Monday, June 8, 2009

Serendipity and the Art of Life

My novel, Mind Games, began, in its way, when I was in eighth grade. It began with my quest to prove for the sake of science (and my grade -- like Benjamin D. Lloyd, I was all about grades) that ESP does, in fact, exist. My project was successful to the extent that it won (I think) an honorable mention at the state science fair. But in the end, I neither proved nor disproved my hypothesis -- that life is too full of "coincidence" for there not to be a guiding hand behind it all.

In life, I call that hand God's. In art, of course, that hand belongs to the writer.

Eighth grade was the beginning of a long agnostic period for me that ended shortly before I began writing Mind Games. An all-powerful, ever-loving, omniscient God is, after all, the ultimate in terms of Supernatural. And so that favorite writerly question -- what if? -- began to needle me. What if a group of students undertook a project similar to mine and actually got an answer?

At Vermont College, I remember being advised that it was helpful to mentally "cast" characters when writing fiction. Since I always have an actor in mind when penning a line of (ever-sparkling) soap dialogue, this advice was tremendously helpful to me. True, my casting was a little unorthodox, as once I imagined my grandmother in the role of a ten-year-old sibling. And there's always a little (maybe a big) part of me in every character I create. Mine is the only skin I've lived in, so I find that I need to grab on to something familiar in order to believably assume someone else's made-up life.

My ultimate casting coup in my writing thus far would have to be Bonnie. Bonnie is a friend from church, an adult in her fifties with special needs, and the basis of Kathleen in Mind Games. Since "twin ESP" is a subject of interest to me and since I'd had identical twins in my original eighth grade project testing group, it seemed natural to have twins appear in my novel. Then I started to think about the interesting story possibilities of making Kathleen a twin. Thus Claire was born. (Ironically, the last character to show up in the novel, she is probably the one most like me.)

The real-life Bonnie has two siblings. She'd told me that her older brother also had special needs and was institutionalized; and that she and her sister were "about the same age." I assumed that this meant that her sister was slightly younger but habitually took on a caregiving role, so Bonnie was no longer sure which of them was older. One day, many months after I'd begun writing Mind Games, we celebrated Bonnie's birthday at church and I discovered that it was also her sister's birthday. Indeed, they were "about the same age" -- they were twins! But because they were not as close as Bonnie felt twins were typically thought to be, she did not freely share this information.

Serendipity, indeed! In a book about interconnectedness and the lack of true coincidence in life, the existence of a real-life Claire was the ultimate validation.

I don't steal plots from life, but I do steal incidents, details, the things I see and hear and wish and dream that make me the person and the writer I am. In writing for soap operas, where the ideas are not mine and the words I write are spoken by actors who may not say what is written on the page, my sole contribution (for what it's worth) is usually in those details -- my daughter who said "laloo" instead of "I love you" when she first began to talk; the sound of my grandmother snoring in the bed beside mine; the feeling in my heart on that perfect day on which I married my husband.

Mr. Ford is a middle school teacher, so he brings home LOTS of stories about students, which I feel free to use (and which I cheerfully tell them when I come in for class visits). Of course, these are snippets, anecdotes -- I don't actually know the kids, so the heart of their stories becomes fiction easily and by necessity.

My next writing project is set in the Civil War era and partly based on the diaries and letters of a girl from Maryland. I already have a complete draft of the manuscript, in which I managed to turn an intriguing story into a plodding one. Back to the drawing board, my first order of business will be to get to know the characters all over again -- this time, inside my own head.

"Method" Writing
by Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford

Years ago, I decided to take an acting class so that I might have some sense as to what occurs in the creative process after I turn in a script. I was living in LA at the time, so I enrolled at UCLA Extension (shout-out to April), and my teacher, Barbara Tarbuck, is a wonderful and very busy working actress. We delved into the basics of Stanislavski's teaching, aka "The Method." In a nutshell, Stanislavski developed a number of exercises to help actors inhabit their characters more fully.

The very same process is, perhaps obviously, just as applicable to writers. I might not typically do "morning pages" or other writerly exercises (see my next post for more on time management); but, in germinating a novel in its earliest stages, I have found a variation of these exercises invaluable in helping with character development.

For the classroom:

1) Practice people-watching (a favorite activity of most actors and writer I know). Pay attention to the details of conversation and action you observe. Use what you see to extrapolate and build a believable character biography. (Though we usually think of biographies as non-fiction, what you are doing here is turning life into fiction in its most basic form.)

For writers:

2) Create a biography of each of your novel's major characters. Where do they come from, and what incidents have been most important in shaping them into who they are today? What are their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, quirks, fears? And of course, the most important question you must answer for every character: WHAT DO THEY WANT?

1 comment:

Carmela Martino said...

Jeanne Marie, I've heard other authors speak of the benefits of taking an acting class. I'd love to try it some time!