Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Living in the sentences

"...after you get into the book, you're really living with these people and you're living in the sentences. And their experience kind of becomes yours. It's a peculiar kind of loss of identity that the author has..." -- E.L. Doctorow

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to E.L. Doctorow on All Things Considered on NPR talking about writing his new novel "Homer and Langley," which explores the lives of two privileged brothers who hole themselves up in their brownstone and live amidst a tremendous amount of clutter.

In discussing the character of Homer, Doctorow remarked that he really felt bad for his character and went on to say that, "you're really living with these people and you're living in the sentences," to describe the experience of being so engrossed in your story that you feel deeply for your characters.

I love the expression of "living in the sentences" as it accurately describes the reality that inhabits me when I am working on a novel. As I have said before, Cat's story lived in my head for over ten years. My life at work, at home and with friends was shadowed by her life, her reality, her feelings. I lived in the sentences of The Last Bridge for a long time. Even now, when readers ask me what happens next, or they speculate for me on what the future holds, I honestly can't say whether or not it all works out as I have not "lived" that part of the story (yet? I don't know.)

Right now I am in the thick of book two and this story is told from a man and woman's point of view. This is the first time I have put myself into a man's head and I have to say I am learning a lot(like women are intense and can be complicated!) Generally, I work on one part of the story at a time and live in that character's head for a while. In the car, during morning walks or when I am doing chores, I will play out a scene in my head, often speaking the dialogue of the character out loud. Over time, I hold the character in my heart in the same way I would a cherished friend of member of my family. In stores, I can pick out what he would wear or what color lipstick would look good on her. At times, I wonder what my characters do when they are not in my head.

It is a curious and intense experience. At times it feels as if you are cheating on the people in your real life, that someone else is the object of your attention. Writing is only a small part of the process, inhabiting the world of your story stays with you all the time.

It can be a burden sometimes, especially when you can't get the story done and you can't shake the character either. There are lots of road blocks on the way to finishing a novel and I have had moments when I have felt like my characters were bad pennies I could not lose. When writing about the darker aspects of Cat's life I felt sad a lot of the time, and could not understand how someone could endure what she did. Every time I got drunk I thought, "this is how she feels all the time."

When I got the word from my editors the final draft of The Last Bridge was accepted, I was elated. At last I could go "public" with my relationship with Cat and send her and her story out into the world. I was finally free to live inside other sentences and I was looking forward to it.

That's when I realized the only thing harder about inhabiting the lives of your characters is letting them go.

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