Tuesday, May 12, 2009

your character is you

My Great-grandfather headed security for Windsor Palace during Queen Victoria’s reign. Not only could he have told us the truth of the supposed affair between the queen and John Brown, he met the greats of his era: French President Raymond Poincaire, Bismark, Kaiser Wilhelm, the Tsarina and all of Victoria’s children. He knew what they ate for breakfast and had opinions about each of them. What wouldn’t I give to know even the smallest facts about them? BUT HE NEVER WROTE A SINGLE WORD!
No doubt he didn’t think what he did each day was of any interest to anyone else. It was a job - with paper work. We all think the same way about our lives. But our lives are important, not only as family history, but in transforming our experiences to give characters realities of their own. The writer’s history is essential to writing fiction.
Mel Brooks, the comedy writer, said, “Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of the writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living in him.” We must make other people see, hear and feel. We have to create the atmosphere around them: sound, light, smell, feeling, temperature.
As a teenager, I spent summers working at a tourist attraction that sits within feet of the brink of the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara. After work, I would stand awhile at the stone wall over the brink and feel the roar and the sweeps of cool mist. The odour it pushed my way with the mist was that of fish and algae and an almost metallic smell. The water had the color and texture of lime jello as it slid over the edge.
I dallied along the walk home through the park along the pathway which stands at the very edge of the gorge. You can look down on ancient tree tops and the calm but seething river. One ton pieces of that rock and wrought iron were used to build a barrier between silly tourists and the rocks the size of cars that lay at the water’s edge. The air is always humid and so it carries the fragrance of the roses and freshly cut grass. The river doesn’t seem to flow as it moves downstream. It is dark green by then and it silently boils up constantly, leaving tiny wavelets washing the chunks of limestone at its edge. It makes no noise.
The river is nearly two hundred feet below the park. Across the river, the cement penstocks of the Schelkopf Hydro plant stood straight and unassuming along the gorge wall. The water from above went into a free fall through these huge tubes and, landing hard, spun the turbines that created the electricity. One hardly ever noticed the Schelkopf. It was grey on grey further along than the spectacular falls.
It was a very hot, humid afternoon. I had almost reached the Rainbow Bridge where my brother worked. There was an odd cracking sound that was swallowed up by the scream of a giant and then a deep rumble. The penstocks seemed to move slightly from the gorge wall and then they began to crumble and crash into themselves and onto the wide red brick plant just above the water’s edge. Massive blocks of cement, huge turbines, twisted structural beams and huge amounts of water were flung out into the river and disappeared instantly. In mere seconds, there was only rubble and tortured steel. The river continued to calmly boil. The bodies of four men quietly swirled and were absorbed. The silence was so profound that for a few seconds, I didn’t hear the falls’ roar.
And then I ran.
The story is for my great-grandchildren. The limp, shrinking, clenched feeling of standing still and foolishly believing the tragedy in front of me wasn’t real is what someday I may give to a character experiencing a disaster.
We don’t need to write a comprehensive autobiography, but writing bits and pieces jotted down from our experiences helps sculpt a building block for a character waiting to come to life in one of our books one day.
And, no matter how dull you think them to be, your thoughts and feelings, things you have seen and inconsequential matters you have seen but will never forget; everything about you will be fascinating for generations of your family. Who else can tell them about ration tickets or where you were when you learned of the Kennedy assassination or why your grandfather was a die hard Leaf’s fan? What were waist-high wheat or white-outs or summer thunderstorms on the prairies like in your day?
Who do you wish had written about themselves for you? What do you wish you knew about an ancestor? Was CNN on at your house for days after 911? When you were very young, what did you and your dad do that made you feel so important and big? What did you and your girlfriends do on a Saturday night? What did you wear on your first day of high school? Did you want to play basketball but were no good at it? What did you feel as you first held your babies or saw your first newborn? Can you pick up worms? Do you remember a studebaker? Remember when you were eight and three quarters?

13 comments:

Karen said...

I've attempted to keep a journal several times over the years but it's never lasted. It would be nice to be able to go back and see what was happening when I was too busy to notice. It might have been a interesting keepsake for my children.

And there are days when I wonder if I should give up writing fiction and attempt an autobiography instead. Because you're right everyone is an interesting character, whether they think so or not.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I've always wished I knew more about my grandparents, but luckily there's still time to get that information from my parents and my brother (who seems to hold the keys to all family knowledge). I find myself keenly aware that that information will slip away in time though. I used to hear all these stories about when my grandfather was a young man courting my grandmother, what a strapping catch he was on his Indian motorcycle, and how he took some kids to task for trying to knock their hands apart while they were walking down the street.

My maternal grandmother also fascinates me, as I never got to meet her, but we are apparently incredibly alike. Then there's Hubby's parents, whose teen romance honestly seems like it's made for a story. Just probably not one I'd be able to write. I also have a great (I think just one 'great') grandfather who worked at Carlisle castle, which I only recently discovered, and Hubby's great grandfather who worked a shipping vessel in Norway. And then I'm sure there are so many other stories we don't even know. His side of the family has a tiny strain of Japanese blood.. but the story as to how that happened has been lost already.

ban said...

