For the last several years, I’ve sat in a broken folding chair at my desk. I should probably get a new chair; this one is almost impossible to sit in. It’s brokenness cannot be ignored. I should also probably paint the wall I’m forced to look at–as well as the other three–and get rid of the gender neutral, non-threatening stripes on the walls of what used to be someone’s nursery. I should also accept that I hate facing the wall when I work and move the damn desk so it faces the window so I can look out at how beautifully those pumpkins are doing in my garden and panic about how many damn pumpkins I might wind up with in a couple of months.
Then again, it might help to weed that garden I’d stare at. Or, hell, water it. Maybe if my desk faced the window I’d become fixated on what a neglectful gardener I am and not accomplish anything. I could say here, “That would be a real game-changer,” except that it wouldn’t be, because I would still not be accomplishing anything, but it would be in a slightly different form and facing in a different direction. (This is also the same room where I no longer do yoga. You get the picture–this place is a vacuum. And could use the love and attention of a vacuum, for that matter.)
The truth is, I’m sitting on the floor, having given up the chair. While the broken chair may evoke a pitying response in some people, the fact that I can move the whole operation to the floor because I have a working laptop computer should really cancel out the original emotion and return everyone to a state of mild annoyance or apathy. There used to be a futon here, but it was twenty-years old, very lumpy, and recently one of our cats forced our hand on what to do with it when the wind blew the door shut one morning and she was trapped in here for about eight hours.
There are four stuffed animals lying on the floor in this room in various poses of lifelessness. In fact, viewed as a group, one might think that they were placed here in some synthetic, “all new material” stuffed homage to a gangster movie. They’ve been here a while, and it only occurs to me now that my not bothering to move them is a little disturbing.
The point is, there’s a lot to do here: fix broken stuff, take a little care, pay closer attention, make small but important decisions.
I still haven’t moved the stuffed animals.
Then again, there are those things people do, those tiny gestures, that tell you exactly what’s coming next. You almost don’t notice them. The average person, just meeting them, would say, “What are you talking about? I don’t see anything.” But you know…it’s the pace of their speech, a word they choose, a story they always tell right before the inevitable happens that tells you, Buckle up. Here we go. It’s a sign only a few people pick up on, and to say “I saw this coming,” makes you seem like a jerk.
So someplace in the midst all of this is a character. And maybe what makes them real are the people who interpret them, like paintings. And maybe it depends on who sees what and how forceful the message is.
Why that shade of red?
I don’t see any red.
What does it mean that there’s a horse on the table?
What about the gun in the bathtub?
Why do you think he’s snarling?
I thought he was smiling.
You could go on and on like this forever, but if you’re going to put something together that creates something remotely real, you need to choose an interpreter who’s not wishy washy. You need someone who says, the fact that she chooses to shop over reading a book means she’s having a nervous breakdown. Not maybe. Not sort of. Someone needs to believe they know what they’re talking about. Even if that someone turns out to be wrong, because maybe the point is to tell more about the person who’s wrong than the one they’re trying to be right about. Because maybe the only way to feel like you’re getting anywhere is to back away. Or maybe we can only ever see a person in a reflection.
There isn’t an answer. It just has to be done, and done again, until the story’s told. And then you argue with yourself about when that’s happened.
It’s easy to think you can capture a person with one mannerism or speech habit, but you can’t. It’s all a sham. Every time you come up with one way to make a character a person, you wind up creating little more than a portrait. Just when you think you’ve found a way to make other people understand, maybe you’ve only created something a little more fake, but with more detail. It’s like hugging smoke.
You can watch your friends and family members. You can walk around mimicking people in your head until you get their patterns just right. Or you can ignore all that and create someone completely from scratch (which you won’t–you never ever will), but you will never quite get it. Or will you?
Maybe if you write more than two stinking paragraphs at a time, maybe if you rewrite and edit and cut it all into paper dolls and start again, maybe you’ll get something that seems real. Maybe if you stop thinking about all the people who seem to be doing the same thing so much better, faster, and with more purpose. Maybe if you remember that you can never know what someone’s doing even when they’re standing right in front of you because even as they’re smiling or crying or screaming there’s something else going on their minds–wishing they were someplace else, worrying about something they haven’t bothered to explain to you, or just itchy. Maybe sometimes we’re not paying attention because we’re literally just itchy. And try as we might to figure someone out, to feel like we know what might happen next, we never will, not really, and that’s both blessing and curse depending on the moment, so why do you worry when you can’t do it on a keyboard when you’re already pressed for time and barely able to listen to a person who’s looking you in the eye?
Did you learn everything there was to learn about that friend in the first hour you knew them? Do you share the same information with the same people? Do the gardeners know about the writing and the writers know about your mother and your mother know about what foul language you use in traffic? Certainly not, especially that last one, though she probably suspects, given current social norms and the fact that your mother, though self-absorbed, is no fool. And if you want that friend to know more about you do you squeeze it all into one conversation? Please. Only if you want there to be just one conversation. So you tell them some and wait not-so-patiently for the next time you have the chance to talk, which could be months from now and then it might be hurried or interrupted or just awkward because everyone’s in a bad mood that day. But guess what? You just learned what that person is like when they’re in a bad mood or hurried or out of money. And maybe it’s a tiny bit of information, maybe it’s something so small it seems insignificant, but it’s not. It’s really not. In fact, neither are those two stinking paragraphs because they’re a conversation, too. They’re a throwaway comment at the end of a phone call that makes you understand that the town clerk is funnier than you thought. Funny enough that having to call the town clerk another time might be almost fun even if it includes permits and forms. See? You got somewhere new. Now shut up and stop whining.