Collecting Butterflies

The greatest distance in a writer’s world is the space between their head and the computer screen (or the sheet of paper on the desk). All those thoughts that tumble endlessly inside our minds are not easily captured by the mechanical movements of our fingers. Even if you are diligent and carry an iPhone (or a pocket notebook) to record a train of thought that flashes unbidden in your mind, your chances of writing down more than a quarter of those fleeting thoughts are slim. You may recall a sentence or two, but by then the stroke of brilliance usually has receded behind the murky gray mental wall that is the writer’s bane. You’re not getting back in again, ever, to retrieve that one. The next time you see someone on the street talking to herself, that could be a writer trying to repeat a great thought—over and over until she can write the blessed thing down.

Now compare that simple task to the burden of staying inside a character’s head for hundreds of pages. That ability, more than any other, separates the accomplished author from the amateur. When you read a good novel, the plot events are almost secondary. You’re just enjoying the trip with the quirky narrator. 

Writers don’t begin on that exalted plane, however. They undergo a long process of training to develop several primary traits. First, they learn that writing actually does not capture thoughts verbatim. The process develops selected thoughts, subverting the usual progression to fit character, plot, or thematic demands. Even if you have only limited experience, you have no doubt experienced patches of this phenomenon. You sit in utter stillness on a quiet morning, letting a good sentence germinate. Once a felicitous idea unspools, you write it down. Yet even as you are writing, the idea is evolving—because your mind is now being stimulated by the physical act of writing. You may find a string of sentences unfolds, even a page or more. That is the first step toward plumbing inside the mind of your character. 

Exercise: To identify with a character, write a passage using the word I. This is true even if you are using the omniscient voice, because you can convert back to he or she easily. Start the passage with a quotation mark, and start having a conversation with your character. See if you can write a sentence that comments on the action. Now try to build on that sentence with another, and another. See if you can fill out an entire paragraph of that train of thought. 

“What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end—that is what you must be able to attain.”  —Rainer Maria Rilke

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine

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