Friday, January 11, 2008

Meeting Stories Where They Are

My apologies for the lack of posts lately. I've been serving on a jury while dealing with a pile of work. But the trial is over and the work is moving forward. I've missed blogging.

I was really depressed when I was chosen, frankly. It's no fun serving on a jury when you're self-employed. Beyond that -- I'm a pretty typical writer personality. I don't like crowded settings. I don't like institutional settings. I'm pretty much going to have a bad day if I don't get several hours to myself and my writing. So spending a week or more at San Francisco's Hall of Justice was not how I wanted to start my year.

The Hall of Justice is a true purgatory -- a gigantic complex holding everything from the county jail to the sheriff and police departments, the criminal courts, and a number of other bureaucratic offices. There's usually a line outside stretching down the block leading to an airport-style security checkpoint. All of San Francisco is in this line -- Chinese cooks to young gangbangers to mousy bureaucrats to arrogant lawyers. And of course there are cops everywhere.

I was pissed off for the first several days. My general state was dictated by bureaucrats straight out of Brazil. Gangs of teenagers roamed the halls being vaguely threatening. Arrogant lawyers traveled the halls six inches above the floor. And crowds of potential jurors stood around, shut down, sending text messages or reading romance novels. It's a very depressing place.

After a day or two I knew I was stuck there, and remembered one of those really annoying truths that follow you everywhere: Meet people where they are.

Meeting people where they are is hard when you're pissed off or don't want to be where they are yourself. It seems like it's the opposite of self-interest. The "civilized" part of your brain is often screaming no. It's much easier to keep your head down and do what you can to expedite the process.

But meeting people where they are inevitably pays off. Meeting eyes with a stranger brings that character out of their label -- Chinese immigrant cook, sh**head lawyer, stupid gangbanger, faceless bueaucrat -- and suddenly this person is telling you a story, or sharing something important, or otherwise brightening your day or changing your perspective. You ask pretty much anyone a question about where they are at that moment, and you've made a friend, at least for the day.

It struck me that this is a very good thing to remember when writing as well. Usually when I'm not working well, it feels almost like I'm looking down on my characters, like rats in a maze. I know where they're supposed to go, and I can't quite figure out why they don't go. I spend a lot of time nudging them in one direction or another. I think about my training, and I get there sooner or later. But it never feels good.

Then there are the times that I try to meet my characters where they are. I see my characters where they are in a scene, and let them open up and tell me where they're going. I let them tell me why. I listen. I meet them eye to eye. That's when writing feels powerful. That's when I write well.

There's usually a voice telling me to stick to my notes -- to stick to the plan. Not infrequently I'm writing for someone else, and it seems to make sense to treat the characters and the plot like rats moving through a maze. But it never does make sense.

Meeting people where they are brings you into the world. It wakes all you are, and makes you part of something that is both good and bad, pleasant and painful. It lets you be in your own skin.

If you write, you need to remember this. Meeting your characters where they are is the only way to know them. It's not a neat process. It's not an entirely predictable process. But you'll thank yourself when you write well.

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