Yeah, it’s the Characters

The Why of Writing Prose

“When did you first fall in love with writing prose?” The question did not come completely out of the blue, but it did take me a little off guard.

Some thirty-four years earlier, the friend who asked the question – the one I have known since Junior High – had read the poetry I wrote then and on through College – clearly an attempt to expunge the angst of my emotionally troubled teenage years – and now recognized that prose has captured my heart enough for me to pour the last year (and more) of my life into my first novel. For me, this was a question worth thinking through before answering.

“Well,” I began, after a longer-than-normal-for-me pause, “it all started with Ray Hughes.” Ray, a Kentucky-born musician/comedian/pastor found Jesus at sixteen, kneeling in a puddle of beer in a bar where he prayed his first prayer.He went on to teach and write on the subject of worship with a focus on the Davidic forms (Psalms, spontaneous songs, etc.). As a musician and worship leader myself, Ray’s teaching captured my heart in a way few topics ever have.

In circa 1997 I was given the chance to listen to Ray for a month of weeknights. During the day (between home school classes with my kids), I studied on my own – digging deeper with more enthusiasm than I ever had before. Several legal pads of notes later, I began compiling teachings of my own which I presented at various ladies’ Bible study groups over the next five years. One day, circa 2002, I was driving down a Tennessee road, thinking through worship, and out of the clear blue an entire chapter wrote itself in my head. My love for prose was born.

For the next eight or so years, I wrote a book I called, Life Lessons from the Life of David, a work I abandoned altogether sometime around 2010. Many aspects of my own theology had changed too radically to support several of the themes I had written about, and some of the chapters began to feel forced. At the urging of someone close to me, I attempted to turn the book into a study guide, an area of writing I knew nothing about. Consequently, the work became a burden that I no longer had the heart for, so I left it behind.

That last sentence sounded as if leaving my book behind had been the easiest thing in the world to do, but quite the contrary. Giving up on that book was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Sometimes when I think about it, it equates to every time I moved and left behind the plethora of friends I accumulated during that time in that space. (In case you are unaware, as of October, 2015, I have moved 29 times in 28.5 years.) While some friends have had such an incredible impact on my life that our relationship transcends the time and distance between us, for the most part, that has not been the case. Major moves reek havoc on relationships – distance divides the acquaintance from the soul mate every. damn. time.

Move #8 stands out from the rest because of the important (dare I say, crucial?) lesson I learned that go-round. In September, 1995, a month or so after relocating to a quaint town in North Carolina, I began having trouble connecting with people. This was not normal for me, an extrovert. I have always been very, very good at connection. One day, as I was thinking through possible causes for my problem, I had a vision of myself.

I was walking forward but had stopped mid-stride. My head was facing forward, but one arm was reaching behind me, holding tightly to the life and friends I had made for myself in the last location. My other, open hand strained forward, but everything and everyone ahead of me remained just out of my reach. I saw clearly in that moment that I had to let go of the past in order to grasp what was ahead. This lesson applies to my journey as a writer as well. If I had to wrap the lesson up in a nutshell, I would say it this way:

You cannot attain what is in front of you if you persist in clinging to the past. Learn from the past, definitely take its lessons with you, then let it go.

The importance of unloading what no longer serves us cannot be overstressed. Quite often the things we focus on – even for long periods of time – are nothing more or less than foundational education for what is coming next. Since I cannot see past the bend in the road ahead, learning to go with the flow of what’s next by holding loosely to what has gone before has become vital to my growth as a writer and a person. Making room in my life for what’s next necessarily involves a whole lot of letting go.

About the time I left Life Lessons behind, I started blogging, first on Myspace, then on WordPress. When 2013 rolled around, I had been writing long and regularly enough to enter periods of writer’s block. Thankfully, I ran into several bloggers who offer writing prompts. Emily’s Remember the Time Blog Hop, and Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers went a long way in pushing me forward in my craft. In November, 2013 I learned to pour the deepest places of my heart onto the page, and, as I literally wrote the grief out of myself, other new avenues opened. I even began to write poetry again – for the first time in many, many years.

In the summer of 2014, DJ of The Matticus Kingdom threw down the gauntlet, challenging his followers to finish the story he started. Little did either of us know what taking up his challenge would mean for me – a character I connected with was born and the rest is my first novel – still a work very much in progress, that I one day hope to complete.

At that point in the conversation, my friend said, “Then it’s the characters.” Oh, yeah, it’s the characters. Characters are why I read every fiction/science fiction series I ever have; characters are why I fell in love with the legend of Arthur and Camelot; characters are why I stick with any TV series (real or imagined); characters drive my relationships, friendships, acquaintances – everything. Characters are why I write (even the book on the Life of David was character-driven in a big way – David has always been larger than life in my eyes).

I need believable, consistent characters – even though, at times, people do the darndest things! I want to write characters a reader can fall in love with. I want to write characters that make readers anxious to turn the page because they need to know what is going to happen next in my characters’ lives – in short, I want to write characters readers will care about. I have no clue if I’ve been even remotely successful in attaining that goal, but I love the characters I have discovered in writing, and my work will continue until I can no longer say that.

What about you? Are you a poet, a photographer, or do you prefer prose? Have you ever tried your hand at a novel? What drives your writing – the characters, the plot, the theme, the form, or is there a message you are trying to convey? In short, why do you write what you write?