Your name came up in conversation at a book club discussion last week. As usual, you provoke a great deal of lively discussion. And also as usual, the readers asked me why you made some of those choices in the novel. You know which ones I’m talking about, right?
Naturally, readers assume that writers have complete control over their characters, in the same way that people often mistakenly assume parents have control over what their children say and do. But as you know, it turns out neither is true. You and my children so blatantly taught me this during the seven or eight years while I was writing The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife.
When I first discovered you somewhere in the recesses of my imagination, Lynn, I figured you’d turn out to be someone like me (much as I imagined my children would grow up to act like me, enjoy the same activities I do, and so on). As time went on, however, and as I learned more about your background, your goals, and your personality, you made it clear not only that we weren’t very much alike but that we wouldn’t even be friends if you ever somehow came to life. And then one day you said something that completely startled me. You suggested that Will, a fellow climber, had forced himself upon you. I quickly took down what you said, and incorporated it into the novel. And then, as I thought about it more carefully, I understood why you did this. And I also realized this was a defining moment for both of us. This scene, and in fact a good part of the entire novel, was yours to tell, not mine.
A similar thing happened several years ago with one of my children (although it wasn’t nearly as serious, thankfully, as a rape accusation). He was in middle school at the time, and after he made a disparaging comment to another student, I got a phone call from the principal.
“You have to control what your child says,” he told me.
I was speechless. Astounded. Of course, I was also quite disappointed about what my son had said to the other student. I thought I’d taught him to be more tolerant and compassionate than that, and I knew we were headed for a serious talk when we got home. But what knocked me off my rhythm that day was the absurd notion that my role as a parent was to control every word that came out of my children’s mouths.
No, it wasn’t.
My role was to teach them what I could. Try to impart my values. Offer up plenty of opportunities. And help them learn from their mistakes. Actually, controlling my children had never been a parenting goal of mine, rightfully so.
Of course, my son is a real person and you, Lynn, are merely a figment of my imagination. One might argue that I ought to be able to control you. But I look at my writer role as being similar to my role as a parent. Stories and families are environments created for people, whether real or imagined, to experience life, not for the creator’s manipulative entertainment. And, both in fiction and real life, those people are going to react to situations based on what they’ve learned previously. In your case, by the time you got to that moment on the mountain with Will, and in light of all that you’d done and said prior to that night regarding your plans for Denali, you decided to tell the others that Will had raped you, and this eventually made sense to me, even though it wasn’t what I’d expected or planned.
Throughout all of the novel’s revisions, and even now that the book is out in the world and I’m busy promoting it, I have to say I still don’t really like you as a person. And I don’t always like what my (now grown) kids say or do. But you, and my three sons, have had a big impact on my life–more than any of you will ever know. You’ve made me think about more things than I could have ever thought possible, and you’ve made me look at myself deeply, too. And at our universal human drive for some element of control, and our universal reluctance to let go.
I visited with a relative recently who has a new child. His wife, jokingly, said she had an agenda for the little guy and had planned out his life into adulthood. Of course she knew this wasn’t realistic, but there is some truth in what she said. What parent hasn’t had dreams and goals for his child? What writer hasn’t planned out scenes, conflict, and even conversations for her protagonist?
What you and my kids have taught me, perhaps above all else, is that all the advance planning and imagining in the world doesn’t give anyone the opportunity–or even the right–to expect to have complete control. Like climbing a mountain, life hurtles obstacles into both your path and mine. My job, as a writer and as a parent, is to remain ready for the unexpected, appreciate the lessons I’ve learned, forgive mistakes that are made, and maybe hope for a little redemption for whatever flawed choices I might have made along the way.
Next Up: What Writers and Parents Have in Common: Part 3 The Complexities of the Matter