The Character Who Wants you to Wait

By Patricia Friedrich

I don’t like to stare at the blank page. And typically I don’t.

When writing either fiction or non-fiction, I usually take a bit of time thinking in an unstructured manner about what I am going to write. Ideas come to me while I do the dishes, when I walk, or as I work on something else. I rarely take notes on them. When I feel ready, I sit down and start writing, usually quite linearly. Some days are more productive, others less so, but once I sit down to write, I usually write. I tend to reach that stage already having a good sense of who my character is, although she will usually turn out to be more multifaceted as we further our acquaintance. As a pantser, I let things happen and often find that a character, put in a given situation, will reveal themselves anyway.

Not this time. I have now met my first character who wants me to wait.

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I know the basic facts about her: where she was born, what she does for a living, who her parents are. But she is a quiet one, and she is taking her time before telling me more. So while  I wait, I am looking for clues in others who have some of her traits—in movies, in books, in life. What can these other characters share with me that will allow me to know my own character better?

Sometimes it is a gesture, something in their eyes. Other times it is a belief or a like. Of course none of them is her, but they offer me hints, or little pieces of this jigsaw puzzle. Building her has become a bit like waiting for wine to reach its perfect season, when complexity of aroma and subtlety in tastes are at their peak.

This is something we are getting increasingly unaccustomed to. Our culture is one of immediate action, immediate response, no delayed gratification, no patience, no waiting. Digital modes have trained our brains to want to know everything and to want to know it all now! In the 1960s and 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel became well known for his Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in which children were given one marshmallow and told that if they waited, without eating it, until the researcher came back into the room (usually 15 minutes later), they could have another marshmallow (or sometimes a cookie or pretzel). The test correlated the ability to wait for a bigger reward later to various measures of success in future life.

Would we all fail the marshmallow test now?

Maybe this character is my own marshmallow experiment. She is asking me to give it time at the moment for a better outcome later. And like the good student I am, I’m going to wait.

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Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.

The Politics of Women Writing about Women

I would like to call your attention to the following quotes:

“To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature)

“Ever since the Renaissance, modern man has perpetuated the idea that he carries an infinity of possibilities within himself; their realization is always within reach, at least in his phantasies and dreams. His potentialities are such that, if need be, he would live apart from the rest of society; he could return to nature.” (Leo Lowenthal, Literature and the Image of Man, 2011)

“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.” John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962)

Man and freedom. It is a pairing as old as literature (and later, film) itself. From King Arthur’s tale, to the Star Wars odyssey, to Braveheart, and the writings of Emerson, Steinbeck and Whitman, the fantasy (or phantasy, as Lowenthal writes) of the return to nature, of the pursuit of freedom, is a predominant, serious theme in “mainstream literature,” both fiction and non-fiction. Think of Kerouac’s journey or actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s journal of their motorcycle trip around the world (which inspired my own husband to ride from Arizona to the Arctic Circle) and you will likely be able to recall and list a variety of stories that validate the eternal search of men for another place, a new adventure, the finding of oneself, and the solving of challenges as they arise. These are considered life-affirming, worthwhile quests not only to be lived but to be recounted and admired. The search for freedom, I am sure would be argued, has philosophical implications; it is fodder for serious reflection and craft, and, therefore, it is to be studied in university courses, discussed in roundtables and eternalized as “real” literature.

There is of course nothing wrong with any of that. I was immensely proud of my husband’s journey, and I myself was happy to teach a course on travel writing at the university (though I could not resist subversively including Eloisa James’s Paris in Love in the reading list).

So why did I start a post about the politics of women writing by talking about men writing? Because it is still the case that what a woman does is often considered in opposition to what a man would do.

Let me preface what I will say in the next paragraph by stating that women too are capable of adventure and the pursuit of freedom. One does not have to go any further than Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to know just how brave women can be. However, more often than not, and perhaps also in quantitative terms, one will find more titles about freedom and adventure penned by men, which is as much an indication of market perceptions and publication opportunities as it is of anything else— remember that J. K. Rowling used initials for fear that boys would not read the fantastical adventures of a wizard if they knew the author was a woman.

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If writing about freedom is often associated with the Masculine, writing about connection is often associated with the Feminine, and that is the crux of the matter for this post. Women often, though certainly not always, enjoy reading and writing about community, communion, the building of a home, the sharing of love, the finding of one’s place in the world. When a book is about love (from a woman’s perspective), or a woman’s search for connection and growth through internal struggle and learning, it often loses its claim to be called “mainstream fiction” through no fault of its own. Instead, our books get classified as “romance” (if a love story with a satisfying ending is at the center of the story) and “women’s fiction” (if personal growth and connection are the central thread). Much like it happens in other areas of work and practice—like one realizing they’ve become a “woman doctor”—“female writer” is a loaded term, indicative of the partition that is still present in the representation of women in their professional capacities.

