I have this idea that my characters are everywhere. In a dream last night I bumped into one of my characters. She pops by every now and then to push my creative buttons. She is a female university student who talks through lecture after lecture and refuses to acknowledge that I am standing there having conversations with the people all around her. She is deeply engaged in conversation with her look-alike neighbor and ignores me completely while I lead discussions on all sorts of things. This girl is so self- absorbed that she doesn’t bat an eye when I stand directly in front of her seat in the auditorium and ask, “Did you get that last bit?”
In fact, her ignorance is at such a level that she neglects to answer—pity for her. Last night I suppose she finally gave me the opening I was looking for and I took the shot. Slamming my open palms down flat on top of the desk that magically appears in front of her, I growl through gritted teeth: “Tell me, did you notice that we are in class or did you just come for the free coffee?” To which she; inches from my face and reeking of patchouli and musty wool hat 1990s grunge scent that normally would bring fond memories, responds “So?”
She has never spoken back to me before. She’s only been a potential girl in a story who visits now and then when I have had a particularly frustrating week. To say that this past week was frustrating would be way past understatement, but I’m letting it go—for the moment. The girl uttered a word to me last night and suddenly inspiration took over.
We had an argument.
Not just a teacher student disagreement, but an all-out-wildly gesticulating-neck jutting-faces contorting-shrieking, bitch fight. It was great. I was exhausted by the end of it and when I woke up my throat was scratchy. Was it possible I went through the scream motions in my real throat in real life? It was that freaking real.
When I got up this morning I actually felt relieved that I finally confronted this insensitive, gossipy twit who was taking up space in my classroom. Literally, I smiled and rolled over, thanking the heavens that my alarm would not be going off and I fell deeply back into dreamland. That is so not me. Once I’m up I’m up and I am never smiling in the single digits on a Sunday.
As if on cue, the Times arrived on schedule, and I realize that I had been missing the part that usually comes on Saturday and didn’t have my Book Review. Yes I read the paper in paper and I will as long as they print it. Sunday ritual: stay in PJs with favorite ceramic coffee vat and NY Times as long as I damn well please. Today I made due with half paper, other half online and didn’t sweat it since my delivery service is otherwise stellar.
Perusing the Book Review I come across some great essays on writing by Colson Whitehead, Roger Rosenblatt and Augusten Burroughs. Thinking aloud, “I’m so doing this with the class tomorrow,” I stumble on this quote that describes exactly what I feel about the people I write:
Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. ~ Colson Whitehead
Essentially, this character that stalks his author takes heed of the Beastie Boys and is in your crawlspace. He comes out at night and hides your Metrocard, unplugs your charger and steals the granola bar you just know you left by your keys.
Wonderfully creepy concept I know. All my teenage friends are cringing as they read this due to the storage area in my attic room that was partitioned off by “troll doors” that nobody wanted to sleep near. Maybe it was cruel of me to bring their attention to the doors and use the word troll…I just couldn’t help myself.
Contemplating the nasty student from my dream, I realize that although she is not an actual person I know, she does have all the qualities that I abhor in the classroom. She’s chatty and has no clue what is being discussed around her. She flips open a laptop now and again to check AOL mail and a modem sound comes out—I know!—and she stares at the screen like a baby mesmerized with a shiny key fob. Here’s the kicker. In the past she has always had a rather plain, blurry face and I recognize her when she returns not by her features but by her friggin voice. You know the thing about nails on a chalkboard? More like steak knife on dinner plate meets school bus breaks. It would be impossible to focus while that rusty motor is cranked up. Her voice is simply awful. And last night! Last night she was dressed like me—me fifteen years ago, and I saw her face—kind of.
Always priding myself on the good stuff I recall from my college years, I often think about hours spent in the language lab at Hunter watching French films. I think about the few floors of the library that weren’t refinished and has orange 1970s style chairs that were just the right amount of uncomfortable to stay awake in a quiet study hole. Memories of Phoenix Park, my favorite pub near campus abound. Bangers and mash, Guinness sipped in the two hour gap between Brit Lit and French, and the last class of the semester that we all spent in the beer garden with the first round on the Prof.
It hits me like a brick to the cranium. I miss being a student. I really miss those days. I always worked a lot but when I was at school—despite commuting and having gotten a mere four hours sleep tops—serenity descended. There were people who wanted the same thing that I did. I had a major in common with a lot of them. I befriended my career counselor and made it my mission to find an internship in publishing and get the hell out of my childhood home yet again. Everything was easier then. But I also had so much around me to draw on for creating my characters. So very much.
Now I have a routine: wake up, feed & walk dogs, coffee, shower, more coffee, pack lunch, last walk for dogs, drive to train, pay to park, buy ticket, board train, text dog-walker, arrive in NYC, walk to work, teach, eat lunch, coffee, teach more, walk to train, board train, read on way home, get home, walk dogs, eat dinner, feed & walk dogs, read till bed, sleep, repeat. My routine is only varied by the gym, yoga and walks in the park whenever they fit in. Routines get boring sometimes and you get stuck with the characters you have and need a re-boot.
As I shook that bitch by her scrawny flannel shoulders I felt my reboot and it was perfect.
My fight with the dream student was a breakthrough. I know what I’ll do with her character now. It felt for a moment like the new girl in class just became my friend and everyone else was about to be jealous because she has a pool. My character has been stalking me and making me uncomfortable, but now I’m going to write the rest of her life how I know it should go.
In On Writing, Stephen King said, “It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow.” He also endorses making the reader uncomfortable, which I love since I’m told I can do just that.
As for this girl in my dreams, let’s see if she has the guts to show up tonight—I’ll be waiting with pen unsheathed and ready to go.