whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Category: Character

An Open Letter to the Children Who Aren’t Mine

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For all of the nannies,  who devote their time and their hearts to caring for children who aren’t their own.

______

 

“They” say I have to draw a line through my heart. I can love you, but only so much. Only the appropriate amount. Because you are not mine.

What “they” (the ambiguous, omnipresent, “they”) don’’t know–—could’’t know—–is that the call to love you was the call to begin my life in earnest. They can’’t know that you changed everything. You woke me up.

I didn’t’ enter into this job lightly. I thought of it as a job, sure, but I’’ve never been good at “professional distance.” I knew I would love you. I knew I had to love you to do my job well. And I was committed to being in your life for as long as you needed me.

But how could I have known what it would mean to love you? Especially to love you while also knowing that you are not mine?

I could never pretend that you would belong to me forever, the way that parents sometimes do. It was right there in the contract. Our last day was embedded in our very first day, and every day since.

It is always there in the room with us–while I pour warm water over your soapy hair, while I slice apples for your lunch, and kiss your cheeks and zip your coat. Our last day is in every goodnight hug, every gaze, each ‘I love you’ and click of the closing door.

Of course, there will be a last day in all of my relationships–and yours. People try very hard to run from that truth. We’re afraid the knowledge of it will destroy us.

I sometimes lose sight of it amid the morass of our daily life. Caring for you is more challenging and humbling than anything I’ve ever done. Every day, your innocence holds a mirror to the state of my own heart and mind. It shows me just how much armor I’ve built around myself since I was your age. Every time you copy my behavior, I am reminded anew of my role in either teaching you to imprison your own heart, or showing you how to live and love without fear.

For a while, in the beginning, I was teaching you fear, because it was all I knew. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that I was failing you. I tried to take care of you the only way I knew how—–setting limits, making rules, raising expectations. But we both failed to live up to those benchmarks. Our days became a struggle.

I realized then that if I was going to love you, I would have to learn to love myself. If I was going to attend to your pain with kindness and compassion, I would have to practice on my own pain. If I was going to listen to you, I would have to hear myself.

I can’’t give you what I don’t have.

I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Cleaning up my own mind, healing my own heart, meeting my own needs, is hard work. But I know you are worth it so I must be worth it too.

If all I leave you with on that last day is the memory of being loved, I have done my job. And love is boundless. There are no categories, no limits, no labels for love.

The work of love is ongoing. I still have my moments of forgetfulness and fear. When tears sprang to my eyes on your first day of school, I worried that “they” would think that I didn’t have a right to them. Maybe “they” think I haven’t earned my joy either–the joy of bearing witness to the miracle of your lengthening legs, your multiplying teeth, your new friends and interests. Maybe “they” think that when I look at you I shouldn’t feel a love so powerful it cracks my heart open again and again.

But I do feel that love for you.

And because of it, I will never be the same. I know now that the limit of my love is really the limit of my life.

And I know that it is possible to love the stranger–the child who isn’t mine–with total abandon. Such strangers are everywhere I look. And they are each as worthy of love as you are.

All 7 billion of them.

 

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Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of maturing my writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “[You] contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

Developing Secondary Characters

group-people-silhouetteThe Agile Writers approach to writing a novel focuses clearly around the hero figure and their story. But, the more you step into the world of your hero, the more you recognize the need for fully developed secondary characters.

The hero can only have as much depth as his or her world, after all. So, while deliberate strategies for fleshing out secondary characters are not built into the Agile Writer method currently, we had a lively discussion around this topic at a recent meeting. Some important quandaries emerged from our discussion:

How do you develop your secondary characters? How do you create a compelling Villain or Enemy of your Hero? How do you ensure that the Villain doesn’t “steal the show” and become the most interesting character in your book? How do you create a Hero that evokes emotional investment on the part of the reader? When is the appropriate time in the writing process to attend to developing the secondary characters?

The Storyboarding process at Agile Writers is already very thorough and takes most writers between two and four months to complete. Adding more work on the front-end of the writing process might cross over into unhelpfulness at some point. After all, people come to the group because they want to write, not spend forever planning. New writers could easily lose steam if it takes too long to get to the writing process itself.

For me, the issue of developing my secondary characters came up organically in the early days of writing my second draft. I was happy with the plot of my novel, but felt like some depth was still lacking. The story needed more voices, perspectives and subplots. I wanted it to feel richer, more vivid, more compelling, and easier for a reader to become immersed in.

The solution, for me, was focusing more attention on some of my secondary characters, especially the Villain. Much of my story up to that point was told from the vantage point of my hero. After all, it is her story. But she seemed too self-aware too early in the novel. I needed the perspectives of other characters to communicate some things about my hero that maybe she didn’t even recognize about herself.

Part of creating an amply flawed hero is the limitations that this necessarily sets on the character’s understanding, especially in the first half to 2/3 of the novel. They have a somewhat flat perspective at times because of their own, very necessary, limitations. You need other characters to fill in the picture for the reader. Otherwise, you err on the side of an omniscient hero, who “knows too much too soon” or a novel that lacks richness because of the main character’s limitations.

The first scenario, where the hero is too savvy too soon, results in a terribly flat character arch. There’s no room for the hero to grow if they are already so wise at the beginning of the story.

The second danger, a novel lacking richness because of the hero’s limited perspective, makes for a boring book. The reader quickly tires of the hero’s limited scope. They may put the book down because of its lack of sophistication.

As for how to create compelling characters, we agreed on a few key ingredients. Backstories are imperative. Show where your characters come from to give us a sense of who they are. Also, complicate them. Perfect angels and inhumane devils are boring characters. You need a hero with flaws and a villain with some admirable qualities, even if they are destructive and have ill-intentions. It is also important, we all agreed, to keep the hero as the most compelling character of the story. The reader is following the hero’s journey. It’s their growth, their motivations that are the engine behind your plot.

As for the timing, I found the start of my first macro-editing to be the perfect time to revisit my secondary characters and give them some depth. I already had a plot that was entirely motivated by my hero’s journey, so there was no danger of the arch of the story getting muddied by secondary characters. And I had learned enough about the secondary characters through writing my first draft that I could easily flesh out their backstories and personalities.

But, everyone’s writing process is a little different. How have you handled rounding out secondary characters?