The Characters Don’t Write The Book

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

 When speaking before groups who are interested in writing–or a classroom of students–there are two questions I am always asked. Here are the questions, and my answers.

“Is the hallmark of a genuine writing talent only when writers get so deep into their novels that the characters start writing them?”

That is a myth. Characters are dead images. Only the writer can give them life. If the writer doesn’t put them onto paper they cannot exist. Characters speak, act, think and feel, only when they are written to do so. Writers must always be in control of their writing.

Characters have no minds, no relationships, and do not traipse about the pages in self-motivated search of the story. They cannot analyze, interpret, reveal or create themselves.

Writers are not some bogus mediums sitting in dumb trances biding time until the spirit character wakes them, demanding,”Hey, wake up, I’m here.” If characters were floating around in some incorporeal state, until they locate a wishy-washy writer to express them, they would want to dominate the novel. They would obsess on being the stars, and overwrite.

This long-standing myth that “characters write the writer” is a cheap bid to romanticize the act of writing. It is a mistake promoted by writing instructors who have graduated from creative writing classes but have hardly written, and rarely published. They are unworldly academics shrewdly sustaining their employment. They are breeding other creative writing instructors who will also victimize naive students with this asinine myth. From the beginning to the end–the Alpha and Omega–the writer does it all.

“Is my writing without merit because I enjoy writing? I keep trying to suffer for the sake of art, but it doesn’t happen. I just love writing. It makes me happy. Am I kidding myself?

Keep writing with that attitude and you’ll accomplish splendid works. Whatever suffering the writers are supposed to experience is the living they have undergone before they begin writing. Anyone who deliberately causes an abscessed tooth is an idiot. It is impossible for any human being to remain within a profession for perhaps 30 years in a continual state of suffering.

People should not misunderstand the hurting they go through as they live, with the feelings they experience when they write. Everyone suffers. It is our worldly inheritance. But there are basic reasons for why people want to become writers. None of the reasons have to do with an ecstasy for suffering.

Some writers find the world too much for them and they turn to writing for the joy of self-expression, the discovery of an identity. Others find the world is not enough for them. They want to fatten it with themselves. Enrich it with the marvel and wonder of their knowledge, their perceptions, their understanding of “what is truth.” Other writers find the world disgusting and corrupt. They want to perform surgery on its guts, its purposes. I could go on for pages listing the reasons why people become writers. Not one of them would contain a desire to suffer.

I have been involved in many jobs, occupations, professions. Not one of them ever established in me the happiness I feel while writing. Not only because writing is what I do best–but because it is the last stage in my search for “self.” I am constantly involved with my life and do not feel vanity, conceit, or an overbearing elitism.

My mind interests me, my feelings fascinate me, my concepts are constantly provocative and changing. What I take from people and give to people is always enchanting. There is no event, sensation, response, or relationship that is ordinary to me. I am a unique melange of differences and varieties. I am an adventure, an operetta of boisterous melodrama, an exiled strand of music waiting to be symphonized, a lark gushing freely to the heavens. I am a lonely child studying a leaf, an aged man held in a loving memory, a mother giving birth, a whore flaunting her contours, a priest weeping in the confessional. I am a time of grief, an exotic aroma spilling from the jungle plant. I am a nasty cab driver, an ulcerated headwaiter, and I can even be a rainbow.

I know who I am and I am learning more about myself every day I write. My suffering happens when I am not writing.

© Leonard Bishop

(first published Sunday, April 21, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)

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One Response to The Characters Don’t Write The Book

  1. nbroadwell says:

    follow your bliss, is what I say (as well as Joseph Campbell)

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