Today, we are pleased to feature author Elaine Parks as our Authors Talk series contributor. Elaine discusses both her inspirational sources and how she creates her sculptures. She draws on the quiet desert surrounding her Nevada home and, as she wanders, uses the connection she feels to nature and the past to inform her artistic choices. By this method, sculpture becomes the language by which she translates her experience.
She asks that the viewer “reads her work as an artifact” as she contemplates both the history illustrated through nature and her personal experiences. In considering the past tenants of the region, she remarks that “the vastness of this country both day and night must be the same” and that connection to history is resonant in her art. Using “earth objects” to represent these feelings, she chooses “each thing for a reason that is aesthetic, textural and resonant in some specific way,” though the meaning of her work lies beyond the material. She thoughtfully considers the enormity of night sky and the various constellations we see in it as a representation of humanity that may help us consider how “for all our human activity, we’re just tiny specks,” part of something “impossibly large.”
In August 2018, on hill overlooking the Salish Sea, I was walking through an old growth forest that grew suddenly dark and foreign. The other twenty members of the nature seminar seemed perfectly comfortable there. A few yards away, a woman with gray-blonde hair had placed her palm against a towering maple and was talking to it in low voice. Further away, a young man with a shadowy beard padded barefoot on the forest duff, then crouched next to a wild rose bush, eyeing it with loving intensity. Though I’d been anticipating a moment like this for an entire year, I somehow couldn’t do it.
I’d come here to Cortes Island, British Columbia, to join a class led by the geophilosopher David Abram, whose two books The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-Than-Human World and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology I’d read so many times the pages were falling from the spines. Though Abram isn’t the only one to talk about how we humans have wandered far from our animal selves and have lost touch with something vital in the process, he’s one of the most ardent. I thought that by taking his class I might learn to connect more meaningfully to the natural world and to translate that connection into my writing.
Earlier that day, Abram had led us to a grove of cedars and sat cross-legged on the forest floor. A fringe of brown hair peeked from under his leather hat. His brown vest and shirt hung on him like a silken tent, and he used big, sweeping gestures as he spoke. “In oral cultures,” he said, “human language was nothing other than shaped breath. For our ancestors, air carried the words and the meaning.” He spoke of the “beings” of the more-than-human world, the crows, ladybugs, kingfishers, salmon, antelope, grizzlies, rocks, and soil. At a certain level, he told us with boyish excitement in his voice, everything in nature speaks, from the guttural sound of a stream to the squeaky ridges on crickets’ wings. Their difference from us, he continued, is the very reason they matter so much. When we stare too long into human-created things, we deteriorate. He then sent us out to have an encounter with one of these beings.
But now that I was in the forest attempting to do as Abram had asked, something was holding me back. Possibly I felt exposed. Was it okay to talk candidly to a piece of sky with others listening in? Or maybe I felt the relationship was moving too fast. How long does one have to know a Ponderosa before stroking its butterscotch bark? I’m not someone to force intimacy on a person, so perhaps that’s why I was finding it difficult to do so with a sandpiper, a boulder, a patch of moss. I passed another student lying flat, back against the ground, eyes trained on a moving cloud.
I’d never felt such discomfort over an assignment.
Abram was still sitting twenty yards away under the cedars, a slight smile on his face, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, as if he even took some delight in the fact that some of us lept into this encounter while others struggled.
Even if I couldn’t connect, I told myself, I could at least walk in silence and notice the shine of the alder leaves, the chalky aspen, the rugged fir, the ear-like oyster shell. But I resolved not to disturb a thing.
Still, like most writers and storytellers, I’m enthralled with the double-take, the looking back, because it’s the moment after something happens when images collect themselves, events unfold as drama, meaning accrues, and story begins to weave its disparate threads.
And what I saw just then, and saw again, was a silken web silvering in the afternoon light, each spoke double-tied at each cross thread, strung between two sword ferns. Suddenly, I was caught. I reached out to touch it, but then hesitated. What if the spider was nearby? I searched the vicinity, studying each leaf, each stem, the air between. I waited. When she didn’t appear, I placed the tip of my index finger on one diaphanous thread and felt it in an almost way, which is to say, it gently stuck to my skin then pinged back into shape as I pulled away. Was this the encounter I was meant to have? The language I was meant to hear? That for every intimate touch there’s a lingering in the pulling away. Or was I meant to see that these strange, nearsighted creatures spin to live, catching what they need in their gluey mesh?
