Creating Characters from Everyday Experience by Anna Jean Mayhew

After a trip to Wal-Mart my Swiss-born husband told me, “The man who checked me out heard my accent and asked, ‘Sprechen sie Deutsche?’ He told me that his father came over from Germany after World War II, and never learned English, so his seven children all speak German.” I began to think about someone living many years in America without speaking English, and how astonishing it was that a man with two languages—unusual in this country—would wind up clerking at Wal-Mart. What’s his story?

In my workshop at Table Rock, I’ll ask you to carry paper and pen with you at all times, and to make notes on pieces of stories you stumble on in the course of your daily life. Maybe you’re in a convenience store because you didn’t get a receipt at the gas pump. The cash register is out of paper, and while the clerk changes it, you’re compelled to wait. The clerk hollers to someone in the back of the store, “When’s Roxie getting here? I gotta go.” What is the clerk’s story? Who is Roxie, and why is he/she late? If Roxie is a man, how did he get such a feminine name? (Think of “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash) A voice from the back of the store responds, “Cool your jets.” Who is that? What has happened to make her/him grouchy?

Over the years I’ve made notes about characters I’ve stumbled on. Sometimes I use these scribbles to create a complex individual, but many of the notes are just stored on my computer, available when I need a prompt. An example: I was on my way into work and walked through a group of smokers puffing away in the bitter cold of a January morning. A man had his arms resting on a woman’s shoulders, looking her in the eyes, and I heard him tell her something as I passed by. Phonetically it sounded like, “Ah ain nuddin out chew.” I entered the building, walked down several long halls, and went up three floors on the elevator, repeating those sounds in my head. By the time I got to my office, I heard in my mind’s ear, “I ain’t nothing without you.” A sweet declaration of love. Was the couple married or had they just started dating? Was the woman a smoker, too, or was she braving the icy wind just to be with him on a coffee break? Maybe I had misinterpreted the remark, and they were a brother and sister who had recently lost their mother. What are other possibilities?

I’m going to challenge the people in my workshop to craft personalities from snippets of conversation or from seeing someone standing in line at a bus stop—any chance encounter—to create a character from found objects.

There are a few spots left in A.J. Mayhew’s workshop section at Table Rock Writers Workshop this fall. Join us September 17-21, 2012 on the Blue Ridge Parkway about an hour east of Asheville for an extraordinary experience.  See our website. Beautiful mountain views, excellent meals, noncompetitive environment of beginning and seasoned writers.

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