I’m finishing up an essay this weekend that has been quite challenging for me. I was invited to write about L.M. Montgomery from a writer’s point of view, focusing on how she used writing as therapy, specifically on Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes are Quoted. And while I won’t go into those details here (you’ll have to read the essay for that, ha!), I stumbled upon something else that I thought would make a good blog post.
We often talk as writers about getting into the body of our characters, how they move, observe their world, and physically feel emotions. I had almost forgotten how it felt to do this while researching someone. I remember moments while doing my work on Joan of Arc, when it was as if I could truly understand her and get inside her world view–as if I could imagine and experience her profound awe when she had her vision of St. Catherine when she was twelve, or the depth of her belief that she would save France. I felt her strength and grief when she discovered that everyone had essentially turned their back on her. One day I hope to write this story. Many have of course (hence my thesis) but maybe not the way I would see it.
For this Montgomery paper I had to research two very difficult times in Montgomery’s life. I had already done considerable amount for Rilla, reading about Montgomery’s obsession with World War I, the loss of her best friend and cousin, Frede, and the loss of her son, Hugh (who was born on my birthday August 13th-weird right?). For Blythes I had to focus on Montgomery’s later years. As many of you know, we have the fortune of having access to Montgomery’s selected journals (and the first two volumes of the complete ones have released – squee!), and her correspondences with two of pen pals, G.B. MacMillan and Ephraim Weber.
I’ve always had difficulty reading the final volume because of Montgomery’s deep despair towards the end of her life, particularly the last entry on the 23rd of March, 1942: “My mind is gone–everything in the worldI lived for has gone–the world has gone mad. I shall be driven to end my life. Oh God, forgive me. Nobody dreams what my awful position is” (350).
This just seemed to intensify when reading her final letters to MacMillan and Weber. Imagine receiving a letter from a dear friend-a call for help one could say. And when one reads the end of the Blythes, the sheer hopelessness of the final poem, “The Aftermath” about a soldier’s regret–well, let’s just say that the intensity was almost too much for me.
There I was researching about depression and dark nights of the soul in probably one of Canada’s darkest months, February. Where it is already difficult to get out of bed in the morning because everything is just so grey. Grey and bleak and heavy. I found myself stumbling around, and avoiding writing this paper. I couldn’t go deeper into the arguments because it seemed just a little too much to go to those darker places. When I finally allowed myself to (with the help of my amazing writer friends) it did seem that I discovered the beauty in how an author finds a way through their own form of hell through fiction. It is why I write after all–to face my own dark forces and turn them into something positive and stronger.
Still, this made me think about inhabiting characters, whether we are writing about the fictional people of our novels or our perception of real ones. A wise writer friend counselled me that maybe in my other WIP, that I find a way to be lighter with it, to have “fun” with it. Earlier this week I wrote a scene between my protagonist and her love interest and just went into its flirty and fun energy and it totally did help. I feel that I have the energy today (after writing this, too) to return and put the final touches on the paper.
I guess it is a lot like method acting, totally inhabiting your character, method writing is equal in its total embracing of the self. And part of the process is knowing when what you’re working on is your stuff and what is your character’s. I’m not sure what the answer is here, but it is an observation,a new insight into my process that maybe next time I shouldn’t write a paper about depression in February, or that maybe I need to find a way to my own light so that I can see someone else’s more clearly.