th grade. This hula hoop was made of barbed wire. It punctured and bruised the artist’s skin. The film was horrifying and brutal – a political protest that touched me in a very personal way. And it gave me a story.

We shared the experience of writing from a work of art with the large group. Then we returned in small groups to the art we’d chosen and read our monologues aloud. I wrote the dance with a hula hoop made of barbed wire as a dream my character was having, a dream that made her realize she was in a situation she wanted out of, but wasn’t able to admit the truth. In my story, my character was speaking to her husband. As my small group discussed my monologue, one woman turned to me and said “I don’t think your character is talking to her husband. I think she is talking to another woman.” I felt a rush of relief  and gratitude when I heard this. “I knew it,” I replied. “Thank you. I knew the husband part was wrong.” I hadn’t been able to think of the “what next” until my fellow writer made me realize I was directing my character, instead of allowing her to move me.

And isn’t that just what happens in life? We get so wrapped up – so busy and noisy – pushing our lives the way we think they should be going, because it’s the logical thing, it’s the expected thing, it’s what we think others will value, that we blow right past the simple truths, the clear path of “what next.”

I won’t go into what happened. Not here. Not now. It’s a story of such insanity that it would take more than a blog post to sort through. And besides, it’s far too rich for nonfiction. I’m collecting the details even as I live through the nightmare, because someday this is going to make a fucking great read. But know that our health is fine, we are loved, we have each other and for the most part, our senses of humor remain intact. With all of this, we can get through anything.

But our lives are changing. And since the Universe is watching and listening, I just want to add: We are changing our lives.

12 thoughts on “My Character (‘s) Flaw

  1. Thank you for reading my post, “There is No Time” and leaving your lovely comment on my blog. You led me back to yours and I must say that I love love love it! It’s wonderful to read you and meet you! I’m looking forward to more from you in the future! Blessings, my new fabulous friend! xoJulia

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  2. As a reader, I want to read more of your compelling writing, Julie. As a friend, I want you to know I’m sending good thoughts and hope your way. When and if you’re ready to share your stories, I’ll continue to be here to read and listen.

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    1. Thank you, dear, dear friend. I feel like something important, something good, is happening. I have no explanation for the crap, but I believe that when you send forth your intention to the Universe, it’s bound to get picked up somewhere. Perhaps we have become too comfortable and, once again, we are being pushed out of the nest!

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  3. Julie Christine, It was great chatting with you Sistah I thought immediately of Marina Abramovic reading your description of self inflicted pain, but knew she was not the one in the video. Watching Sigalit Landau, her beautiful body, the barbed wire, I feel, feel, and stop. Not now, I tell myself. After having read your post here, I sense your relief, it was not a male, but female the artist attempted to exorcise, ah, ouch and so on. Be well. Write on!

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    1. My joy to chat with and discover you, Judith – and what a bonus that you are in Seattle!
      Yes, you found Sigalit’s work. It was fascinating to watch the reactions of others as they passed through the corridor where this video was showing. Horror, fascination, disgust, sorrow. How a propos of today’s #storycraft : the opportunity, the obligation artists have to speak for those who can or will not. And how careful we must be when telling the truths of our lives.

      And I made those edits- I totally understand!

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  4. I agree fully–our characters lead us. I often find myself simply writing the scenes of the story and afterwards looking back and thinking, “Oh so THAT’S why he did that,” or “Ahh, no wonder he made that decision.” It’s amazing, it really is.

    Great post. I wish I had your courage to move around without the proverbial safety net!

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    1. Thank you, Katie! It really hits home to me when I pull out a story I’ve left to percolate for a few months where and when I’ve inserted myself into a story, to the detriment of the characters. Time and emotional distance allow the inauthenticity to glare through.

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  5. As an author, you know that you have set us all up for the sequel — hinted at, the teaser, that you may or may not ever deliver on… You had me at Salish though, and I hung on every word after that. For a life as full and rich and marvelous as you have managed to make it thus far, I can only imagine what lies down the rabbit hole of your future!

    The workshop sounds like it was a great experience! And from such a great exhibit!

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    1. Hello Beautiful! I’m just hoping for a happy ending to this crazy story, but regardless, I think it’s one that’s taking us in an important direction. I’m trying hard to listen to all my characters, including the one that looks back at me in the mirror.

      Wasn’t Elles wonderful? How women portray themselves in art really struck me – there was far more… starkness, anger, and irony than I was prepared for. I can’t construct visual art to save my life, but I am such a visual person. To put literary and visual art together was an amazing experience.

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