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Practise Can Approach (But Not Make) Perfect

by edhawk on July 27, 2013

When I was a psych major at San Jose State, they used to tell us that the earliest of all psychologists were the novelists and romantic poets of the 1700 and 1800s. These guys would get into some really elaborate and extensive character studies, delving deep into a character’s psyche to try to see what made each character tick. The goal here, is to make the characters believable to the reader. If your reader is constantly having to stop and figure out why the characters are doing whatever it is that they are doing, the reader will get confused and tired of reading your story. If your readers simply accept what the character are doing, how they are behaving, then they read past the characters and get into the story you are trying to tell. Writers pay a lot of attention to how people act and why they act that way. It’s part of the writing job.

When I was working in restaurants, we had a little pastime that we’d engage in when times were slow and there were no more napkins to fold or silverware to polish. We’d point out a customer, a couple or a group of customers and we would tell their story. We dealt with so many people so often, we’d pick up an instinct about people. For instance, if a couple is sitting at a cleared table after dinner and they aren’t talking, but simply checking out the light fixtures and the draperies, gazing right past each other, we’d tell you that they were a married couple, long satisfied with each other and comfortably having nothing to say. It was a completely different story if it was a couple on their first date, no matter what the age. You could get so good at this that you could spot an illicit love affair within the first 20 seconds of being seated, their eyes darting around to see if anyone they knew was also here, to catch them in the act. This is another kind of character study, not so much consciously studied as achieved by long exposure and subconscious notations taken by the brain. You just start to notice things.

I remember when I was in the fifth or sixth grade and one of the boys in my cub scout den did something wrong and all the guys wanted to kick him out of the den. The wayward boy was a friend of mine and I picked up a pencil and some paper and I sat down for hours trying to pick his personality apart, so as to convince the other guys that this poor kid was just built that way and there was nothing he could do about it. Let’s not boot him out. I really don’t recall what the outcome was, if he stayed or went, but I remember that I was surprised to find that you could really analyze a person and attempt to explain how they worked. This was about the same time I started reading all the heavy literature I brag about, but, you know, it’s not so much bragging as admitting to an obsession. I would just devour these stories by Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, one always on the heels of the last one. I wasn’t reading this stuff to show off, I read all this stuff because I just loved it, and the worlds it took me to. It was kinda like watching too much TV.

I don’t remember when I started, but at some point I started writing my own stuff. My goal was always to be like the great ones, to have my words be as smooth and flowing, so unconsciously readable that it would be like me simply pouring my thoughts directly into someone else’s head with no words needed. It was a goal but it was not easy to achieve. Unlike my reading, anywhere and anytime, my writing really only occurred at night. My dad was a good illustrator but my mom squelched his art from the time they got married. Mom was ultra-practical and art wasn’t going to make any of us any money. No one should waste their time on such nonsense. After I did my homework in front of the TV in the living room, I’d shut my bedroom door and use only the desk lamp and start practicing my art, writing. I used reams and reams of binder paper and put my pencil scribblings into big cardboard boxes, hidden in my closet and under the bed. No one ever saw any of this work, it was totally secret.

As we got older and this emerging science, psychology, came to the fore. I paid a lot of attention to it, this could possibly be a way to use character studies to make money. My mom couldn’t criticize that. When I got to college, I went in as a psychology major, but within three months, a professor convinced me to change my major to philosophy and within two more semesters, I quit college. I righteously headed up onto the Santa Cruz Mountains to find out what all this “hippiness” was about. Through all this, I was still reading and writing, voraciously, but, never, ever, attempting to publish. My writing wasn’t perfect enough.

I settled in Los Gatos, learned the printing trade and managed the production of the town’s newspaper, made a living as one of the town’s many graphic artists, still reading and writing but, still not perfect enough for publishing. For a while I was a wiz-kid computer guru, still reading and writing, but not so much now. And still not perfect enough for publishing.

Five years ago I turned sixty and reality hit me, the future is here. We are not going to get too much more of it. I collected my writing, gathered it into a book and self published. Hopefully, though the work wasn’t perfect, maybe it will be enjoyable to some folks. I’m satisfied, no one has been throwing stones at me because of the book. That’s not too bad.


However, I tried to engage in a character study a few days ago. It didn’t work. My thoughts were not poured into the reader’s brain. I missed the mark and made a mess. My writing still isn’t perfect and, as always, I have to work on it.








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  1. Ed, your study of Norman and Monica was a great character study. It brought them to life. It got us interested in these people and their lives. It set up a situation. It made us wonder what happened to them later. And it isn’t the only one of your stories like that. Where this piece got into trouble was being included in a movie review. One thing at a time. Respect the unity of the story.

    You have had an interesting life. You have known many interesting people. You are an acute observer. You can write well. You know how to tell a story. Maybe a little review and editing to tighten up the flow and unity of the story can help.

    There are writing guides and classes to polish technique and get reviews. There are also books and seminars on getting published. A common advice for writers is to read good stuff. You have done that. Keep in mind that the best authors are known by their best works. They also produced tons of stuff that didn’t quite make it and has been forgotten. Not everything by a great author is perfect. Even their best stuff can be criticized.

    Hemingway, Twain and other authors have written about writing. Twain says “Eschew surplussage.” Hemingway says “The more good stuff you leave out, the better it gets.” Pan out the silica and pyrite, keep the gold. I used to read psychological case studies. Biographies and autobiographies are good, too.

    You have what it takes to write professionally. Keep at it. You are a writer.

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