What did I do wrong?

“I don’t want you to talk to me. I don’t want you to look at me. I don’t even want you to think about me. Got it?” R. said to me. He stood at my desk, not caring that the entire class could hear. He’d just gotten back from the principal’s office. It was Monday morning.

I continued to shade in the figure in my drawing. “Fine with me,” I said. I’d known he was angry, but I was still surprised. Until that weekend, I’d thought we were best friends.

“This is all your fault,” he said, spun around dramatically, and stomped over to his desk. I tried to concentrate while our classmates began to whisper all around us.

Our junior year we’d skipped school, taken my dad’s car (stolen is a strong word), to go to the Winter Park Art Show. R. didn’t have a license then and I had only a restricted. He almost hyperventilated when I stopped a cop to ask for directions.

“Are you crazy?” R. had asked.

“What?” I said, waving the cop over to my dad’s car. “Oh, like I’d ask him over if I was doing anything wrong.”

R. leaned against the window and closed his eyes. The officer gave us directions and told us to have a great day. And we did.

Now he was leaning over his desk muttering about how he hated me. The argument had started Friday night.

in art class
in art class

R. called me. “M. is going to ask you out. Say yes.” M. was in our art class.

“I don’t like M.”

“You’re always complaining you can’t get a date.”

“So? I’m not desperate,” I said.

“Yes you are. Besides, I told him you’d say yes.”

The argument went from there. I said no. I wasn’t going out with a boy who rarely washed his hair and criticized me in front of everyone for liking OMD and Molly Ringwald.

“M. is the only boy who will ask you out,” R. said.

“I don’t care,” I shouted into the phone. I did care, but it wasn’t worth going anywhere with M.

“You’re going to die a shriveled up virgin,” he shouted back.

“What exactly did you tell M. I’d do?”

R. hesitated. “He thinks you like him. Like you know…”

“What are you–my pimp?” My friend, SH, happened to be spending the night, and I nearly broke her skin with my fingernails when I grabbed her arm to keep from screaming. She didn’t notice.

“You should be so lucky,” R. said, and hung up.

So on Monday morning, R. got to school and not finding me, he hurled insults at SH, and they both got sent to the office. I spent weeks trying to figure out what had gone wrong. I wrote him a letter asking if M. was really the problem. I said hello a few times in the halls. I talked about it to mutual friends and they approached him on my behalf. I got silence in return.

Until a few days before prom. He startled everyone in class by saying hi to me. “Are you going to prom?” he asked.

He was speaking to me! I tried to appear indifferent. “No. You?”

“I’m going with two girls,” he said.

I thought of several replies from you don’t even know what to do with one to they must be the desperate ones. “That’s nice,” I said, and turned away.

In fiction, I try to understand why characters act the way they do–from the good to the bad. I’ve got tons of books about motivation and psychology to help me figure this out. But I don’t figure it out before I start writing. I write the character and he talks, acts out, does what he will, and then I see how we feel. Sometimes I go back over a scene and I can feel the character fighting all the way–I would not do this.

But I need this to happen, I say. I try to take a deep breath and let him do what he wants. Usually the scene goes better after that, but I don’t know where to go next. My plans are strewn about and I don’t want to give up.

I’m still not entirely happy with the ending of my novel. I couldn’t figure out what my characters wanted to do. I tried to listen but I’m not sure I heard correctly. By the end I didn’t want to ask–why are you doing this scene? I wanted to ask–why are you doing this to me? What did I do that was so wrong?

13 thoughts on “What did I do wrong?

  1. Find an actor’s workshop.
    Enroll in it.
    Watch what happens when you do the exercises. See where the information comes from, Book mark it. Call it up when you’re writing.
    For short term, the book “An Actor Prepares” by Constantin Stanislavsky can’t hurt.
    Get thee to a Borders and, coffee in hand, read some chapters of Tana French’s new novel, “The Likeness.” She’s an actor and a novelist. See how she works her principal character.

