In a writing workshop I attended years ago, a professor grilled another student about a field she had recently driven by. What emotion did the field evoke in you? Older than me and not a close friend, the student was a woman I admired. A single mother, she was simultaneously brassy, insecure, funny.
The professor kept asking questions: Any moon or starlight? Rock piles? Did a river or trees border any edge?
The woman paused and finally said one word: sad. The emptiness of the harrowed up field evoked a sense of waste. The conversation might have ended there, but the professor pushed a little further, probing, and the woman said she thought the sorrowful emptiness was just one long snapshot of the field’s story.
That evening, we were not in our usual seminar room, clumped awkwardly instead in a half circle of chairs with writing desks attached. The overhead fluorescent lights made the windowless room uglier than it needed to be.
Every now and then, I find myself wondering what happened to this woman, and which way her story bent.
In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. Not only what they had for breakfast this morning, but what they wanted to have for breakfast.
– Colum McCann