As if out of nowhere, she came, the orb weaver, or yellow sac, or whatever she was, with her eight legs and eight-fold eyes. A few inches from the first perfect web, I noticed another one. More opaque and less pristine, filled with bits of leaf and twig, this second web hung hammock-like from a branch. She slipped into that hammock and rested, tense and still, legs poised.
As I gazed on her speckled belly, I was pulled out of myself into my childhood bedroom at midnight in my dressing gown and hiking boots, standing on my bed screaming bloody murder, my mother flying down the hall saying, “What’s wrong!”
“A spider!” I said. “I stepped on it and it came up through my boot. Or I thought it did.” My mother rubbed the sleep from her eyes as we watched the spider creep from under the dresser. She scooped it up in her hand and put it out the back door, shaking her head as she left. I was tough by default, growing up the only sister in a house full of brothers, and my arachnophobia made no sense to her. I wasn’t even able to bear the glossy fibers laced through the forest behind our Seattle home, and would refuse to go on hiking trips for fear of encountering a web, though it was thinner than an eyelash.
The spider on Cortes Island made her way to the larger, perfect web, and it was then I noticed that my one slight touch had damaged it. A few strands had stuck to my finger, leaving a gaping hole in the mesh. Something like grief shot through me for what I’d done in my clumsy attempt at an encounter. I wanted to say something. Sorry? But I didn’t know how to speak spider language except through silence.
I remembered that my irrational fear of spiders eventually resolved. I couldn’t recall how, but it must have had something to do with the year I taught Greek mythology to middle schoolers. I would stand at the front of a classroom in Richland, Washington, retelling the oral tales as the students squirmed and fidgeted in their seats. No tale intrigued them more than that of Arachne, the girl who, having challenged Athena to a weaving contest, made a tapestry showing all the ways the gods abused mortals, and for such harsh truth in such a gorgeous form, Athena turned her into a spider.
Or was it that other myth, the one I found in graduate school through the poet John Keats, at a time when I needed it most, that of Philomela? Tereus, her brother-in-law, raped her and then violated her a second time by cutting out her tongue. He thought he had ensured her silence, but Philomela turned that silence into a grave spinneret from which she wove a robe that told her story of pain, whereupon the gods turned her into a nightingale, and so she became a sister in metamorphosis with Arachne, and, it seemed to me then, with the soundless spider there on Cortes Island.
As these things were winding through me, Abram called us back to the cedars with Tibetan prayer chimes. We sat in a circle among the roots. “In oral cultures,” he said, “land is the primary pneumonic for stories. And so stories are intimately tied to the places where they happen.” He then asked us to share our encounters. One person witnessed a mercurial blue reflection on a rock. One felt vibrations under a clod of dirt. One was healed by touching the scar of a fir tree. One heard a maple whispering through her arm. As each person spoke, I felt as if the air itself was multiplying, diversifying, thickening with meaning.
As for my own encounter, it was only later, when I looked back, that I understood how the more-than-human world confronted me with the very thing that makes me human, the ability to let memory unspool. But something else happened, too. In the days that followed the encounter, I noticed webs everywhere, and no wonder. As I learned when I consulted that other, shadow Web, there are over 700 spider species in the province of British Columbia, and on Cortes Island, I was never more than a meter away from an arachnid. I saw the strands under the eaves of the guest house and woven into a blackberry vine, in the silver hair of the other seminar students, and in the diamond chain dangling from a young girl’s neck as she danced to African drums on the last evening on the island. Every web was a double-take, a reminder of how story is built.
Royse Contemporary is so excited to present “It’s Nature’s Way,” the solo exhibition of mixed-media artist Constance McBride, opening on Thursday, December 7. The exhibit will showcase McBride’s “impressive body of work highlighting the artist’s interest in the cycle of life, the human form and the natural world.”
