There are those rare occasions in a writer’s life where something wonderfully bizarre occurs.
This thing can happen swiftly. Often with great subtlety, and in these cases the occurrence might entirely escape us. But it can also happen suddenly, like a strike with the walloping force of a brass-knuckled fist to the sternum. Refusing to be ignored.
Sometimes, our characters speak. I don’t mean on the page, within the confines of quotation marks and punctuation. Sometimes, our characters speak to us.
It can be in hushed whispers, so soft we must kneel down, press our ear to the earth, and strain to hear the cadence.
It can be in lackadaisical conversation, with a casual sense of normalcy that may take us by surprise, either during or after the fact.
It can be in shouts, and in yells, and in boisterous sobs, or screams, or howls threatening to burst our eardrums and cave in our skulls.
And other times, still, it can happen with the volume muted; words supplanted by images, by emotions, by gentle caresses on the shoulder of our mind in an attempt to divert our attention to something we never planned, never outlined, never even considered until they deigned show it to us. Until they were ready to show it to us.
This is how Mitch communicated with me today. He’s the silent type, I suppose.
He pulled me aside and sat me down. He pulled out, from under his lumpy living room couch, a photo album so old he’d had to blow the dust bunnies from its cover. He parted its binding and looked at me without so much as a twitch of the lips, as if his actions spoke for him, and they did, and they said, “I’m ready to show this to you, now.”
With every page turned—each decorated with a smattering of photographs of he and his deceased daughter—there was a memory shared, a nostalgic film played, and a distinct array of feeling conveyed so precisely that I, myself, felt them, in that deep and dark and secret place of the heart, as if I were Mitch and he were me. And perhaps, I suppose, in a logical, practical sort of way, he is.
But I had never seen these memories before. I’d never seen these brief flashes of joy and grief and anger and delight shared between Mitchell and his daughter.
The time he let her, as a child, use him as a dress-up doll, face sloppily smeared in all shades of pink lipstick and blue glitter, feather boa round his neck, orange sunhat perched askew on his head as he smirked.
The time her high school beau tore her heart in more than two pieces, and he held her against his chest as she sobbed, until she cried herself to sleep and he lay there, all night, on that wildly uncomfortable twin bed of hers so as not to disturb the respite she found in dreams.
The time he woke up one June morning to find the kitchen splattered with batter, dusted with flour, and scattered with baking implements in such a display of chaos it seemed a pipe-bomb had gone off in the pantry—but really, she’d just been trying her hand at replicating his famous pancakes for his 37th birthday—and instead of getting angry, he laughed, and he helped, and they ate crooked, eggy flapjacks amongst the wreckage and still he claimed they were tastier than his own by miles.
He showed me—shared with me—memories I myself had never thought of. And when they were placed in juxtaposition with the memories I had forged for him—those tragic memories leading up to and including the moment he’d lost her—my soul ached not for him, but with him.
When the fictional speak, a part of ourselves opens, a door we didn’t realize was locked, let alone there. When the fictional speak, we better our stories, we hone our craft, and we honor our characters, who are real to us.
And most importantly of all, when the fictional speak, we must listen, because when they do, we will be forever changed by their words—even if they’re the unspoken sort.