It snowed, and I’m grateful. For three days, I left the house once to check the mailbox (empty) and again to sweep the accumulated snow off the car. It was only a six-inch snow, thereabouts, and it began to melt the day after it fell, but still – excuse enough to hunker down inside and enjoy the rare solitude. Look out the window at the kids sledding on the hill behind the house, remember a bit about what it was like to be young and unencumbered, but enjoy the nostalgia with a warm cup of tea.
I’ve always believed that nature periodically forces solitude on us for our own good. We dash about in our busy, noisy world, galloping off in all directions at once, and that’s okay for awhile because that’s just life. But sometimes we need to check out. I remember the words of my Bible School teacher on a rowdy summer morning eons ago: “The Lord,” Mrs. Prescott said, “wants everybody to sit down and shut up.” And that’s what nature says to us once in awhile, maybe just to help us regain some sanity.
With three days of solitude, the pages piled up on this new novel I’m working on. I sat down and shut up and the story began to truly take hold in a way it hadn’t before. I have this character who fascinates me, and I have put him in a particular time and place, surrounded him with other characters, and given him a dilemma. A really big one. I know enough about him now to keep going, to imagine how he might (or might not) face his dilemma. And that’s the story, or at least the essence of it. Now that it’s taken hold, it’s with me constantly. I daydream in the day and wake in the night, some scene or bit of dialogue taking shape, becoming more than itself. Nothing to do but write it down.
It’s a hard thing for a writer to do, to give yourself over to a story. There’s first of all the busyness of life. Most writers don’t make a living at it. We carve out precious minutes, hours if we’re lucky, to do that thing we feel we must do. But life intrudes: friends and family, the grocery store, runny noses and scraped elbows, jobs, doctors, school, etc. etc. How can we shove all that aside to let a character and a story take us over? It takes being selfish, which we’re taught at an early age is a bad thing. William Faulkner knew about that when he said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
And then there’s the issue of honesty. If a character intrigues me, it’s a sure thing he or she has some intriguing flaws that give depth and texture to life. My job is to portray that character, warts and all – to be honest and authentic, so that when you read the story you will say, “Yeah, that rings true.” If I shy away from the dark places in my character’s soul, it’s because I’ve let myself become faint-hearted. And then I cheat three people – the character, myself, and my reader.
This character I’m visiting with these days has some dark places, and it takes time and quiet and maybe even a little bit of perverse courage to look him in the eye, listen, and believe what he says. It takes a willingness to be uncomfortable – to cringe at something he says or does, to ache for him when he is impaled on the horns of his dilemma. Solitude gives me the time and space to buck up my courage and say to the character, “Okay, that hurts. But go ahead.”
I’ve told before the story of a writer friend whose young son was asked on the first day of school, “What does your father do?” The child answered, “He stares out the window a lot.” So I’ve spent some precious days staring out the window, seeing the snow but really looking through that into the world my fevered imagination has invoked. The days of snow and solitude will stay with me for a good while to come.