Sunday, May 9, 2010
All those piano lessons finally pay off
About now, I wish I had a really good roadmap for working on my next novel. No matter what I tell my students, my fellow writers, every novel is different. There is no map. For me, much of the writing process has to be reinvented along with the plot and everything else. If there is one comfort to me, it is that I pretty much know where to begin—and that is with a character, one that lives and breathes, in my mind and (on a good day) on the page.
I know that many writers say that they don’t use people they know as characters in their fiction. Well, I will admit that I almost always draw from life—my aunt’s way of sipping tea, my volleyball coach’s frown, my husband’s snore—bits and pieces, mostly. As I hunt for my characters, I am most attracted to people I have known in passing, rather than my intimates. I need to know just enough about a person—too much and the facts get in the way, too little and there is not enough there to hang my hat on. The main character of my first novel, Wilma Mabry, is a good example. She was inspired by a piano teacher that I had as a child. We called her Miss Wilma, and yes, I borrowed her first name for my book, may she rest in peace. Miss Wilma was a fixture in our town--one of those strict, steely-eyed teachers who can strike terror in the heart of any child (or grown-up, for that matter). I was a terrible piano student, and I was scared to death of the woman. Miss Wilma's best student, James (I've forgotten his real name), had the lesson time just before mine on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. James was a wonderful pianist, and on some days, I could put aside my terror and simply enjoy his playing. I noticed over the course of the year that James was preparing to go to college as a music major and perhaps for that reason, Miss Wilma was as mean (if not meaner) to him than she was to me.
Years later when I decided to write a little character sketch of Miss Wilma, I remembered a particular lesson time in the spring—just before James was to go for his music scholarship audition. On this day, the day when Miss Wilma was having the young man do his final run-through, I arrived at my lesson to find that Miss Wilma was entirely transformed. There was not one ounce of meanness in her. She was completely in a dither—her eyes fluttering—she seemed to alternate between girlish excitement and nervous mothering. James had his family's old, old, station wagon parked out front and Miss Wilma kept asking him, "Do you have enough gas? Do you have money? Oh, do you have your sheet music?" Understand—I was ten, maybe eleven at the time, but there was something about that moment that seemed important to me. I was seeing something rare and unknown in this person whom I thought I knew through and through.
For whatever reason, it was this powerful memory that came to me when I began to write the first scene about Miss Wilma. In about an hour, I wrote three short pages that were the beginning of my novel. Of course, by the time I got to the bottom of the first page, the Miss Wilma I was writing about was not the real Miss Wilma, but someone else altogether, a character with a life, a history, a personality all her own. However, Miss Wilma Mabry -- the life of the character -- was born in the memory of that particular moment and somehow propelled forward by it. The scene itself—those first three pages—survive in the novel (much revised, of course) as the beginning of Chapter 2, which begins exactly as I began that first sketch: "Of all Miss Wilma's students, James Moody was the prize…"
Everything in The Piano Teacher grew from that first scene: the other characters, their relationships with Miss Wilma, the town of Swan's Knob, and even the plot. All of these things were really a function of Miss Wilma's character, an outgrowth of it. It’s hard to remember exactly how I came to transform Miss Wilma from the buttoned-up piano teacher worried even about the marks she's made on her students' sheet music into the woman, who in the end of my novel, subdues a murderer with a kick of her Aigner pump.
During the time I was writing the book and to this day, I think of her mostly as a real person—in much the way you might think of a beloved aunt who has long ago passed away. You can no longer actually touch her, have a conversation together, but you can fully imagine a conversation with her about any topic, you can remember exactly her touch, and she is bound visit you in your dreams, as Miss Wilma did. Shortly after I finished the book, she appeared in a dream and lectured me about the state of my wardrobe. Then she marched me down to the local department store and bought me a dress.
Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is www.lynnyork.com.