After Page One: Finding Flaws
A guest post to motivate, encourage, and inspire
A writing teacher once told me that when you’re intentional- when you really begin to open your eyes to the people and events around you- great story ideas and complex characters are everywhere. He was right.
The next day, I took the following notes regarding the nice lady in front of me in the checkout lane:
Calls everyone dear
Buys a zebra striped bra with “Hard Candy” stitched onto one cup
That’s interesting stuff. It’s also a lesson to the lot of you: no zebra-striped bra purchase goes unnoticed. You’ve been warned. At the very least, I had a great jumping off point for my fictional character. Sure, there was a long way to go in making her come to life, but it was a good start.
The same applies when we’re looking at our creative nonfiction characters. It’s crucial, as we are often cautioned with fictional characters, that we not make them too perfect. We must be careful not to polish them so meticulously that we wear away the flaws and rough edges that make them three dimensional, complex humans.
This can be especially difficult when writing about ourselves. Oftentimes, I find that when I look at older essays I’ve written, I’m tempted to tweak them here and there- take some of the edge off, maybe. Mind you, this isn’t entirely untruthful. Many past events, when we look at them from some distance, begin to take on new meaning entirely. (It’s one of the really beautiful things about memoir.) However, we must also be careful not to portray ourselves in a false light, (for the better or worse).
It would have been much easier for me to tell you a story of how compassionate, patient and empathetic I was when my preschooler started throwing up in Rite Aid. That’s certainly more pleasant than revealing how I was angry, embarrassed, and sensitive about the looks we were getting. But as creative nonfiction writers, our job is not only to tell the reader a great story, but to tell it truthfully, to the best of our ability. And often, in the process of telling that story, we are left with more than our fair share of clarity.
In Good Prose, Pulitzer Prize winner, Tracy Kidder says, “To place yourself on the page is in part self-discovery, in part self-creation. The act feels like what a lump of clay must feel like to the hands of a sculptor. Writers want to be engaging, and it’s easy to try to purchase charm at the expense of honesty, but the ultimate charm lies in getting the face more right than pretty”.
Great character development is just as essential in nonfiction storytelling as in fiction, and wonderfully complex characters are all around us, waiting to be written. It’s our task to take great care and delight in bringing them to the page.
Works Cited- Kidder, Tracy, and Richard Todd. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.
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