I’m thinking about this fine essay “A Character’s Skin” by my old mentor Tracy Daugherty. I’m also sitting here wondering how my students will react to his ideas concerning characterization. I’m hoping they will also have ideas on how it relates to the selections from Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson I also gave them. And as I reread Daugherty I am reminded of how much the essay influenced me in my writing fiction. How it instructed me.
And as I think of it now I am unsure when I first read this essay–I guess the first year of graduate school–but definitely I can remember how it influenced my writing and how it made me more thoughtful on the process of writing. Now I must’ve read about filtering as explained in John Gardner’s Art of Fiction or in Burroway’s Writing Fiction and I must’ve thought of it as an error and something to avoid. But it wasn’t until this essay and some lectures from Daugherty and a couple of individual meetings in his office did I finally realize this. And this essay and the language and Daugherty’s language and his metaphors. Specifcally his metaphor of writing fiction or writing a character as utilizing language to find “the heart of the character” from “the inside out” and also the metaphor of “the skin” of the character. The line that always gets me: “Language, after all, is the only skin a fictional character has.” Just the idea that the building of meaning and theme can overlap and hurt the building of character always helps me with revision.
Again, before this essay, I thought writing was something based on detail and of course skill by the author. And I still believe it is. But I guess at that time I was just starting to understand coming back to a draft and a character again and again. At the time I thought fiction was a process of getting down the best you can and then tweaking. But if you didn’t nail it you produced an entirely another draft–perhaps I felt writing was an all or nothing process. This essay reinforced to me how revisions should not be more fuller “explanations” of characters or control of details but rather revisions were the struggle to capture more accurate “experiences” of characters. To capture better experiences for the reader. And this is very similar again to what I had read in Gardner or Burroway but it was an effective analagy and I felt it was one of the rare times in my life I feel I had an aha! moment in my work.
I remember his other lessons. I remember writing them on the draft of the essay he gave us and I can see how it is still on the drafts I give my students. The list: 1. focus on interaction; 2. focus on dialogue; 3. balance scene and summary; 4. limit qualifiers and adjectives; 5. find the character’s skin or rather find the heart of the character aka don’t filter. I put these up in my apartment on a notecard. And #4 was the key for my writing. It opened up my thesis and opened up the character of Manito in my stories. I returned to those failed drafts with more of the idea of wanting to have the reader experience Lolo as I had experienced Lolo. To lighten up on theme and even plot to some degree. To replace the focus on me as a writer and how clever and talented I was and switch to focusing on the experience of the character. A subtle difference but an important one. Also a much more daunting task for revision. As Daugherty writes: “There’s a subtle, but enormous, differnece between filtering and detaisl through a character, and actually seeing through a character’s eyes.”
More on this as I think of it…