McBride reveals that her work is “inspired by living really close to the desert; it’s an ever present influence on me. I’m intrigued by all the diverse vegetation – bits and pieces of debris are picked up and saved in my studio.” She comments that “the desert is continually expanding, contracting, and redefining itself; so are we, it’s a shared pursuit of survival.”
The opening reception will be from 5pm to 10pm on December 7, but the exhibit will be on display until December 30. It is at the Royse Contemporary Gallery, which you can find at 7077 E. Main Street, Suite 6, Scottsdale, AZ 85251.
The opening will be a part of the Scottsdale ArtWalk in Old Town Scottsdale. Nicole Royse, the owner and curator, will give a brief talk about the artist and work featured in the exhibition; guests will also have the chance to meet the artist. For more information about the exhibition, check out the official press release or visit Royse Contemporary’s website.
Another tiresome story in the news this morning about a mother who let her child play out in the family’s backyard and was subsequently reported to both the local police and to Child Protective Services. For those of you not on the parenting circuit, this is an extreme example of a now-common phenomenon—the expectation that children ought to be treated much like the tiny priceless bell your grandmother brought over from the Old Country, kept close to the nest and dusted off for company. The danger of a child accidentally strangling themselves with dental floss in the bathroom seems more present than the worry they will skin a knee or break a leg. For those of you currently embroiled in the household care of small charges, be forewarned—your greatest enemy may not be the random kidnapper (accounting for, incidentally, about 100 children a year, half of whom come home, compared to a whopping 1,100 children a year killed in motor vehicle accidents, usually when you, the parent, are driving) but the proverbial Monsters on Maple Street who police your every move, making sure you haul your kid in the aforementioned car six blocks to soccer practice rather than let them hike it on their own. So the current prevailing parenting wisdom is this: Do not let your little tadpole out of arm’s reach until they are old enough to rent a car.
Much has been written about the generation of helicopter parents and children of late, centered often around the importance of play, even exposure to nature—several very wonderful books and a few recent articles on Aeon’s website have attested to the value of doing less, of play, the significance of the outdoors, even the importance of boredom. But these ideas, a reaction to the stubborn impulse to shelter children beyond all experience, remain largely on the fringe for the time being. There is little discussion in parenting literature about the value of solitude. We love, as a society, to lament the nation’s youth as a veritable wasteland of social media, but we provide little in the way of experiential lone-someness. Solitude, if anything, seems an enemy, something to be avoided, if possible, a harbinger of anxiety and depression.
What does this have to do with writing?
Solitude—the good kind, borne of the quiet pleasantry of one’s own company, not the painful variety, borne of sheer loneliness—seems endangered, a victim of the digital age and the culture of fear. As does silence, which, Galway Kinnell writes, is the mother of poetry. This is of particular interest to me both as a writer and as a college teacher. Hailed as supreme in the classroom, collaborative work, so often at the heartbeat of current pedagogy, has its limitations in scope. The intimacies of writing, the intricate sound of one’s own rhythm, one’s pulse, one’s story, is hard to hear unless you invest in quiet. For the last decade or so, I have been experimenting with assigning solitude as homework for writing students. At first the assignment rotated around a social justice curriculum I taught for Academic Writing. We read, among other works, Atul Gawande’s sharp and timely article called “Hellhole” about the harrowing reality of solitary confinement. He opens the article by talking about Harry Harlow’s famous experiment with the cloth monkeys, and progresses into a discussion of hostages and the current prison system, in which a staggering 80,000 + people are held in solitary confinement in the United States alone. It seemed like an interesting idea to have students write essays responding to questions of social justice while experiencing for 1.5 hours a self-imposed version of the confines of quiet, set up in a “cell” of sorts, usually a bathroom, meant to approximate the size of the enclosure of the modern inmate. The conversations afterward—and the writing—were more intense and more engaged than at any other time during the semester. “The mind,” wrote one student, “is much, much darker when you are alone.”
