Character Development: A Bit of Self Disclosure

Blissful ignorance is a bridge too far.

I’m not a “critical observer of human nature” or anything so overwrought, I simply fail to see the simple side of things. Forgetting anything is difficult as well. This is neither a learned skill nor acquired taste, just a piece of my personality with which I’ve made peace. It doesn’t show off (too much) to the general public, though it has been known to drive my wife crazy on occasion (interviewed separately, she may up the frequency). Mostly it makes for a “normal” life with a few more details to liven up each scene. It’s a blessing…and a curse.

My radar is always up. Seeing more than I need to function leads to an informational and emotional overload which often results in awkwardness. It is surprisingly difficult to have a bland conversation when you are attuned to so many signals and every phrase (at least in your mind) is freighted with hidden meanings. I am quite introverted, but even some who know me well are surprised to discover this, since I tend to respond to that overload by talking too much rather than by retreating into myself.

Compartmentalizing inputs and outputs seldom works either. I soak up whatever happens nearby and start carrying it, and all these things refuse to stay put, dissolving mental barriers to slosh together in one central tank. Don’t ask me to start anything new if there are unresolved issues afloat.

Now, where was I?

Now, where was I?

None of this is in any way unique to me, I see it in other friends and family members, too. When my daughter exhibits this same bent, I remind her to stop worrying or to focus on the task, though I fear she comes by the trait honestly.

All this risks sounding like an old trope, parading out stereotypes of writers standing aloof from routine experience, sifting minutiae into meaning. Indeed, seeing and storing complexity is probably the root of my desire to write. To get all the swirling complexities out of my head, I fling them at paper. That’s the first step at least…truth be told, editing comes easier to me than writing, so polishing up those ramblings into legible prose is the better part of the work.

The funny thing, though, is that these quirks (habits?) often work against any decent writing. Controlling the flow is sometimes a battle against Niagara. What usually comes out is light on meaning and long on words–following a coherent thread through rambling asides does not come easy. That is, of course, if anything comes out at all. An all-too-common result is that I talk myself out of writing anything at all while wrestling through ideas.

The bottom line for “overinterpreters” like me is discipline. I keep telling myself that the difference between writers and non-writers is that writers write. Sometimes you just have to sit down and do it. I seldom regret this, and often find the solutions to the questions jostling in my head flowing out as I type. As for the rest of life, I really can’t thank my wife enough for keeping me grounded. She is loyal and patient to a fault, but takes no guff from me when I let my anxious wanderings stand in for making a decision and taking action.

So why post this here (“He said, suddenly acutely aware of the number of first-person pronouns throughout this site”)? I’m not sure. I suppose somebody like this might make a good character in a story someday, and he’ll always be my default narrator. Perhaps also I am hedging against anyone losing interest in my blog if it goes for a spell un-updated. I can always just post a link back to this piece as explanation. The words are inbound, they’re just trying to come up for air.

Why Write?

Why do we attach such significance to the written word? What is there on the page that is not in the mouth?

Speech is living, is fellowship, powerful and fleeting. Writing is two-dimensional, durable, lying there unmoved until read. What works in one ought to work in both, but different streams from the same spring develop distinctive tastes.

Talk at its best is considerate, shifting tone and meaning in a dance with the perceptions of its audience (whether of one or one thousand). A stroke of the pen can only be ever so mindful of who pays attention. Saying something of consequence in a conversation happens often enough that we don’t notice, but finding true meaning in permanent words is a rare gem. Lives are changed daily by a quip, a word of advice, a confidential aside. To read something and take it to heart requires time, a slow ferment to the bloom of understanding.

Somehow, I’m never satisfied with giving voice to ideas; they aren’t real until they’re on paper. E. M. Forster was not merely being coy when he asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Therein lies the danger, though. It is too easy fake knowledge in person, so much simpler to eat words spokeBenton Fallsn in haste. What we write (what we truly think, if Forster is to be believed) lives on, returning to us for good or ill years later, unchanged yet never the same. Solomon warned us of this much: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:11-12).

I’ve only recently taken to telling people I want to be a writer. Looking back it seems so obvious–from starting a school broadside (rendered with dot-matrix éclat) in fifth grade to spending seven semesters on the student newspaper in college to taking a job that requires me to think on paper all the time. Ever in thrall of professions that seem to be waning in their ability to feed a family, I dreamed for years of sticking with journalism to become the lone voice of reason at a big-city mainstream newspaper (in other words, being Ross Douthat) and now I’m carving up time and resources chasing after the novel(s) in my head. It’s bad enough to want to spill the contents of your mind on others, much worse to plumb and plunder the depths of other minds also.

At times, articulating a vision for telling stories with excellence for the glory of God almost makes sense. At others, it seems like a petty grasping after the privilege of being paid for my thoughts, as though there are things that must be said which no one else could say. For better or for worse, this is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a calling. Even so, it is always intermingled with craven pursuit of recognition. O, to be sought after, to be thought wise.

Having something to say and saying it somewhat originally, though, tampers with strong magic. It’s one thing, I suppose, to unfold your own troubled soul to the world, but quite another to play the observer. Anything of worth necessarily touches nerves, and the stories that make up our stories aren’t ours alone, but belong to children, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. What does it cost to set a life in text? What if that work is accursed rather than acclaimed?

Teasing out that which will not let you go demands both obscene arrogance and humble fear. And so we write.