Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Seven Weeks: Building Character(s)

We are on day two of a cold, soaking September rain, the kind that stirs the earliest dead leaves to scatter on the sidewalk, the kind that stirs the earliest embers of autumn and of story. I am close to writing something new. I know because I am vibrating with energy that has nowhere to go, so I am dropping coffee cups and walking into storm doors. I am distracted, half-lost in impatience and anticipation and the hope that the story gets here soon, before I start forgetting to eat and to go to work in the mornings.

Seven weeks from BODY OF WATER, rain makes me think of my red blanket, which is not mentioned in the book but which is pictured in my head. September 1993 was warm enough, from what I remember. But I know it rained. Any time it did, we had to pull our belongings to the center of the tent, to keep them off the nylon walls that would let the water through if we touched them. There was a scramble to close the “skylight” – the removable cover that hid the mesh roof of our dome-shaped bedrooms – and then we would pull in, blankets and tennis shoes and roller skates and dirty clothes pile and ever-shrinking clean clothes pile, gathered to the center as if it were all a part of one big turtle hiding in its shell. Me, I always sat cross-legged on the middle of the pile, ratty red blanket draped over my shoulders. It was my beach towel on warm days and my shawl on cool days. In rain, it was my shelter.

Sitting in the middle of a dome-shaped tent, on top of all your earthly belongings, imagining yourself as a giant turtle while the rain pounds away outside, you can’t help but giggle. And if you’ve ever had, or been, a sister, you know that one sister can’t laugh for no reason without the other sisters joining in. So there we were, three blue and gray tents, giggling in the rain.

The next morning at sunrise, me and Heather went walking, looping the familiar streets of home. The storm-weakened sun was barely up in the sky and was nothing but a faded red ball, so dim we could look straight at it without hurting our eyes.

“It looks like one of those dots,” I said.

And, remarkably, she got it. “On a library book!”

We kept walking, cooking up a whole story about how we were nothing but characters in a library book, and the sun was only red-orange here because we were in the middle grade section, but characters in other books, in other sections, saw their suns in different colors. And maybe one day we would look up and the sun would be a different color and we would know we had been reshelved, and we could spin a whole adventure about trying to get back to our own familiar section.

Every word we thought as children scrawled itself across the pages in our minds. Everything was story. As long as the sun stayed its own familiar color, we could trust, more or less, that we were where we were supposed to be. We could relax and let the story write itself. We could dream up other worlds with different-colored suns, and secretly wonder if the other sections were as fun to write, and live, as ours.

Then the sun rose and yellowed and burned into full daylight, and we ran off to other settings, scaring up new plots and building our own characters.

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