Have you ever had a character live in your head?
I was shocked when I first learned that everyone didn’t have other worlds, characters and stories periodically taking up residence in their minds. It seemed to me like it would be a little boring for the only voice in my head to be my own, and maybe a little lonely.
I wonder sometimes if this is the difference between introverts and extroverts. Maybe I’m not actually an introvert, but my head is such a social place that I just don’t need as many people physically around me.
This is the reality of the writing process for me. It’s not a process that I set out to complete, it’s a lived experience. Most of the time I don’t go looking for stories, instead, characters find me and let me understand the inner workings of their lives until I am so captivated by them that I feel compelled to tell their stories.
As an elementary school teacher, I teach the writing process as: ideas, first draft, revise, edit, publish. I feel like this is both truly how writing works (as long as you add the word repeat in there a million times), but it is not where the magic comes from.
The magic of what our minds choose to tease out into words is something truly special and unique. After 18 years of teaching, I have never had two children write the same story. Every story, whether intricate or simple shares a tiny finger print of the writer’s imagination. It doesn’t matter what they share, it matters that they share.
Explaining the writing process is a little like explaining that babies are a lot of work. It’s possible for a new parent to be prepared to feed, clothe and nurture their baby, they might know that they will need to get up in the night and that having a baby will be life changing, but until the baby arrives, they will not understand the mental, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual all consuming nature of that relationship.
Somethings you can only learn by experience (or maybe most things?).
When I have a character take up residence in my brain, they take up a lot of space. They do not sit back and wait for me to have time to work on the writing process. I learn their secrets. I know their dreams, fears and family histories. I live with them.
This can be tricky.
Parker lives in my head right now. As far as characters go, Parker is pretty low maintenance (especially for a teenager!). They aren’t really moody and they don’t continually expect my attention, but that doesn’t mean that I can ignore them for days on end or until I can find a convenient time to write.
I can’t write Parker’s story if I don't know and understand them. If I am going to bring an authentic version of Parker to my readers, then first, I must know not just the fragment of their life that will star in my story, but I must really know who Parker is and what they want to be in the world.
I know a lot of things about Parker that will never make it into the story I am writing.
With characters in the past, I have found this confounding and overwhelming. I used to try to fit all of the details they shared about themselves into my story because I thought it all needed to be there. The result was a mess.
Too many words, details and ideas. Eventually, I realized that it isn’t my readers who need to understand all of the defining moments that have created this character, it’s just me.
I don’t need to tell my reader all of Parker’s stories, I just need to understand Parker enough to do a really good job of giving my readers an in-depth, three-dimensional view of Parker in this story.
A crucial part of the writing process for me these days, is going for walks with my characters. This is something that I have done sporadically in the past, but has now become an integral part of my writing.
It takes me about a half hour to walk to work. This is quality time that I usually spend with Parker (and sometimes Tiger). It’s not a structured time where I flush out specific ideas, it’s more like walking with a friend and seeing what they have on their minds that day, seeing what they want to share.
On Friday morning, Parker was telling me all about the queer kid group that their parents put them in when they were in grade 2 (they figured this was around the time that their parents had completely given up on the idea that their non-binary identity was a phase that was going to pass.) The highlights for them were the little mini chocolate chips that came in the trail mix that they got as snack and playing with the costumes (particularly being a firefighting vet).
The day before that, on my way home from work, Tiger had told me about when his daughter’s mom had died (they were on again off again.) This was heart breaking and although her death wasn’t necessarily preventable (she died of cancer), it would not have been so terrible if there were more resources in place for them trying to cope with illness while living in poverty.
Neither of those conversations will necessarily have any place in the weekly blog that I am writing about Parker’s experience trying to get back their life after being labeled a super spreader in the next pandemic (you can start reading the story here and be sure to check out all 4 installments so far on my blog). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t an important part of my writing process.
My writing process isn’t just about sharing my mind with my characters, it is also about sharing my heart. When I share my heart I need to make room to understand my characters more intimately than I know my friends.
I need to understand how my characters think, react and feel. I need to lean in and really listen. The writing process for me means having the chance to share memories and experiences that aren’t my own.
I’m grateful for my writing process and I am also grateful for the hundreds of stories that my students have shared with me over the years. We may not all have characters living in our heads, but we all have stories. By sharing these stories, we reach out to each other and allow ourselves to sink into the fabric of connection that brings us all together. Don’t be afraid to follow your process. Inside you I can see a story.