Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shooting Your Child

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot
- Truman Capote

A statement like that makes a reasonable person gasp. The idea of "taking a child out in the back yard and shooting it" is such an arresting and shocking image that it takes one's breath away.

But if you're a writer--or anyone who creates--you might understand. First off, to say that Capote had a flair for the dramatic would be an understatement. In life as well as in his writing, he loved to push buttons, which is probably why he's remembered as much for who he was as much as for what he wrote. But Capote's point, about the sadness and loss a creative person feels at the end of a project is a lot like a death. A death that you bring about by your own hand.

I understand the quote because I feel a sense of loss and despair when I write the words, "the end." For me, who rarely writes a series, it is as if I have effectively killed off my characters. More prosaic people in my life think I'm crazy when I say that my characters come to life for me when I'm writing a book and that they often surprise me with what they do or say. Other writers--for the most part--understand.

For me, writing a book is all about taking a journey with the characters I have created. In the course of that trip, I nurture them. I love them (even the bad ones...and as many parents might attest, sometimes you love the bad ones the most). I don't always see it as me giving them life, but them giving something to me--surprises, emotions, a better understanding of not only them, but myself. They become dear to me, real to me.

When I finished my novel Deadly Vision, I asked my friend Mary, who was an early reader of the book, to give me her opinion on it. In the course of our conversation, I told Mary about that sense of loss I felt now that my characters' journeys were over and how much I missed them. She laughed and said that maybe I should "host a tea party" for my "little friends." She didn't quite get it. Or maybe she did. One of the best tests of friendships is sometimes the ability to be mean with each other and get away with it. But I digress.

The point is, when I get to the end of a book, it's not a cause for celebration, it's an occasion for mourning. Because, to use Capote's rather melodramatic analogy, I have taken my offspring out in the backyard and shot them. They are gone and for me, they won't be back. Once a work is published, I never reread it. And maybe that's why, because when I'm done, I'm done. And those people I came to know so well are gone forever, like dead loved ones. It's bittersweet to revisit their world.

Call me fickle, but after a suitable period of mourning, I find comfort in the arms of new friends, new characters and seldom look back on those I've shot. Heartless bastard.
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  1. Forget the tea party, why don't you give them a good old fashion Irish wake. Send them off to the Auld Sod with a quart of whiskey and a keg of Guinness. You'll forget all about them.

  2. It sounds like you know whereof you speak, Pat.

  3. I understand completely. whenever i finish a project i get what i call "post partum" it's almost like a mourning process... until the next inspiration hits... and the paint and glitter come out once again

  4. Been there, done that. Though it wasn't Guinness. That stuff gives me a headache. I'll take Harp thank you very much. :-)

  5. Hmmm, now I feel differently about the end. I feel like I'm giving birth to them and then sending them out into the world at large. Maybe because I don't have kids, I see my characters as my creation -- or at least, friends. I'd want folks to meet my friends and get to know them and for sure, meet my children if I had them and find out how unique they are -- the good kids and the bad ones.
    So, though I think your post was good -- as always, cause you're a fantastic writer -- I disagree.

  6. I feel more as if it's like seeing your children move out. You've nurtured them and brought them up and been through all kinds of traumas with them, but now they're fully grown and out in the world, ready to stand on their own two feet. You might hear from them sometimes (by reviews and fan letters) but they're on their own now to sink or swim without you. There is a wrench of parting, but I wouldn't say it was quite as extreme as shooting them :)

  7. Well, Alex, as I said, no one would argue that Capote was a drama queen, so his analogy was over the top. I like your analogy much better, to tell you the truth.

  8. I'm the opposite. I very often reread my stories and revisit my characters often. This is probably also why I write follow ups. There's always more to tell about these characters.

  9. Interesting piece, but I've never felt that way about the end of a story. I'm relieved to reach the end because I feel like I've tortured my friends enough and they deserve to be happy or at least be able to grab some much needed rest. Then I send them out to entertain others. My characters are just people who come into my life for a brief time or a particular reason, then go away at the end of the story. If I miss them, I just reread or start thinking sequel.