Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird. I know, the book has been out forever, but I missed the discussion group! Finally, this is my chance. I’m glad you’re here to discuss the chapter, “False Starts.” If you haven’t read the chapter, you must forget your groundless inhabitations and jump into the conversation. I learn so much from you.
“Brother Lawrence…saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway…When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
All I have in my writing pocket right now is a seed of an idea. The story is peopled by shadows of characters—a middle-aged woman, her mother and father, perhaps a child, and another older man. Keeping the analogy of bare trees in mind, my characters are mere sprouts, indistinguishable from a stalk of corn or an oak at the moment.
I definitely need to hang out with them. Won’t you sit in? I heard an author interview on my favorite podcast, Pen on Fire. The author—can’t remember her name—interviews her characters as if preparing to write their biographies. She fills notebooks with notes.
Here is my first interview with Barb, my protag. We’re sitting at a sidewalk café in a small California beach town, because this is my interview, and I can do it anywhere I want. There's coffee and lots of chocolate on the table, so this should go well.
Me: You look nervous, Barb.
Barb: Shouldn’t I be? I won’t have a secret left when you’ve filled your notebook.
Me: We’ll start slow. There’s no rush. We’re both after the same thing, the truth.
Barb: Really? The truth? I’m not sure I’m all that familiar with the concept anymore. I thought I was, but in the last six months…
Me: You’ve had the rug pulled out from under you?
Barb: I’ve been swallowed by a whale. Which way is up, really?
Me: Perhaps we should start earlier. What is your earliest memory?
Barb: That would have been the Maple Street house, I suppose. Before Gary. That’s my younger brother. I don’t know…
Me: You’re thinking of something.
Barb: It’s silly.
Me: Go on.
Barb: Okay, if you insist. I was hiding in the broom closet. In fact, I was sitting on Mom’s Electrolux. She was calling for me from the kitchen. I should have gone to her. I knew I should have. I heard it in her voice. She was getting angry. But I stayed in the closet. I remember having to go to the bathroom. Number two. I’m sure there’s some deep meaning to that. I remember reading something.
Me: I’ll do some research.
Barb: You will?
Me: What happened next?
Barb: I was afraid of having an accident but more afraid of coming out. I’d waited too long. She would know I’d hidden from her. Our house was small, not a manor house where a little girl could get lost in her dreams. Mom wanted something from me. I don’t remember what.
That’s it. That’s my first memory. Your book is going to be awfully boring.
Me: Not at all. Besides, we aren’t finished yet. Was anyone else there, in the house?
Barb: I don’t think so. I remember other times, and, you know, they could have been before the closet thing or after, now that I think about it. Once I screamed my throat raw, trying to avoid a nap. My temper was legendary, the topic at many a family function. And another time, I remember eating tomatoes, still warm from the summer sun, with my dad under the apple tree.
Me: Tell me more about your father.
Barb: Dad? Well, he has his passions. Of late, he’s a bit delusional. I worry about his arteries hardening. That would affect his thinking, wouldn’t it? Anyway, he’s always been a bit of a showman.
Me: Is he a good father?
Barb: I love my father very much.
Me: Perhaps my question was too broad. Did you and your father get along?
Me: Care to elaborate?
Barb: He’s not the man I thought he was. But then, I’m not sure I know my mother either.
Me: That’s quite a discovery to make at forty-eight. We’ll have to talk more about your parents, but I can see you’re about to bolt. Shall we set a time for tomorrow?
I’m not feeling great about the interview. Getting information out of Barb is like giving birth to a water buffalo…breach! I’m not even sure I like her name. Cynthia? Linda? Lady Gaga? Better? Not? Was this a false start? I’m not going to worry about it, much. After all, this was our first lunch. Once she trusts me, I’ll see her true colors. Her personality will bloom. She’ll tell me funny stories about her dog. Is she married? I’ll ask her tomorrow.
For now, all I know is she isn't all that close to her parents. She seems bitter. But she has nice memories of her father. Her mother, not so much. Chances are I'm completely wrong about her. More chocolate. Definitely more time.
How do you get beyond all the things your characters aren’t? Do you fill out an inventory? Use Meyers-Briggs personality types? Base your characters on people you know? When have you had your first impressions of a person changed by spending time with them? How much time are you willing to invest in getting to know your characters? How do you know when you know them well enough to start writing?