Sarah Wrote That

Where Characters Come From

The archives of the former Mississippi Review Online are once again available via its new incarnation, Blip Magazine, and include this 1995 piece from Ann Beattie:

In retrospect, I’ve realized that I’ve never begun a story because I wanted to reveal something about a character. It’s absolutely necessary that I do this, of course, but when I’m working on the first draft, I file that in the back of my mind and proceed to name some hypothetical being who, in my mind, is immediately seen clearly in one respect, standing in a room, or on the beach, or on a lawn. Because I see instantly the character’s context-because I understand the visual world surrounding the character, I’m able to know instinctively whether the story is in past or present tense. I pick up ambient sound before I begin to register dialogue (or awkward silence), I squint to see the character’s first tiny movements (Oh hell: he smokes), and by then, if I’m lucky, the room in which I write has in effect disappeared, and I’m in the room in which my cigarette smoking man stands.

[…]

They’ve come into my life in the same strange way so many things have. Years ago, when I lived with a bunch of people in Connecticut, we didn’t have a key to lock the door in our rented house, so through the years I went back to that house to find, for example, a dead raccoon in the sink with ice cubes dumped over its head (courtesy of the garbage man, who knew one of the people who lived there loved to make road kill stew). One day I encountered the dog catcher eating a sandwich in the kitchen. I don’t believe the dog had run away. Another time, after an entire day home alone, I went for the first time into the kitchen and found a young man meditating silently on top of the washing machine. He had hitched from Vermont to Connecticut and gone to the wrong house. I’m married to a man who moved to Charlottesville, VA for a semester to teach. One month before he left, he caved in to pressure from an acquaintance in New York and called me, having found the one expired phone book that printed my unlisted number.

[h/t Dan Cafaro]

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