Monday, March 25, 2013

Back in the Saddle

I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation. I did not write nor did I try to write nor did I think about writing. I did get on a horse, I did complete a 6 mile hike in the red rocks of northern Arizona, I did drink a bit o’ wine.

Yesterday morning I was home again and busy with newspaper and coffee and delighted to see a NY Times magazine article by Sarah Lyall about the wonderful novelist Kate Atkinson. If you’ve not read it, please do so.

Here’s a quote from Atkinson that sent me free-falling out of vacation mode and back into the writing life:
“It’s the nearest we’ll ever get to playing God, to suddenly produce these fully formed creatures. It is a bit odd. Other aspects you work out more—you rework sentences, you rework imagery. But not characters. They’re not deciding their own fates, clearly, but once you have them, that unconscious process is at work.” 

I was at first at odds with Atkinson’s claim about not reworking characters, probably because I do rework characters—I have a lot of exercises I do with them—and any student who has worked with me has likely been ordered to do the same. But as I considered it more I thought, yeah—I’m not changing them so much as finding out more about the character who has sprung to life, sometimes unbidden. 

Then, according to Lyall, Atkinson “talked about her characters as a means to an end, as if they were pawns in a board game.” 

“Pawns in a board game” is not only a cliché, but one that suggests an emotional detachment I never feel when reading her novels; still, it’s a useful image for a writer, I think. We do manipulate. We  move things around. We play God.


  1. She does kind of make it sound like she has no emotional investment in them, doesn't she? I like the Brodie novels better, but maybe that's because the structure/plots are more straightforward.

  2. She does, and I thought that was strange because I remember some emotional power in those early novels, and I can't imagine conjuring that if you're detached from the story you're writing.