Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Unnamed Character

It's no secret that I like to write. Oh, I don't walk around with a sign or wear t-shirts emblazoned with writing slogans or even a label that says "I like to write!" but inside there's a little corner of me with a brand that says it. I told stories I made up to our preacher's daughter when she was maybe four or five and I was less than a decade older and enjoyed what they called "creative writing" exercises in school. Then for some reason I quit. Cold. I just didn't have time for it and maybe life was just to serious and adult for writing stories or much of anything now that school and college were over. But the itch was still down there, buried like a seed overwintering under the ground, waiting for a warming trend, a bit of water and a little oomph.

I've been taking an online class in creative writing for the last six weeks. It's been fun stretching myself out a bit, writing something more than just the reflections I write for Episcopal Café and the occasional essay with theological overtones, as much as I love writing those. In one exercise we had to pick a three digit number, then go to a chart where each number represented a person, a place or a thing and then write something that incorporated all three in 500 words or less. How do you take the number 735 and make something  with a foot doctor, a statue and the middle of a lake?  Other exercises were similarly interesting, but some were very difficult.

For a final submittal we had to post a story we'd been working on, 500 words or less, that we felt was something publishable or at least shareable. I was stuck; I couldn't think of a thing. I couldn't submit the first paragraph for comment in an earlier assignment because I couldn't come up with anything. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I finally decided to take a story I'd written years ago and snip out a bit of it and use that, reworking it a bit to stand alone from the original. For two or three days before it was due I took it, read it about a dozen times, changed some things and put it away until I had time to go back to it and make more changes. I thought I had it done but the morning it was due I woke up at 2:30 AM with the horrendous realization that I had made a huge error. I had a character dressed for a 17th-century ball rather than proper everyday gentlemen's clothes when he was supposed to be standing on a pier talking to a sea captain of a merchant ship just arrived from the Old Country. After lying there fussing about it, I got up an hour or so later, redressed him and then made some other changes to bring the piece down to the required number of words. One thing I didn't even consider doing was naming the main character. She hadn't been named in the original and I didn't have a reason to change that.

I submitted the piece and got feedback from the instructor. Yes, I knew the transition from the middle to the end was weak but I'd had to sacrifice most of that to meet the length requirements. Yes, it was a piece that had potential (I wish she could have read the whole thing instead of a truncated version), but one comment has stuck out for me and that was that I didn't name the main character and that naming the character would have added believability and universality. Huh. I thought I was writing about an experience, one of a thin space between several centuries of time and in which that character was simply the viewer, not involved in the action. I thought of the piece as a word painting, using words to capture a scene much as Monet used paint and canvas. He didn't name the water lilies or the bridge and his paintings had a lot of credibility, so my "visitor," "beachcomber" and "she" were just part of the scene, not more, and so she didn't need to be Jane or Tiffany or Hyacinth or something any more than they needed to be one of the water lilies, at least to my mind.

I will admit to being a somewhat compulsive namer. I name my cats things other than "Kitty" or "Tom," and I name computers and electronic gadgets. I named my cars, all except the truck I drive now which doesn't seem to want a name. The forklift at work is "Susie." Names sometimes give clues as to character or something about the person or thing named. Sometimes the name is quite indicative, other times it misses the mark by a mile. Still, people expect to have things named and so the character in my story, should have had a name, at least by my instructor's lights. I disagree. I didn't want a name to get in the way of the picture I was painting; I didn't want to remove that cloak of anonymity from her.

I think there are times when everybody feels like they need a cloak of invisibility around them, sort of like when they do something embarrassing like tripping over a curb in the parking lot of the grocery store, laughing out loud at a passing thought in the middle of a serious sermon in church or trailing a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe. There are times, lots of them. when I've wanted to wear mine and there were also times when it was ripped off by someone. Take the envelope I'd carefully left in the middle of the office floor with the name of  the one to whom I wanted the envelope given. I was on sick leave following surgery and had driven down to the office before dawn several days later to slide it under the office door where it would be seen before someone stepped on it. After I returned to work my supervisor teased me about the contents of the envelope which he had opened, thinking it was for him from Mary. Why would Mary have put her own name on the outside of the envelope when leaving it for him? It didn't make sense to me then and still doesn't, but mostly it hurt. I'd tried to do a good deed for one person and someone else had not only discovered it but used it as an object of humor not to mention handing Mary a sealed envelope that had been obviously been opened. Heaven only knows how many people he'd asked to see if it had been from them before settling on me as its originator.

I think we need a little anonymity now and then, for humility's sake if nothing else. Jesus said something about doing things quietly, like praying in private instead of standing in the middle of the church (ok, he used synagogue) praying out loud to impress people. There was also the injunction to take a seat at the bottom of the table rather than up near the head in case those seats had been reserved for others and the person would be asked to move to a place of lesser honor. Would someone have been any more grateful for a little help if I'd put my name on it instead of signing it as a a gift from God? It's a bit like the custom we used to have of leaving May baskets at other people's doorsteps; it was to give some pleasure and maybe some cheer, not needing expressions of gratitude. I miss that custom.

My character will remain unnamed, and I'll do the same from time to time. I'll consider it an exercise in humility. Maybe I should start looking for more opportunities to wear my cloak of invisibility. Think Harry Potter would lend me his? It could come in handy for leaving May baskets or...

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