A Little Bit of Yourself

No progress last night out of general tiredness. However, my wife read what I have of the play (scenes one and two) and had an interesting comment that I thought was worth exploring.

After reading a bit of business where two parents explain how they deal with their child’s fear of monsters living under her bed, my wife said, “You put some of you into the play.” This is because their solution was to sprinkle ‘Anti-Monster Powder’ around the bed – the powder being baking soda, which not only keeps monsters away (as one character says), but also keeps the carpet smelling spring fresh. This was the solution we came up with during parenthood to keep monsters away.

(Now we live in an enlightened age where we know that the monsters now use laughter instead of screams to power their cities.)

I told my wife that yes, there was a little bit me in the play, just like there is a little bit of me in every book. None of the characters in any one book are “me” at all, but during the course of writing them, I bestowed each lead character with a little piece of me to flesh them out. I don’t consciously have a mental ceremony where I think something like “Boddekker, I formally present you with my disdain of awards” – most of the time I just write something into them and later, when reviewing the manuscript, I realize that they have something of mine.

Sometimes it’s baggage. Poor Payne of A Death of Honor inherited the nightmare scenario of my youth, a Soviet-dominated world. Sometimes it’s a quirk – Boddekker and awards, or Tony Madison (of Old Loves Die Hard) and his allergy to birthdays. Other times it’s to teach myself a lesson. The Company Man Andy Birch got some voyeuristic impulses I developed in college. I would drive by apartment buildings and realize there was a story behind each light that was or wasn’t on, and I thought it would be fun to peek into the lives of each person and see what that story was. But Andy Birch learned something that I think I knew intellectually at the time – that the notion of such spying might be romantic, but most certainly you’re not going to like what you end up seeing.

By the same token, while all of my characters have a little bit of me in them, there’s no one character that is me. They might have some of my hair or bits of my fingernail in them, but there’s no one person in any book who is a stand-in for Joe Clifford Faust.

This isn’t the same for some authors. I have a sneaking suspicion that the writer/wrestler prototype that appears in the first five or six John Irving novels is really John Irving. Some have speculated on whether or not Jack Ryan is really Tom Clancy, stripped of his insurance salesman baggage. Certainly James Bond was the ultimate wish-fulfillment for Ian Fleming. And at one remarkable point in Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself (he repeats the trick in Breakfast of Champions, where he sets the character of Kilgore Trout free – a promise he would later break).

I’m not saying this is good or bad. What it is is the struggle of writers to bring their characters to life. Some can create them out of the aether, conjuring them into three-dimensional flesh-and-blood people. Others use them as facsimiles of themselves, putting them through adventures that they themselves cannot have (I suspect this is the majority here, at least for beginning writers). Others of us are more sparing in what we give out to our creations, conferring on them a personality trait or neurosis as if it were the breath of life.

This, I suspect, is a natural outgrowth of the creative process. My wife talks about how, when I’m writing, I kind of live in the world I’m creating. That was certainly true this morning, as I plodded through my shower, onstage with the McLaughlin family, watching and listening as their little drama unfolded, then dictating it into my Palm on the commute into work.

Why not? Your characters already have the time you’ve invested in them. And as long as it helps you create memorable, lifelike characters, I guess that’s okay.

Just don’t do an Irving and give them the same bits of yourself over and over and over.

And don’t give too much of yourself away. You’ll need to have some left to sign books.

Listening: Al Stewart, “Modern Times” (via iPod Shuffle)


2 responses to “A Little Bit of Yourself


  2. You’re absolutely right. I can’t imagine how your search term, “writing books,” brought you here.

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