Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Flags, Enemies, and Fried Chicken

Greetings Inkpot readers!  This week MFAC alum *Polly McCann writes to us on the joys of writing - and the struggle to let a little misery in.  Read on to hear her take on the challenge of adding antagonists into your story.

The washing machine runs in the room above me. Everyone is finally tucked in for the night. I left the kitchen somewhat clean, and it smells like fried chicken I didn't have to cook. The dog is asleep on his trundle bed (long story) comatose from allergy medicine (another long story). I put my ten dollars of gas in my car tonight so I could get home from my new art studio downtown - enough until I get paid on Wednesday. It's almost midnight and I'm writing to you from my little blue den in the basement of a big house at the top top of Kansas City. My desk was put together by my 10 year old and me. On it, a mason jar full of cold filtered water on a coaster marked with the letter "P." Life is dreamy now at night, with cars driving past in a street filled with rain. Life is a like a "sweet little egg" as Jackie Briggs-Martin wrote in her Louisiana picture book, Chicken Joy. My kids keep it upstairs on their shelf. 

Sweetness only goes for so long, maybe a paragraph and then what happens? As a writer I struggle most with "antagonists." In Chicken Joy, the hero is about to become quiet rooster stew. His nemesis is the farmer who wants to eat him. Then there is his own self doubt that has cost him his voice. Without these enemies, we'd only have the first two pages of the book. Fabulous, but not as memorable. In fact that is why I title of each of my worksheets for every story, novel, chapter book, "Antagonist List." Claire Rudolf Murphy got me into this habit. I love it. She told a class once the antagonist represents what the main character desires and also prevents them from getting it. On my worksheet, I make a list of idioms, word plays, associations, folk tales, and questions. I place all sorts of educated and trendy little notes to help me write a good manuscript.

Problem is, I can never get to the antagonist. I paddle around in little boats with no where to go. I sit in the sun and nothing happens, not even a ripple. Writing without an enemy doesn't work I guess. One wise advisor told me this week, you can't be a writer unless you believe in enemies. Well I said something rather teary back. The trouble is, I hate to say anything bad about anyone, real or imagined. I hate to tell my story, what I have overcome, if it means I have to drag someone else through the mud. What if my enemy were to change? What if my enemy didn't mean to do those terrible things? What if my enemy was someone I hoped to love? What if they did something incomprehensibly horrible enough that I don't know where that kind of evil comes from? That's not your problem, she answered. They are part of your story.
The Welsh flag reminded me of this quandary again last night. As I tucked my little guy into bed, the flag is pinned to the wall above his sea turtle bedspread. A white ground, green grass and a very red dragon make up the flag from Wales. Why? It's a flag about the enemy they overcame. Flags aren't covered normally with daisies or paddle boats or even fried chicken, though I think I'd like one like that. No flags are fierce. They prove what we've conquered. They show us how far we've come. I think from now on I'll add a new section to my antagonist worksheet: A place to draw my character's flag of choice. Yes, that may be one more section to keep me from choosing an antagonist, but maybe, just maybe, I will finally put on those big author pants then tell the story I needed to tell the whole time.

*Polly McCann, artist, writer and mother, earned her MFA in writing from Hamline University. Tea with Alice is the working title for her first collection of autobiographical poems; three generations of stories retold in free verse. She has been published in Naugatuck River Review and Arc 24. She is the owner of NewThing Art Studio in Kansas City. She loves to grow basil and explore unexpected surprises in her free time.

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