    Acting will help. If you can catch some reruns of “At the Actor’s Studio” try that, too.

    And yes, I practice what I preach.

    See you at DQ.

  2. Shelly, back in college a professor asked me to read a couple of my poems to this faculty something-or-other. Too flattered for good sense, I agreed. Went temporarily blind. Everyone said I read the poems. Everyone said I did great. I have no memory of reading the poems. In fact I had no memory of reading the poems about 5 seconds after I walked away from the podium.

    If I took an acting class I imagine I’d break a leg because I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going.

    I mean, it is a great idea. But…

    And that’s perfect you mentioned Tana French. I submitted something to her agent.

    But yes. DQ. Definitely.

  3. Oh, God, I was going to comment on the post but now I’m so curious about the Secret Handshake. DQ?? Despicable Quark? Dire Quintessence? Delectable Quest? Distinctive Quarterly? Dastardly Quiver? Definitive Quill? Deviant Questions? Decadent Quirk? Doggone Quakers? Disciplined Quail? Dairy Queen? Don’t tell me. It’s a secret. I can’t expect you to tell your secrets if I don’t expect you to tell mine. Plus, I suspect it’s on the west coast and I have a fear of flying. Send me a postcard. Oh, wait, Dairy Queen…one of you mentioned that in a post. Ha! And I thought I was being excluded!

  4. It’d be misleading to say I’ve got “a book I’ve been working on for over 15 years.” I wrote the first drafts in 1991-92. And then I fiddled with it a couple other times since. But it’s been nowhere near a continuous labor — despite my confidence that if I write no other book, I have to write that one.

    Why the reluctance? Because I know to do the book justice, I have to turn it over to the characters at some point. I’ve got the “plot”; as soon as I release the characters within those walls, though, the walls will change, shift around, and I’ll suddenly have hallways I didn’t plan (which is fine) and be missing those I did plan. Which also may be fine. I don’t know. I think I lack the maturity as a writer… no, as a storyteller to just trust the damn characters — despite the fact that I’m expecting them to trust me. Some contract I’m hoping they’ll sign, eh?

  5. I agree with Shelly. Acting class. You don’t have to perform at all. I am not an actor (except for that one, brief play in college where I was the leading lady [I only got the part because the girl originally cast backed out of the play since she thought it was too risque {Marco Polo Sings a Solo, by John Guare}]) but I write my characters as if I were playing them. I write my novels according to my characters. They lead me on a merry chase, and I try to lead them back to my plot, and the book that turns out is all about the dance between me and my characters.

  6. Er, “making you”? Maybe what you’re looking for there is more along the lines of “giving you the opportunity to”? 🙂

    You mentioned all your books on motivation and psychology. Guess this wouldn’t be a good time to suggest that you look into auditing some advanced psych courses, or interning at a local counseling center.

  7. For what it’s worth, psychology classes, in my opinion, will not give you what you seek, as they are taught intellectually, from the neck up. I think Shelly is saying you need to engage your gut, your whole being. A counseling center also is not likely to work, because the focus is always on another person’s gut. Your gut is where the characters need to come from. There’s no way around it. I very briefly did some improvisational acting and felt literally possessed by the characters. I was shocked at what came out. I also like Rowena’s concept of a dance between me and the characters. On the other hand, your characters have seemed very vivid to me and I don’t know how long you’ve been working on your novel but sometimes it’s just a matter of laying it aside for awhile, or writing several alternative endings, or maybe ending it earlier, maybe you’ve overshot the ending, maybe the characters are done. Just some thoughts. See you at DQ.

  8. Was just kidding about the psych courses/counseling internship; it was a response to Marta’s obvious feeling of, uh, overwhelmment (?!) about all this stuff she might learn, and all these avenues to learn it.

    And I forgot to add a smiley!

  9. lazym

    You might try an improv class, rather than a hard-core acting class. Nicole took one and liked it a lot (not sure where) and they give classes at Cold Towne that are probably fairly low-stress.

  10. Pingback: a few words of advice « writing in the water

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