The Unexpected Consequences of Revision
I struggle with pages. My goal is to align the dense symbolic icons of words with the vivid image of the story I need to tell. This is a deep revision. Deeper than I thought it would be. Parts of the story have transformed beneath my fingertips: tap tap tap enter. Some characters are cut. People I have come to think of in a certain light are altered by the sudden cast of shadows. Others appear, unexpectedly. Glimpsed from the corner of my eye.
Today I walk through a spring forest, tape recorder in hand. I pause by a tall birch tree, scarred and worn by the vagaries of weather, and listen to the collective creaking and rustling of the forest. It is here in the tapestry of woodland, bisected by a creek and shot through with gray and green threads, that I happen upon this realization.
Do old habits define us, or do we define ourselves by breaking them?
We are all creatures of habit. Sometimes we name our ruts. Occasionally we defy the preset course or the inherited angst. Rarely, we break with tradition and well-worn certitude for an utterly new course. Often we have no idea of the patterns and old habits that define us.
The characters in my story, WHERE THE RIVER IS A ROAD, are also creatures of habit. The narrator, Lou, is at times unreliable – she is frequently overcome by fear or anger or a subconscious response to the danger that steals quietly through the familiar woods.
Flaws that reveal strength
The individuals inhabiting my fictional town of Fireweed Crossing possess arrogance and ignorance in equal measure. Some appear kindly but their actions speak of deeper, darker motivations. Other people are twisted – not necessarily forthright or friendly. Their obvious flaws persist. Yet such a cruel or selfish individual might end up, under extreme circumstances, being the very person who stands fast, the one who calls BS, and defends the truth when everyone else turns a blind eye. This becomes the key to my latest revision. Characters I thought I knew have become more complex. Their hidden traits and unexpected responses add new depth to the story and immerse me in the darkening landscape.
Characters who go against the grain
When a habit is broken or a person breaches the wall and acts in a new and unexpected way – that is something to behold. And then, the entire narrative changes. My mother always cautioned me, whenever I was poised to pass judgment as severely as the very young are apt to do; you don’t know the whole story.
I return to my cluttered desk, sift through papers and notes and heft a mighty sigh. My characters have told me off. They’ve shaken my safe assumptions and made me re-think their very existence.
It’s a good thing I don’t mind shredding sentences or dicing paragraphs. More importantly, I am grateful for the perfectly imperfect people who taught me to:1. talk a blue streak & 2. know when to shut up and listen!
family album – path to the sea through our Alaska homestead
New paths through a tangled wood
Once settled, I push rewind and hear myself exclaiming over this new eureka moment. Some small part of me complains. So much more work! A larger part of me grins in delight.
The best paths are seldom the easiest paths. The greatest of friends are never the ones who always agree with you or tell you what you want to hear. The most compelling characters are the ones who refuse to let you define them the way you think they should be written.
2 comments on “Creatures of Habit”
Certainty, truth, knowledge, belief are difficult concepts in the real world. Wrestling with them in a fictional world of your own creation could be an infinitely complex undertaking. I have become fond of abandoning the idea of truth in favor of perspective, conditioned by setting, culture, experience, ….. It seems an author’s awareness of the character of their characters and the characters’ self-awareness are interesting elements of many stories. (I think I got lost.)
I think what I savor most about revision is how characters can suddenly contradict themselves. When that happens next is a cascade of consequences. A larger truth may or may not be revealed, but the complexity of the character is.