Let Your Characters Guide You

I suppose to write the post I really want to write I have to give just a bit of back story.  Some of this back story is found in other posts.  Some of it has been said more than once before, but in different context.  This is wholly off topic of WoW.

During my freshman semester of college I was fortunate enough to take Psychology 101 with one of the most respected professors on my campus.  I don’t know how I actually got into her class – generally it has a waitlist of 50-100 people (I would later find out).  I just happened to be in the right place in the right time, I suppose.  The class was the only class she teaches at night – I had a full time job so I was a 7-1030 PM student.

And I suppose that bears some on this piece of advice I am about to give you too.  Classes at night are a whole different breed than the classes during the day.  Generally, they are filled by the kind of people who WANT to be in class – they are working towards a degree while also holding a full time job, etc…

Anyway, this teacher had a tradition in her class.  You see, people generally don’t approach Psychology with an open mind.  They think shrinks and insane asylums and such (at least that is what she tells us).  They don’t appreciate the finer points of Freud.  Her tradition started with creating a very safe protective environment.  I remember the speech still in my head.  “We are going to broach some very serious topics in this class.  This class will be a sanctuary from the outside world.  What happens here, stays in here, and what happens there does not come here.  If there is any ridicule of any sort – laughing, teasing, anything whatsoever, you will be escorted from this room and you will fail my class.  No exceptions.  No dropping to avoid the F.  I will publish the failing grade to your transcript no matter what.”

The silence in the room after such a serious statement was palpable.  She went around the room to ask each student what they thought Psychology was.  I was surprised to find that the subject did have a very negative connotation to it.

“Thank you.  Now I am going to teach you what Psychology really is.  I am going to give you an assignment, and then we can all leave early.  This is a very practical assignment, not one out of the book.  I am 40 some years old, and I carry this book..” She held up a very nice leather-bound journal.. “with me everywhere.  It is a diary.  It holds my life in it.  I want you guys to start a diary – or journal for you guys – for at least the duration of my class.  To get started, I want you to write a chronicle of your life.  An autobiography.  I want nothing less than 10 pages..”  She was interrupted by groans around the room, but just raised her voice.  “This will not be seen by anyone by me.  I will read it, but it will be a complete/not complete assignment.  There will be no A’s or B’s, it is not my place to grade your life.  I will use it to get to know you guys just a little better.   And I bet a pizza party that two things will happen.  Every person who does this assignment will be reduced to tears.  Those that don’t cry, havent done the assignment.”  With that, she left the room, and we left counting our blessings that we got out early.

I started the assignment two days later, and initially laid out a timeline.  I wrote on it, and it only came in at about 2 pages.  I started adding detail, and realized that if I was going to fill 10 pages, I would actually have to go into detail about many, many aspects of my life.  As I wrote, I found myself drawn into the writing, and at a certain point, I don’t know what point it was, but at a certain point I just started writing without thinking about what was coming out, or what was next.  What followed was a 20 page monument to my own life.  the pages were stained with tears, sweat, and the blood of my inner being.

When we met again, the next week, I found out that my story was not unique.  Almost every person who actually completed the assignment had a similar experience.  She called us up one at a time from our seats (it was a typical lecture hall with 70 students, so it took a while).  We were instructed to stand in front of the class and share how it felt to write our assignment.  At first, it was awkward, especially for us guys (lets share our FEELINGS – could you think of something more foreign to a guy?).  But, as more people came up front to turn in their assignment -the size of each assignment astounded me – 20, 30, 40 pages some of them spanned – it got easier.  And each person had a similar story of just letting everything hit the page, for better or worse, and having the sense of an amazing emotional release.

Next week the students all pitched in $10 and we had an amazing pizza party complete with ice cream and sodas for all.

Around the campus, those that had taken her class were easily spotted writing in their own journal whenever they had free time, long after they had even stopped taking her class.

All of the preceding 900 words serve only to point out how powerful a tool writing can be for cleansing one’s soul.  Myself, I have a journal and a story that I have maintained ever since that class.  The journal is a journal.  It is a place where I write to keep things straight in my head, remember things, put them down on paper to get them off my shoulders.

But the story, the story is something different.  The journal is something very practical, very academic.  The story… The story has a life of its own.  Whenever I cannot put something to paper in my journal, whenever I am feeling particularly lost, hurt, sad, happy, confused – whatever – I write in the story.  In many ways the story parallels my life, because that is its purpose – to help me figure out what I am feeling, what I need to do, or whatever.  The characters in it have had a harrowing and exciting time as I have had.  It is not a carbon copy, not even close.  But it does bear the same scars and bruises that I do.

It is no secret to my guildies and close friends that I have had a craptastic few years in my life.  Life threw punch after punch and I was feeling like I couldn’t get my footing.  And about 4 or 5 weeks ago, another blow hit me that knocked me flat on my rear.  So, I dealt with it as best I could, even though I knew I wasn’t really dealing with it.

And then I thought about my story.  So I looked for it.  I looked for it on the hard drive of my old computer, the various flash drives I have lying around the house, and my own external drive.  After searching everywhere I could not find it.  I think that I had it on my old computer when the hard drive crashed.  I had to admit to myself that it was lost.  I cannot tell you how sad I was when I finally searched the last possible place, only to find an empty screen staring back at me.

Yesterday, feeling particularly low, I decided to re-write the story.  So I thought for a while about what I had already written, and where I was going and I started writing.

It became clear to me, very early, that this story was not going to be the same as the last.  Whenever I tried to guide the story, it felt wrong.  The characters that I know and love would practically scream at me, “No!  That’s not what I would do.  This isn’t right!  I can’t do that!”  and I would backspace and stop for a moment.  I would take stock of what I had written in this new story, and after getting only about 2,000 words into the story, backspacing and re-writing at least double that, my will was broken.  I gave in and let the characters guide the story, for better or worse.

What followed was a frantically paced writing session.  I made the mistake of starting the project at lunch, while I was at work.  Thankfully, it was a very slow day, and my only job was pretty much to answer calls.  Oh yes, I had other projects.  But they were all waiting for other people to do their jobs before I could do mine (Oy!  I hate days like that!).  So I sat at my desk and I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I stopped long enough to answer calls, and do a few related tasks, and of course, stopped to go home.  But as soon as I was home I resumed writing – I didn’t even eat dinner.

When I was done I had a story that was different, but familiar.  New characters were added, characters that were previously key to the story dropped to the background, and I had a 20,000 word document that I immediately backed up online.  Most importantly, I had a new chapter added on the end.  A chapter about my recent issues.

Writing that last chapter was, as I expected, quite cathartic.  The story, while not the same, was familiar in many ways to the last 5 weeks of my life.  And when I put the last period on the last sentence of that chapter, it felt as if I had lifted the weight of the world off of my shoulders.  The character now bears the weight, and he did it without me guiding the story at all.

Creative writing – writing to get rid of your sorrows – writing to get your thought onto a page – writing for work – writing for fun – writing for school -it doesn’t matter.  Stop guiding the story.  Let the characters themselves write the story.  Do this, and you will find you will write a more satisfying story than you ever thought possible.  And if they choose to bear the weight of your troubles for you, all the better.

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