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Shut in the Guest Room with an Over-Active Imagination

I have no idea what the blue blazes we're doing.

I have no idea what the blue blazes we're doing.

“Oh. He’s dead,” K. said. She announced this after I asked her how her father was.

“What?” I asked. The two of them traveled together every summer and this was the summer we’d graduated high school. I’d traveled with them a few years before. She wasn’t crying or wavering. “He died in the hotel room. In Kansas City,” she said.

“That’s terrible. I’m sorry.”

I could almost hear her shrug on the other end of the phone. “It’s okay. How are you?”

“Well, I’m fine. K., who’s with you?” I asked.

Like me, her parents were divorced and she lived with her dad. I think that is why we first became friends. We were the only girls we knew who lived alone with our fathers. “My mom’s here,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say. “You still want to go to the movie?” I’d asked her at the beginning of the conversation if she wanted to go see The Dark Crystal with my mom and me. “Of course,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I?”

K. wasn’t like any girl I knew. She didn’t talk about boys. Ever. Or clothes. Or periods. She talked about horses, birds, and stars. She wrote story after story about horses and she talked about these horses as if they were real. And when I spent the night at her house, we didn’t sleep in the same room. I slept in the guest room with the door shut in a bed next to the Christmas tree that was never taken down.

Her father would move the tree from the guest room to the living room for Christmas. The dust that coated it he said was snow. When I stayed over he stayed in his room in his bed with his television on. The windows in his room were hidden by furniture so the only light was from a bedside lamp and the TV.

The two of them lived in a three-bedroom house with four beat up Cadillacs in the driveway and he was building an upstairs room for K.’s plastic horse collection. A whole room just for her horses. He did all the chores. She couldn’t even turn on the washing machine.

Finally I got her to tell me about what happened to her in Kansas City. Or some of the story anyway. The ambulance took her father’s body from the hotel and she was left with the police. They put her on a plane to Chicago where she stayed alone for a few days while the military took care of her father’s funeral arrangements. Then they flew her to DC for his funeral. Then she met up with her mother.

Listening to her was like listening to someone recount a trip to the grocery store. She stayed blank. “That must’ve been awful,” I said. “Oh, no,” she said. “It was fine. I liked it.”

I could never shake the feeling that she didn’t care her father was dead.

In fiction, I’ve got to understand my characters better than I understand real people. Right? If K. were a character in my novel, I could make her feel anything I wanted. I could make her father any kind of man I wanted him to me. I don’t, however, use real people in my novels.

But if I did, I could explain why K. got cold and silent if I talked about boys. I could explain why she spent hours writing stories about a horse. I could explain why she seemed to relish wearing the most unflattering clothes.

My characters need motivation. They need the explanations they give and the explanations that are real. In fiction, I like to make what my characters say not match what they feel. I can’t decide if in my real life that makes me read meanings into what people say that aren’t there. What do they really mean by that?

How do your fictional creations affect how you see real people?

7 thoughts on “Shut in the Guest Room with an Over-Active Imagination

  1. Of course I am imagining what has happened to make that girl like that.

    But then, I don’t think those imaginings are made up. Psychology. Storytelling. Dictionaries. Mythology. Journalism. Movie Making. Painting.

    It’s all about making meaning.

    We like to understand

    uhm. Your blog is snowing.

  2. For me, they don’t effect how I see real people. Because of my work, it is real people and their struggles to express themselves that inform my characters. But so do the characters and stories of other writers, particularly the surrealists and magical realists, because the absurdity of their situations and the deadpan or distressed reactions are not available in real life. I think of those novelists as informing my characters, not my own characters informing my perceptions. For me, it’s a one-way street.

  3. One writer’s magical realism is another writer’s pure adventure or history, or perhaps mystery. Nearly every memorable story has at least one character like your friend, K., who writes endlessly about horses and appears not to care about her father’s death. Indeed, nearly every memorable story has a character like K.’s father, who keeps a Christmas tree in the guest room, a tree that may or may not be merely dusty.

    Stories are about anomalies and ambiguities, hundred-eighty-degree turns from the un-anomalous and unambiguous, making the narrator and many readers wonder about their own seeming normality. It is then that some character casually says something that undercuts the narrator’s own sense of normality, which triggers the reader to set the story down, then confront a mirror to take some kind of inventory.

    To answer your question more directly, my characters cause me to examine real people closely to see what they are not allowing to go public.

  4. For some reason, when I read about K. I thought of that character Luna in the last couple-three Harry Potter books. Content to live in the world she was in, because she was also in a world of her own.

    Can’t help wondering what happens to people like K (and Luna!) later in life, though…

    You probably know the saying like, “The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense.” That’s probably true of fictional characters — motivations and so on — as much as it does the other elements of stories. Don’t have to spell the motivation (or whatever) out, just need to provide enough clues.

    I find the act of thinking about characters often makes it easier to think about real people — the old “imagine how X must feel” thing. There must be a part of the brain which controls empathy; and if I’d never worked with interesting characters, my real-life empathy muscles would probably be relatively slack and flabby. Good to get on the treadmill and free weights again.

    (Rowena: that’s not snow, it’s dust! :))

  5. rowena, I’ve imagine many things.

    squirrel, for me it is a constant back and forth–rather tiresome sometimes.

    Shelly, I wish I could inventory faster.

    JES, I often think being a writer helps empathy, but then I read about the lives of some famous authors and think–well, maybe not. As for K., I thought about Luna too, but Luna seems happier.

    Dust! Yes. Exactly.

  6. K and Luna. It makes sense to me, too. But, you knew K. and my perception of Luna isn’t one of happiness, but one of absent-mindedness. She was never in the Here & Now. K. may have been entirely different.

    Whenever you tell these stories I wonder about the people in them for days afterwards. “how did K. process her dad’s death and how long did it take her to broach the topic?” or I muse about your time in the Peace Corps or picture you dancing as a little girl.

    All of that musing has made me decide to bequeath you with the Honest Scrap Award. Please come pick it up at my blog.

    Smooch!!

  7. Well, Sophie, happy may not be the write word. I suppose I was thinking happy in that blissed-out-not-paying-attention sort of way. And K. had a snippy, sharp streak I never saw in Luna.

    I wish I could answer the question you pose about K. We lost touch soon after that summer.

    And a big smooch right back at you.

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