Don’t get me wrong: I am proud and happy to be associated with these genres and to partake of the craft, talent, and wisdom of so many authors writing in them. It is an honor just to be a member of the same professional associations as many of them or to find myself having dinner at the same table. What I appreciate much less is the realization that in a world that is still so unequal in its bestowing of respect and opportunity upon women, literature figures as one more reminder that there are strides to be made. The number of people who still “don’t get it” is at the same time surprising and frustrating.

Last year, the New York Times published in its book review section, for the first time, a front-page roundup of romance, a genre predominantly, as the saying that is commonly cited in the community goes, “for women, about women, by women.” Who was given the task of writing about the new releases and the growth of the industry? A man. One who very clearly did not enjoy nor understand romance. His condescending, unimaginable conclusion: “Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effects? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?”

I can’t imagine a scenario where the same critic would have been as patronizing to fans of science fiction and adventure sagas (associated with masculinity) as he was to romance readers and writers, which, truth be told, also include men. Can you imagine his writing about a saga of freedom and liberation and asking, “Why shouldn’t men dream? Sure they have 9-to-5 jobs, but shouldn’t they be allowed to at least write about the great outdoors?” I don’t think so.

But maybe the last laugh is to be had by those who find great satisfaction in writing, reading, and community building around stories often associated with the Feminine, be them men or women. While all of general fiction, according to Publishers Weekly, sold 33 million books in 2014 in the US (a great chunk of which is represented by women’s fiction, since for statistical purposes those titles are not counted separately from mainstream fiction), romance alone sold about 31 million. An obvious conclusion is that the literature that focuses on the feminine universe sells more than anything else.

Perhaps it’s time social endorsement should follow. Or not—we will keep writing and having fun anyway.

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Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.

The Time & Place for BIG WORDS

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor Patricia Friedrich! 

In a recent workshop with the wonderfully talented Lisa Cron, whose book Story Genius I had read, I learned something about my love of big words. It turns out that, whereas my big words had helped me in my academic career, they were at times hurting me in my fiction one. It all had to do with anesthetizing the brain!

You see, my academic work often takes me to the analytical side of things. When I am writing research, I explain my claims, provide examples, and then introduce evidence from studies I have conducted. In that context, I will have succeeded if I wake up the analytical areas of the brain of my readers to have them consider whether they agree with me or have counterarguments that challenge my claims. It is all very logical, and big words, the ones I have cultivated over a lifetime of loving and studying language, feel right at home in that context. I am a linguist by training, and few things make me as intrigued as finding a new word and then as content as using it in context myself—discovering its place and time of origin ranks pretty high too.

The problem started when I brought my over-analytical mind and big words into fiction, and this is where Lisa Cron’s amazing insights came into play. Lisa describes how stories speak directly to our survival instinct, how they provide us with experiential knowledge for future reference. However, I first approached fiction through the lenses of my command of language and not my understanding of story or human beings’ innate instinct to use stories as roadmaps in their own lives. I could write great, grammatically accurate sentences. I could access a large vocabulary. For crying out loud, I write linguistic theory! All I had to do was put it all together in stories, and I would dazzle everyone with my command of the English Language.

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Only they weren’t dazzled. They were pulled from the story by all the big words I chose and complex sentence structures I created. Lisa’s work taught me that great fiction works because it anesthetizes the part of the brain that performs analytical tasks, the very ones I was waking up with my words as powerfully as if I was using a big alarm clock. The part that should light up instead, is the one hungry for story, the one that experiences story as if it were real. The one that allows you to smile, cry, and feel empathy while the words in front of you disappear. When I used too many of my big words, I caused my readers to fall out of total identification with my characters. They could not be in 1920s Brazil or Victorian England if they were trying to figure out what argute or ineffable meant. Shrewd and indescribable would have done just fine (or better yet, I could have just shown them shrewd and indescribable in the first place).

It turns out in fiction, as in life, sometimes less is more. I redirected my love of language to creating beautiful description and vivid imagery that can be both simple and elegant at the same time. I learned the power of everyday words and sentences of different lengths. I started feeling joy at focusing on the story and letting language serve it rather than the other way around. And when the pull of old habits, as well as the thrill of a new complicated word, takes me to lexical items or multi-subordinated sentences, I apply them to my analytical writing where they can shine.

 

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Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.