|Dr. Kate Gale is Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of the Los Angeles Review and President of the American Composers Forum, LA. She teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction. She serves on the boards of A Room of Her Own Foundation and Poetry Society of America. She is author of five books of poetry, a novel, and six librettos. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. www.kategale.com|
What should you expect of yourself as a writer? What should you expect of your characters?
The answer for you as a writer is excellence. The answer is working at a level of mastery with your craft. The answer is that you can fail marriages, and screw up two kids maybe three, but you need to take your writing seriously. I've made failed soups, I've stopped halfway through marathons and walked for a while, I've sung in the car and failed to hit the high notes, but I take writing seriously.
I want it to be good, and I think that's what you should aim for. Unless you're just planning to make money—then, go for it. Just write plot-driven thrillers. But back to good writing. I think it's good to have a lot of things you aren't good at but enjoy anyway. I enjoy snacking, running, drinking margaritas, learning about wine, gardening, cooking, and traveling. I even like photography. I'm no good at any of these. I'm really not as good a wife as other wives. (Other wives cook more and are nice all the time, I fear, but, I tell my spouse, they are hairy! I'm not hairy, and that's a plus, all round. He just stares at me like a cow stares at an oncoming train, and that can't be good.) I really lacked in the parenting department, letting my kids bike to other kids' houses, eat popsicles at midnight—you get it—but I believe you have to throw yourself into writing. That isn't to say that everything I've written is good. Some of it is downright skinny on positive attributes. What it does mean is that I'm moving toward being a good and recognized writer, and I ask nothing less of myself than excellence, sentence by sentence.
I like this interview with Gary Lutz in HTML Giant. He says,
My writing isn't a career or a craft or a hobby or anything like that. It is more like a tiny annex to my life, a little crawl space in which I occasionally end up by accident in the dark. Cramped quarters can be a great place to call up one's vocabulary and try to find words to mate with one's feelings.
I love that because that is how I feel, like I am busy with my life—and I keep jumping into this crowded little place and writing and then climbing back out, taking a breath of air and then going back in there.
What you need to make a character work is a fetish; he rather implies that, but I agree. Your characters need to have something that pulls the reader in, they can't be excellent. Excellent people are boring. You need characters who have a flaw. The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," drives a hearse. Uriah Heep has red hair and a way of wringing his hands that makes the reader want to reach into the book and slap him, Hamlet talks to himself, and Fleur in Erdrich's novels gambles in a tight green dress.
A fetish invites the character into our consciousness. We must take our writing seriously to be any good at it; we must throw down our shoes at the door and find out who has a foot fetish and wants to see our feet and then write about them.