To provide a counterpoint to this experience, we talk a bit about epiphany, about catharsis. I can remember my own first experiences with great immediacy; walking to school alone, three miles each way, listening to Cat Stevens on my Walkman, the engine of the universe stopping me to look at new lupine, at the thunderous sky. I can remember reading James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in eleventh grade and feeling a deep desire—something like hunger—to experience a fragment of life as Stephen Dedalus did, for the caught glimpse of an ankle at the seaside to be a portal to an entirely different world. While some students are familiar with the experience of awe, many—by their own admission—have been kept so busy for so much of their lives that they have had little time to experience the shock of the self. Again, the links between epiphany and solitude—a connection with the most ragged, most divine experiences—seems limited, haunted by the preferential treatment of safety, of the known. As part of this segment of the semester, we read Bill McKibben’s gorgeous introduction to Thoreau’s Walden. Here is an excerpt of the part I love most:
The idea that we know what we want is palpably false. We’ve been suckled since birth on an endless elaboration of consumer fantasies, so that it is nearly hopeless for us to figure out what is our and what is the enchanter’s suggestion. And we keep that spell alive every time we turn on the radio or the television or the net. Because when someone is whispering in your ear, there’s no way to think your own thoughts or feel your own responses. The signals that your heart sends you are constant, perhaps, but they’re also low and rumbling and easily jammed by the noise and static of the civilization we’ve lately built.
McKibben goes on to say,
Without silence, solitude, darkness, how can we come to any sense of our true size, our actual relationship with the rest of the world?…What nature provides is scale and context, ways to figure out who and how big we are and what we want. It provides silence, solitude, darkness: the rarest commodities we know.
To this end, students would spend a (yes, I’ll confess to it, mandated) two hours in the outdoors. Alone. We are lucky, I realize, to live in rural Northern California, where a rather safe municipal park, much of it wild, stretches from campus fourteen miles into the foothills of the Sierra. I cannot substantiate whether or not individuals in fact took their phones or traveled in packs or pairs, but I take it on good faith that, for the time, they were sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of epiphany that most were willing to at least attempt this. Again, an excerpt:
It was the squirrels and the trees that seemed, for the time being, to be my friends. I was able to forget my planner, the constant updates of my friends and enjoy the peace of being myself. I felt entirely free.
I do not know, for certain, if these moments in the outdoors, alone, hold for longer than a day, or a week, the time it takes to finish a semester—or if they intrigued the recipient of solitude sufficiently to invite more. I do not know if the small joys of silence can ultimately transcend the fear of quiet, if attempting to learn, as McKibben says, a sense of our own true size, will ever be anything but intensely intimidating. I do know that while not every bit of writing, not each poem, must itself contain an epiphany, the experience of composition is about hearing one’s own thoughts above the din, trying to make sense, and even noise of them.
Just last fall, I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with words that came—came for nearly a year, water after a dam breaking, quenching the barren silence I thought would not return. Every time this happens, I think I’m in the clear at last, as if silence is an addiction I’ve finally beaten back.
But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull. I’ve seen those diagrams in the chiropractor’s office, waiting for the doctor to pull my body from its hunched posture, evidence of years bent over book, desk, notebook, laptop.
Though the dam is muscle, the place where the words stay is smooth and empty, polished bone. Its emptiness is what I carry inside. How can it be both empty and full of all the words that will not come? It is like the skull without a brain inside, a rib cage without a heart. It’s arid as hell. It never lets me forget that it’s a real place.
And where is this place? In the body, without doubt—and not in a single location. It floats effortlessly from head to heart to hand, bumps against the liver and lights, flutters around the reproductive organs, circulates through the blood. I wonder that it doesn’t kill me, this hard marble passing through the tiniest vessels, pinging off the cells. It stops my throat as I am reading, a constriction that I interpret to mean you will never write again.
When I walk in the garden I feel it rolling around inside, growing smoother and harder. I stoop to weed and feel it knock against my heart, knock when I look up and see the neighbor’s scruffy tom pluck a bird right out of the air. I cry out, and the cat startles, drops the bird, leaps into the brush.
