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What I Learned at the Beach this Summer

cesme-sunset

Every August, my wife and I travel to Turkey and stay at a vacation house her parents own near the bayside city of Çeşme [1].

In addition to the expected pleasures of visiting family, sunning, swimming, watching the remarkable sunsets, and eating great food—boyos (think of a dense, biscuit-sized croissant), gevreks (the bagel’s leaner cousin), sucuk (spicy sausage, usually eaten in a sandwich with a pigeon-shaped roll called a kumru), kofta (Turkish meatballs), lokma (Turkish donuts), stuffed mussels, fresh sardines, and the most amazing figs, olives, melons, and peaches known to mankind—beyond all of that, the one great joy both Mette and I look forward to in Çeşme is one I think most Unboxers can appreciate.

Reading.

Specifically: beach reading.

The picture below represents the books Mette managed to devour while sunning herself on the warm white sand. (She’s the kind of reader every writer dreams of.)

mette-vacation-reading

My haul was significantly less impressive, but what I lacked in numbers I tried to make up for in heft (he says heftily).

Basically, beyond a series of articles on political theory and histories of the Apache and Afghan wars (they’re strangely similar), I principally focused on one book—Jungian psychiatrist James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling—and a lecture series from the Teaching Company titled The Modern Intellectual Tradition: Descartes to Derrida.

Now wait, wait—before you doze off—I will admit my approach to beach reading may seem a bit stodgy, but both the book and the lectures made a significant impact on my understanding of character and characterization.

Allow me to explain.

James Hillman has long been a favorite of mine, ever since I learned of him from novelist Jim Harrison, who referred to him as “our modern mage.”

When many people reflect on Jung’s impact on literature they tend to think of Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, but for my money Hillman deserves equal billing, for two main reasons: one, he’s a practicing therapist and, two, he’s a wonderful prose stylist.

His premise for The Soul’s Code, in which he claimed to want to “set psychology back two hundred years,” is that we need to return to a more imaginative, creative, and less statistical or diagnostic understanding of human nature.

[W]e need to return to a more imaginative, creative, and less statistical or diagnostic understanding of human nature.

Specifically, he sought to reintroduce and examine the concept of the soul, or the individual destiny, the ineffable thing that gives our lives purpose, direction, and meaning.

His metaphor for the soul is the acorn, the humble kernel that possesses in its nature the blueprint for the stately oak it will become.

He also believes that the individual first perceives the soul via a “unique image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.”

This image or daimon is more than a conscience, because it doesn’t merely concern what is moral or immoral in our behavior. It concerns what honors or betrays our individual essence, our calling.

He gives some wonderful examples of how this unique image served to guide a number of gifted individuals, from Judy Garland and Josephine Baker to Eleanor Roosevelt, Field Marshall Edwin Rommel, Nobel laureate Elias Canetti—and, in a darker vein, Adolph Hitler.

(For my own part, I have for many years recognized as central to my own sense of self an image I had in a dream as a young man. I saw myself as a monk dwelling in a cave on the side of a cliff, who opens his robe to reveal an exposed heart—much like images of the Sacred Heart I saw in my Catholic childhood. The takeaway, as I perceived it: as a writer, my life would often be relentlessly solitary, but if I placed faith in my heart it would assuage my loneliness and guide me toward truth.)

Of the many intriguing and provocative ideas presented in Hillman’s book, two in particular stood out for me, because they seemed so clearly applicable to characterization.

Of the many intriguing and provocative ideas presented in Hillman’s book, two in particular stood out for me, because they seemed so clearly applicable to characterization.

The first was the connection of the soul to motivation. Again, using his acorn metaphor, Hillman considers motivation “the call of the oak.”

In human terms, this means our daimon, our soul, calls to us in such a way we feel driven to respond. Whether we understand it as our destiny or fate or not, we feel compelled to act in accordance with the urgency this higher, better, more complete self demands. It gives our life its purpose.

This resonates with what I have referred to, in discussing character, as the Yearning. (I addressed this in a WU post from two years ago titled The Tyranny of Motive [2].)

Simply put, a character’s Yearning is the kind of person he wants to be, the way of life he wants to live. A character who gives up on his Yearning has fundamentally betrayed his life, and it is in recognizing and gaining a deeper awareness of his Yearning, through the conflict in the story, that the character finds the will to continue, despite the harrowing, life-altering costs.

