Thursday, September 17, 2020

Characters In Isolation

I never write about characters in isolation. And I can't think about a novel that is about a character in isolation. It would be a very experimental novel. Very much a break with what we consider the novel to be doing. Generally novels are about situating characters within social settings, and obviously within initmate relationships, personal relationships and families as well. That's how I conceive of character. A character to me is someone who is engaged in one or more dynamics at a given time, and I can't actually imagine what it would be like to write about a character who was just on their own all the time.

Out-of-context commentary from Sally Rooney, author of Normal People, during a literary event at London Review Bookshop

This statement is probably true for most authors. What kind of reader wants a story about a character who's on their own all the time? It would be like reading a novel about me! Although I find myself quite entertaining, an author would probably prefer to focus more on my cat and his enemies.

That said, it is a little sad that it takes so much imagination to write about solitary characters. The not-so-normal ones.


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

When Answers Are Expected

Farley goes quiet. I let the silence build until it fills every corner of the room. It leaks into his ears and his chest and his bladder and his bowels and every dark place in his mind. Very few people are comfortable with silence. It's one thing to be on a plane or in a train carriage or in a waiting room and to ignore those around you, but not when you know someone is expecting you to answer.

Excerpt from Good Girl, Bad Girl
by Michael Robotham

This scene describes something most of us know already, but it does so in a vivid way. I have often in the past found myself facing this quandary. I'm not one to speak without thinking through what I really mean, but people expect answers promptly. What I've learned, though, is that it's okay to let others be uncomfortable while waiting for me to answer. They can handle my silence for a little while. I don't need to be the one who's made to feel uncomfortable and rushed. In most cases, people will appreciate a more thoughtful response.

I'm okay with the silence. Others can be too.


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

On Silence Garnering Respect

Soon he essentially stopped talking. "I am retreating into silence as a defensive mode," he mentioned. Eventually, he was down to uttering just five words, and only to guards: yes; no; please; thank you. "I am surprised," he wrote, "by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable." Later he added, "I will admit to feeling a little contempt for those who can't keep quiet."

Excerpt from The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
by Michael Finkel


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On Preventing Unnecessary Homicides

... it was not unusual for us to go days without finding anything to say to each other.

The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily. Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves? Where "How are you?" is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer. Where you are trained to always wait for others to first mention what is troubling them, even as you are trained to never mention what is troubling you. It must be a survival skill left over from the old Viking days when long silences were required to prevent unnecessary homicides during the long, dark winters when quarters were close and supplies were dwindling.

Excerpt from Lab Girl
by Hope Jahren

Although I wasn't raised by a Scandinavian family, I can imagine questions like "How are you?" feeling personal. Honestly, it took me a long time to not take every question seriously, as if people really wanted to know the answer. And describing how you are isn't always as simple as it seems.

Sometimes you have to shrug off the questions. And more often, you should probably shrug off the need to answer. Not everyone wants to know. Sometimes silences are good. And maybe, sometimes, the silences even prevent unnecessary homicides.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Social Distancing

After Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google closed their offices in Seattle, I asked my boss, "Are we the last holdouts?"

This week he finally relented and now we're all working from home. However, in his enthusiasm for the work community vibe, he did -- first thing Monday morning -- suggest that we all join a video meeting throughout the day, just to get some face time. I rolled my eyes as I sat on my couch thinking that would never happen. Maybe he just wanted to get a sense that people were still busy, but -- honestly -- that would just be a distraction.

I like the people I work with, but at the same time I can't understand how they get anything done. I see the chat message notifications constantly scroll by, and they're all about jokes and family life. I see "likes" and emoticons immediately tacked on to every message, and I wonder if we couldn't be ignoring all of it from home, all of the time.

This situation we're dealing with is sad; in fact, it's devastating for a lot of people. What a mess! And yet some of it is an introvert's dream. Working from home. Empty streets. People electing not to get into the same elevator as you. The personal boundary has expanded, and no one is getting in anyone's face. They come close, and then they back away, remembering the new rules. The side eye reigns. Any hint of a scratchy voice, cough, or sniffle sends people running. Touch your face, and relish the reaction of others. Clear your throat, and watch them avoid the door knobs you touched.

As terrible as it seems, I wish some of this would last.

Unfortunately, I also need this to end so that I can buy groceries again. Empty aisles don't suit my culinary needs. My favorite bartenders are out of work, and that really bums me out. Drive-thru coffee isn't as good. Apparently, every restaurant has become a take-out restaurant. Every pharmacist is out of thermometers. Even the homeless are scared. I'm not ready to break out my survival gear and rough it. My sanctuary requires upkeep and toilet paper.

I don't necessarily hope for things to return to "normal", but something close to it would be better. Maybe people will realize it was never necessary to go to the office after all. Just enough people need to go to the office to pay my favorite bartender's salary. That's all I ask. Let's get that done.


Monday, March 16, 2020

On Responding To Invitations

I never respond to invitations. It just smacks of desperation. The only event I am certain to attend is my funeral, and I hope to arrive very, very late.

Excerpt from The Hod King
by Josiah Bancroft