I pick the bird out of the grass—a finch—and turn it from side to side. Its black legs like twigs poke from its underbelly. Its head is wet, a red smear that looks like blood but may be feathers. Its heart is pounding. I sit on the step, cupping it in my palm. I think I can do this much, keep it from harm until it dies. It watches me, its eyes black and sharp. After a moment, the lids flutter closed. Its heart slows. The cat comes out of the bushes, flops into the grass, licks his front paws. Five minutes pass, then ten. My husband, who’s been weeding the bed of Casablanca lilies, walks over, looks into my hand, says, “Bird’s a goner, I’m afraid.”
The bird seems both dead and alive. Its stiff legs don’t move, even when I brush them with my finger; immobile are the passerine toes, two forward, one back, an ingenious clamp. Its eyes remain closed. My hand is its bier. But though I wait for it to falter, the rhythm of its heart stays steady as my own pulse. I catch myself wondering how long this is going to take, feeling guilty because this is an amazing moment of communion with nature, etc. and here I am, thinking about what I need to do, what needs to be accomplished before the day is over. I’ve sat beside the dying; I know that ushering someone out of this world is as important and meaningful as ushering someone in. Even a bird deserves that respect.
I scowl at the cat and wonder why my neighbor won’t keep him inside. Sitting idle seems odd. Usually when I’m in the backyard, I’m working—weeding, planting, mowing—or waiting for my two red dogs to finish their business. What’s the point of carving out this green oasis, if one never has time to enjoy it? And will the poor bird’s heart never falter? I look away from the bird, at the honeysuckle arching over the path, fragrant with blossom.
The heart doesn’t falter. One minute I’m sitting on the step with the bird on its back in my hand. The next minute it’s shot into the apple tree over my head, and then airborne, it’s on to the rest of its life.
Are you in LA this weekend and looking for something to do? We suggest checking out the last weekend of “Connections to the Natural World” exhibit at the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. This collection features the personal responses to nature through various media of seven unique artists, four of those artists being past SR Contributors. Sarah Kriehn, a printmaker, uses nature as a visual framework for intuitive play. Monica Aissa Martinez works to experience and understand nature through human anatomy in her intricately rendered paintings. Carolyn Lavender explores natural preservation while portraying the fake and the real of flora and fauna in detailed graphite drawings. Mary Shindell reframes nature’s geometry and reorganizes its special relationships in her large-scale installations.
This collection is only on view until January 30th during normal gallery hours (12-5 pm Thursday- Sunday). Be sure to admire these artists’ brilliant work in SR. Sarah’s paintings were featured in Issue 10, Monica’s drawings in Issue 9, Carolyn’s drawings in Issue 9, and Mary’s work in Issue 11.
The sojourners tried designating the world to the darkness to reflect the way I am. Then they created their protections.
When did I unclench their papers?
I was adorned again. That hiddenness made open. The spoils of my old self were dragged to the hilltop.
To be criticized I was percussive, and I refused to hide my dead. Untutored were the examined trees above me. Punctual trees, heavy and ridden by snow’s asymmetry. Perhaps this was how I developed my sensitivity for unsteady measure. No there. This half-silver unbroken palate, blue gradient of midheaven.
Bright was my disappointment to summon what might already be perceived. Grief’s compression & renewal were not wedded to the things I fed you.
From Thoreau’s glacial puddle to Muir’s tectonic Sierras to Annie Dillard’s little creek, nature writers have sought for over 200 years to bring landscape into their essays with all the power of real characters. Arguably, with his landscape-laden Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey launched modern nature writing. Those of us today who would write of nature, especially in the West, still have a vast supply of natural wonders and beauty around us to bring into our work. How can landscape become a character? Let’s ask what makes for memorable human characters.
First, more than cardboard cutouts, characters have texture and depth, and a good author will turn to several senses to capture these finer points. Sharp vision is always useful. But nature reaches us, often vividly, through touch, smell, sound, even taste in ways that humans cannot. Imagine caressing an alligator bark juniper with your eyes closed. Listen to how wind songs differ sliding through junipers vs. pines. Did you know Ponderosa pines are unique? Their bark smells like vanilla.
