These days, I’ve been working on my new novel, narrated by a young woman called Melonie Barnett (unless, of course, I decide to change her name).
The story grew out of three linked short stories – Empty Nest, which you can read in the latest issue of The New Quarterly; Rhubarb, which will be in Oberon Press‘s 15: Best Canadian Stories (and appeared in Prairie Fire, Summer ’14); and Stories, which you can read online at This Magazine.
All of these stories revolve around Melonie and her two best friends, Lara and Josie, but here’s the thing: like all made-up people, like all artistic creations, they’ve changed. And I don’t just mean their maturity level or how they wear their hair. As I’ve been working with them, their biographical details have shifted, so the question I’ve been asking myself is: can I still call them by the same names?
Because, to me, they are still the same people. They are still, strongly, Mel, Josie, and Lara. I can see them in my head. They have their ways of talking and particular inflections and interests. Lara is an artist; Josie likes to cook. So, maybe, they’re a bit like actors, and I can put them into whatever roles I want.
Online, I found a vast compendium of all of the characters from Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, and discussion of his “need to tell and retell the events of the past, from several different points of view, and with versions by several characters.” These characters appear in various novels, and according to the encyclopedia, he was fairly consistent with their biographies.
So, I suppose, for me, the question is this: what makes a person who they are? Is it what happens to them, or is it some deeper essence?
And, in a weird way, I’m asking this question in my novel as well. How do we overcome traumatic events to grow and move forward? How do we claim our own lives while still recognizing the links we have with others?
While you chew on all that (and please let me know how it digests), I’m going to dive back into my work, on this rainy day in Calgary, as I push towards completion of draft two. Because no matter the questions that arise, even those that don’t have easy answers, the work still needs to get done.
(If you’re in this fine city, I’ll be reading tonight at the Flywheel Reading Series at Pages Books on Kensington, at 7:30. Poetry, this time, from my newest collection, including the piece that won the 2014 ROOM Magazine poetry prize – my interview about that was just posted today).
Wonderful thought provoking piece, and how I am digesting this is -wondering how do we survive trauma and move forward .. I think I need to ask that question directly as I write my memoir..I am painting now, and was waiting until i sensed another clearer direction for my second draft..And then I was down at Manticore Books and picked up something to read for the weekend and your question fell into me..The book I bought was Kay Redfield Jamieson An Unquiet Mind about her experience as a person and as a professional with manic depression.
Thanks for your comment, Judy. Yes, this is such a profound question for memoir and creative non-fiction as one sort-of creates a character out of oneself. That’s a good book; I read it years ago and remember liking it. Good luck with all your creative work 🙂
Here’s my take on character: the fundamentals don’t change. Yes, we are altered by events, aging, any number of things, but the basic characteristics are always there. I realized this in reunion with my best friend from kindergarten a few years ago. I saw the “truth” of our original friendship/kinship blossom again after a whole lifetime apart. It was like the 5 year olds knew what was valuable in each other and in spite of several decades apart and vastly different life experiences, continued to be bonded by those elements. When we reunited, those essentials popped into gear to continue along in a pretty remarkable relationship. It fascinated me, comparing the child to the well advanced adult, and hey, they were the same person. I don’t think we can alter our “essence.” Just my thoughts . . . Oh, and congrats on your short stories doing so well!
Thanks for this, Hallyhock. A great story: demonstrating how people are who they are from such an early age (what is it they say, that the first six years of life set up the rest of our experience). I agree with you, and I think it is fascinating to consider this question with fictional people… They are birthed; they do come to life! I think I’ll stop worrying about it 🙂