I’ve been reading a lot of personal essays recently for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s yearly conference competition. All the essays have different strengths, but in this particular batch I noticed one fairly consistent weakness: the characters in these short, memoir stories were not clearly defined because the authors did not show them disagreeing about anything. It wasn’t until reading so many examples of husbands and wives and sons and daughters happily getting along that I fully appreciated how critical disagreement is to help the reader understand who the characters are.
I think this reality can be uniquely challenging for the memoirist and personal essayist. Often, our stories include our close friends, relatives, and loved ones. It’s possible we like all these people and don’t want to hurt them, offend them, or, probably more likely, reveal what we actually feel about them leaving their dirty underwear in the bathroom or talking to us during our favorite show. Stories are nice, but there must be peace in the kingdom.
I certainly want peace in my kingdom. In fact, everyone wants peace in their kingdom. Peace is all anyone wants, really, even those people fighting all the time—they just think vanquishing every single foe is the only way to get there. And therein lies the source of most disagreements: everyone’s taking a different route to the same place. I doubt in all of history that any two routes have been precisely the same.
I try to hold this in mind when I place other people in my stories. No matter how much they irritate me or I irritate them, I must remember that we always want the same thing. The moment I assume they want something wholly different than I, that they actually want to hurt, or they want to be cruel, or want to bore me, I turn them into something slightly other than human, something slightly monstrous. Now I don’t really know what they are and don’t know how to depict them honestly.
But when I remember the truth of it – that everything is being seen from different angles, from different lives led, from different ambitions and different fears, but that what everyone wants to see is a kind world, a world where they belong and are accepted and safe – when I remember, this, these acquaintances and relatives and strangers make sense to me again. And sometimes our differences, what they could see but I couldn’t, is just enough to help me complete a friendly picture of the world.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.
Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com