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.
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.
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.