Hillman’s discussion of the soul—which, as a recovering Catholic aka agnostic aka part-time lousy Buddhist, I find a little ooga-booga—made me understand, despite my skeptical misgivings, that the Yearning reached deeper into a character’s being than even I had realized.

And that led me to the second great idea of the book—the fact that, without this sense of calling, our psychology gets reduced to what has happened to us—the effect of parental influence, genetic disposition, the vagaries of luck, and so on.

That means we’re fundamentally mere victims, products of experience rather than active agents shaping our lives. And there’s no source of impetus or motivation to shape our lives absent some deep sense of what we expect from ourselves and want from our existence.

Extending the lesson to characters: protagonists who are mere victims of circumstance, lacking a profound sense of agency, create listless stories.

Now, maybe those great expectations we have for ourselves arise not from some daimon or soul but from the example of those in our lives who inspire us, demand something more of us, nurture our ambitions and hopes.

And yet it is hard to escape the suspicion that those inspiring examples speak to something already present in our character. I respond to teachers I have admired because they saw something special in me, and refused to let me live down to something inferior.

Moving on to my other source of summer inspiration, as I said, it was a series of lectures on modern philosophy.

And from a character standpoint, the one philosopher whose ideas resonated most with the notions of destiny, motivation, and soul discussed above was, curiously enough, the avowed atheist (and Nazi—sigh…), Martin Heidegger.

I know, the Nazi thing is a little hard to get past, like the fascist leanings of Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw. I try to remember, though, that Heidegger had a profound influence on Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, all of whom fought in the Resistance against the Nazis.

So maybe it’s not the philosophy that’s to blame. (Heidegger redeemed himself, at least somewhat, in his post-war writing.)

Anyhoo…

The elements of Heidegger’s thought that struck me as clearly related to characterization were his concepts of Concern, Authenticity, and Existential Guilt.

Heidegger believed that to be in the world meant to be concerned with it. The individual cannot help but feel this concern without turning away from the truth of his existence.

This too speaks to the Yearning, that inescapable hunger to pursue a more rewarding way of life, more in tune with the truth and dignity we crave. That better self, that nobler life, will never happen absent a profound concern with the world and our place in it.

That better self, that nobler life, will never happen absent a profound concern with the world and our place in it.

Authenticity is the aspect of being that connects one’s actions with his understanding of his own mortality, the inescapability of death. To deny this fundamental fact of our lives—we die—or to act in a way that trivializes or negates it, is to be inauthentic. Life matters because it ends.

That doesn’t mean we can’t crack jokes. Just make sure they’re funny.

In terms of characterization, authenticity is a measure of the character’s own awareness of the stakes. Just as the Yearning awakens the character to who he wishes to be, how he hopes to live, his authenticity measures that hope and desire against the reality of death. If not now, when? The clock is ticking.

The sense of being finite and limited also awakens us to everything we are not. And this sense of lack creates an anxiety-tinged guilt, the awareness that something always remains undone, unaccomplished, unfulfilled.

This inescapable recognition that we can be more than we are resonates with my concept of Lack, which I also addressed in The Tyranny of Motive [2].

In a sense, Lack is the flip side of Yearning. Because of the nagging awareness that my life is incomplete, I suffer a deep-seated need to fill up that emptiness, become more like the man I expect to be, do more of what I inwardly demand of myself, strive more actively to live the life I hope for, long for, dream of.

Because of the nagging awareness that my life is incomplete, I suffer a deep-seated need … to live the life I hope for, long for, dream of.

In summation (he said summarily), my beach reading gave me a more profound understanding of concepts I’d been using in my own writing as well as my teaching.

These concepts support both religious and non-religious interpretations—you can find them in various forms in Plato, Aristotle, Christianity, Buddhism, Freud—and, of course, Carl Jung and Martin Heidegger.

Recognizing that made me realize once again that this fiction biz is more than just “making stuff up.”

We can’t escape fundamental human truths in crafting memorable characters—even if that realization comes to us while we’re working on our tan.

Does the notion of a soul, a destiny, or a daimon figure in your characters?

If not, what gives your characters the deep-seated motivation that compels them to rise above the slog of the story, continue pursuing their goal even as the conflict intensifies to the point any reasonable person would give up? Where does that deep need, that drive come from?

And do comic characters need this kind of heavy lifting? Does Wile E. Coyote have a soul?

Today is Mette’s and my wedding anniversary, so as of about 5:00 PM Pacific Time I will be leaving my desk to celebrate my life with the most amazing person I know. If you submit a comment after that time, I promise to respond tomorrow. Thanks for understanding.

About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.