Thursday, January 07, 2010

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

"The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border [the border beyond which my own "I" ends] that attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become." -- Milan Kundera from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I understand completely what Kundera is saying here. For me, my characters are a way of exploring the big “What if?” They allow me to bend time and space and logic. They allow me to investigate the philosophical conundrums of life, and they allow me to do it outside of my own “I.” They allow me to indulge the darkness and expand and exaggerate my own idiosyncratic view of humanity. I can take an existential theory and push it to excess, push it beyond mere obsession, push it into that dark place where every human thought and action is sublime and grotesque at the same time. I can give them the superhuman ability to endure and the enlightenment to rise above their own mortal reasoning.

For me, my characters are the embodiment of an idea: its knowledge, its feeling, its concepts, and its truth. In order to do this, I must first understand the idea, and in order to understand anything, I must tear it apart: deconstruct it down to its intrinsic elements. Then, and only then, can I not only see but also embrace its extremes. Eventually, while exploring these extremes, I inevitably stumble across something dark. Now, I am no vulgar ghoul. I desire a happy ending and sympathetic characters as much as the next person, but I cannot let my mind find itself lost amongst folly so much so that I deceive myself and forsake the truth. The darker extremes of humanity -- the unsympathetic characters -- make for compelling art, for they invoke emotion at its deepest, basest levels, and that depth of emotion creates profound impact. Whether the characters be vile and depraved or ethereal in nature is really irrelevant. Pushing the boundaries of the extreme with my characters allows me to experience the emotion wholly, unrestrained by fears and beliefs, unrestrained by my "I". Would we fully appreciate the warmth of a sunny day had we not reluctantly savoured the savagery of a stormy night? By that logic, all things in life, especially human emotion, have an extreme duality: a dark and a light. With my characters, I seek to embrace that philosophy by exploring those extremes of human emotion—its treachery—and that is the “what if” I attempt to answer with my characters.

Some of my characters and their motivations may disturb the reader to the point of revulsion, but sometimes it is necessary to push beyond the boundaries of an idea in order to achieve clarity of emotion, an understanding of its duality: tenderness and violence, trust and betrayal, sacrifice, triumph and suffering. We instinctively fear certain aspects of human nature, aspects that appear base, almost monstrous, and that is why when we are confronted with them, in life as well as in art and literature, we recoil violently. We resist our need to understand them. There is no less stress for a reader to read the darkness than it is for the writer to write it. There are no radiant princesses in my stories, no heroes no heroines, no knights in shining armour, and no divine intervention. My characters are, in actuality, studies in truth however abstract they may seem. The characters presented in my stories are very, very human—including the immortals—, and to me they are flawed, pathetic, and monumentally beautiful even in their moments of madness. They suffer beautifully, torturing themselves and each other, and by consequence, saving each other and their own souls. In their moments of enlightenment, I seek to expose the dichotomy of the human condition, the divide between thought and action, between reason and indulgence, and between death and sensuality.

Sure, every single one of my characters starts with a bit of me at the center, one aspect of my “ID” if you will, and so my stories revolve around the idea of “what if” this character lived and breathed by that bit of “id” in the extreme. How would they live? How would they justify their actions? How would they, could they, achieve enlightenment in that state of obsessive being. Can they endure and survive themselves in a world that they, by their own choices, denials, and refusals, have turned into a trap?

So to say that a character is a direct reflection of the author would be an egregious misstep. Even if it’s a first person narrative, the character the author has created has -- if the author was careful with their explorations -- moved well beyond the “I” of the author’s nature. Those are the characters I want to read as well and will be reviewing one such book next week, so stay tuned.

The Art this week is "The Silence" by Johann Heinrich Fussli 1799-1801

Cheryl Anne Gardner

5 comments:

Brent Robison said...

Love that Kundera quote. And the big "What if?" is a favorite companion of mine, the friend who always prods me forward.

The freedom to begin with myself, then move out into unbounded imagination, is absolutely crucial. Without it, I doubt I'd write at all (I'm not interested in being a memoirist). In my own work, I choose not to go to extremes partly because I want everyday readers to identify with my characters, but also because I feel a perverse need to rebel against current fashion, and shock seems to be the tool du jour.

I really like your final paragraph: "egregious misstep" indeed. Trouble is, most non-writers just don't get it, and so the author is always saddled with the neuroses and even the plotlines of his characters. I'm treading thin ice now, as members of my family are reading my story collection and will surely recognize fragments of themselves and certain themes and events. I can only hope they are generous, and have some empathetic understanding of the paradox: both the wide distance and the close proximity of the artist to his creation.

Jim Murdoch said...

I tend to think, and I’m coming to this conclusion more and more, that really I’m more interested in philosophical issues than I am in the individuals I write about; they’re the pieces I move around until I’ve solved my problem. They begin as a part of me but by the time I’m done with them what they were is pretty much unrecognisable. Really every one of my books can be boiled down to a single line, an obvious one but not something I had understood until I worked it out through my characters. The line for the first two books would be, By the time you come to understand life there’s not enough life left to do anything with it, the third is, People don’t have destinies but they have inevitabilities – their natures governs the kind of lives they end up having and the fourth one is, There are no reasons for unreasonable things but there will be answers. I am not sure how to summarise my current book but it’s all concerned with the nature of leftness, left’s need for right, being left, leaving, all aspects. I’ll know when I’m done.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Brent, anything written really starts with the self. If we didn't feel passionately about the subject matter and if it didn't have some of our "I" in it, I don't think we would write it. I think that falls in line with what Jim says. My characters are my idiosyncrasies in the extreme (that's what I meant by extreme, not violence per se)and what the characters evolve into are metaphorical representations of my philosophical, theological, and existential musings. They become the idea personified for me, and basically they live the conundrum: Allegory. I am not ashamed to admit that that’s what I write, even though I think it’s out of fashion.

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Linda said...

Damn the out of fashion, full speed ahead. Do what is right for you and may success head your way. :)