I've tried too Karen but my real life is so mundane keeping a journal just bores me to death :) There are times when I wish I had something to pass on to my girls but then again, there are times when I'm glad we don't live our lives in reverse !

connie said...

Karen,
Journals are demanding creatures. Just jotting down a memory or two at a time works better for me.
It is kind of neat to read old diaries - sometimes.
I think memories from our perspective now are more interesting and useful. The best ones always come back when you least expect them. Then is when you jot or write and polish or whatever way you want to do it.
Under no circumstances whatsoever are you to give up writing!!!
First finish the first one so it can be published and I can read it and thn, go on, tease me some more while I wait for the second one
connie
p.s. you could write your autobiography in your spare time!
(also a mother)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great post, Connie. In 1980, we visited Niagara Falls and walked along the railing. We went down under the Falls and stood there as millions of gallons of water rushed past us just a few yards away. We took the tram across the gorge and my memory after all these years is probably wrong, but I remember we hung way up over the water. The tram was rectangular with the seats in the middle and we faced out. We were seatbelted in. Nelson held 5 mo old Crystal. I remember gripping the umbrolla worrying it would slide off the tram and fall the 200 feet down to the rocky water below. The mid-way point was eerie for no sound reached us from either side, nor below. And we swayed gently. It was scary and exhilarating.

I tried to keep diaries. What I've ended up with is a box of journals with years missing. I'd write when I couldn't hold it in any longer and let it wane when life was typical.

Now, I have my iPod. It's always there and easy to add a short note of something that I saw or liked. One of my apps even has a 'journal' in it. Have I ever mentioned how much I like my iPod Touch?

: )

Silver James said...

Connie, wonderful topic and reminder. I've buried both of my parents and my brother. So much of our family history is lost because every time I asked, they all said, "Some day." It's "some day" now and I have only my own spotty memories to draw from.

I've been a witness and/or participant to several historical events. Those memories are preserved in print. But it's the little things we need to remember. One of the most vivid memories I have of my dad involves a hot summer day, a dusty field, and a rain storm moving in. I can smell it and taste it and feel it. I can remember it so vividly because I went home and I captured the moment in words, in a journal.

I fear now that most of my journalling has to do with quick notes and thoughts, ideas and plot points for my writing. Maybe I should take your advice (and my own), and remember to jot down those other things, too.

ban said...

was just thinking - the books we work on now are like journals too, aren't they ? they may not give accounts of 'actual' events but they tell others (children esp.) about the thoughts that were in our heads at particular times in our lives. And, since we put so much of ourselves into our characters, they're like little mini, puzzle piece auto-biographies - ahhh, my muse is seasick right now, forgive ...

Janet C. said...

Oh, the stories your great grandfather could tell!

I am a journal writer - always have been. Unfortunately, my writing tends to be non-story like. I never think that what happens in my every day is very exciting, so journal entries are more emotional and private. But, I love to go back through them and read about what I was doing or how I was feeling.

Great post, Connie.

connie said...

Wow Hayley,
What a lot of great stuff to get the low down on before it is too late. That makes wonderful stories for your family to read over time. But don't forget to jot down some memoirs of you and of Kirby.
Your grandparents' romance has got to appear in one of your stories someday.
He actually had an Indian? Bet you wish that was still around!
connie

connie said...

Hi ban
Journaling is for stronger folk than I. No patience and much laziness. but just writing a few things down as you remember them...a box full of scraps of paper with memories on every one. What a gift that would be!
Live life in reverse?? NOT to be thought of.
Hope your muse recovers soon - i think she is on to something
connie

connie said...

Hi Anita
I was in Niagara in 1980 as well. The tunnels at Table Rock House were where I used to work.
You had the nerve to go across on the Spanish Cable Car???? I did it once or twice when I was very young but it is the most terrifying ride I can imagine. At one time, some unscrupulous men used to take Chinese labourers across at night for a goodly sum and left them thinking they had entered the USA.
I have never been able to keep at a journal. I have a box full too, but who knows - there might be some pretty good stuff in there. I may even haul mine out now and see if there are any diamonds there. However, don't buy stocks yet.
I am so jealous of your iPod that I may never speak to you again - until the next time.
Will you bring it with you next meeting so I can see what all it can do? And then be really really jealous.
connie

connie said...

Silver James
I could feel and see the storm you talked about. Just a few of your words and I was there.
I'd love to know more about the events you witnessed. Where are they in print?
connie

connie said...

Janet,
Thanks
I envy you the ability to keep at a journal. The emotions you have felt over the years are a gold mine of characters' emotions.
You already have that gold mine but you are wrong.there is much to your life that should be set down. DON'T be like my great grandfather.
What was it like in the north in the years you were there? Do you think the division into three territories or the increased Canadian military presence will change 'your' north for better or worse? What is living in Melfort like in 2009? Somday, someone is going to want to know.
connie