Second, great characters are alive, vibrant, never still. And so with Nature. Behind the pretty scenery, nature teems with dynamics for an author’s use. Nothing is static. Evolution is a work in progress, rending, rebuilding, creating wholly new forms from the shards. Even the lowly lichen, neither plant nor animal, sits there seemingly immobile on its granite boulder, quietly dissolving its host.
Characters have moods. To give Nature moods is anthropomorphic. But the experience of Nature creates moods in others, in other characters, in the reader. The trauma and threat of violent storms are the easy parts. More challenging to the writer are Nature’s softer tones, the quiet promise of morning dew in Spring, the foreboding of a temperature shift in the breeze. As with humans, subtle mood changes wrought by Nature can run deep with meaning.
Characters interact with each other. Dominance, dependence, synergy, all abound in the intricately woven fabric of the natural world. The easy ones for the writer are the least interesting, when some natural element forces an altered path, a behavioral change in another character. The blizzard that drives a ship off course, a canyon that redirects the wanderer. More important are those bits of landscape that bring fundamental moral or intellectual change in a character. A mountain standing there, infusing strength into a quailing man, a bee alight on a columbine suggesting with fragile beauty the depth of our dependence on wilderness, the Milky Way blazing in darkest sky, telling us how infinitesimally small and insignificant we really are.
If we write the land into our essays as character, and the character that land interacts with most deeply is the reader, then we will have truly created art.
Do you have a recent story that might be enriched if you brought in the natural world?
There is a primal urge in our muscles, housed in ligaments, tendons, cells. For a wrapper around us: the shell of an egg, nest, hut. To sit reading by a fire in a house with sturdy walls: one remembers the pleasure.
I want to advocate for a dedicated space—for each of you, each of us, as writers—and if possible a writing space separate from your living space. As I write the sentence I lament that it took me years to know I needed such a space and then years to have the means to build one. Mine is small enough a white pine hides it from view, and yet it’s ample. How much does a writer need?
A desk, a chair, a lamp, heat, a ceiling fan for when it’s too hot. A shelf for books. A notebook, a writing implement. Windows, with some that open wide.
What shall it be called? I reject shack, but wish that the word studio had fewer syllables. I prefer the word hut. A friend recommended a longer title, suggesting cursive words burned into a plaque I nail up: “Pavilion for the Gathering of Harmonious Intent.” I resisted that, too. I refuse a sign, a name. I have a knocker in the shape of a trowel next to the door. “Please don’t knock unless it’s an emergency.” This is what I’ve told my husband.
I step outside, hiking up on my shoulder a bookbag with notebook and binoculars; in my other hand a thermos of coffee, a cup. Once I step into my writing hut, I breathe new air. I look out on a ravine behind our house, a creek, deciduous trees. All is forgotten: teaching schedule, chores, dinner menu, dentist appointment. I am riding the crest of a wave, alone. It’s thrilling. It’s where I need to be.
Depending on your writing methods, you can leave technology behind—though wireless does extend out this far. I write longhand in a notebook, ones I buy in bulk quantities. I buy the same ones: lined, thick paper, with a colorful front and back and an elastic closure. I write with a pen. Eventually I will put the poem on my computer (in the house), print it out, work on revision (on paper), and repeat the process. But I love writing by hand. It slows the words down for me; there is time to think, reflect, stop and start again. Recursive, reflective, slow. It is “slow food,” this writing. Here’s a pat of butter sliding across the page, or a piece of ice melting, moving. Mixed metaphors. I think of Robert Frost’s words, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride on its own melting.”
One also leaves behind the whole writing profession, its worries, publishing, frets, envies, niggling doubts. Here one is up against writing itself, by itself. One grapples, struggles. The opponent? Oneself. There is no other here. Get it right; tell the truth, give the right, specific detail.
I like it quiet, like it with the windows open to birdsong, and I like it with music. Either way, find your space. Have it reflect the unique self that is you, and relish it.
Writing as practice, the hand caressing the page, the wet ink lapping at the dry paper. Each poem is a walk, a journey, and the mind wants to rove. Let us go a’maying, let us venture out.
One of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.” The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”
When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”
Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.
In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.
In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.
The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!
Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?
The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.
So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.
I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.
Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.
But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.