And yet again, I’ve taken off on another bonehead adventure. For reasons that escape me now, I decided substitute teaching was a good idea, a nifty way of earning some money while having fun. I have never done anything more draining. After each assignment, it’s taken me days of staring at the ceiling with drool rolling from the corner of my mouth to recover, and even longer assimilating what the hell happened and how it applies to my writing. Always with the writing. There is nothing happening in a writers life that cannot be culled for value in their writing toolbox. As a substitute teacher, I learned oodles about character construction.
First off, children in the age group I’ve worked with (that would be 12-18 year-old humanoids) find great pleasure in giving substitutes nicknames. The first I was given was Miss Rainbow (bless their hearts). That was confusing until I reached down to adjust my bra and felt the vinyl rainbow ironed across the front of my T-shirt. It’s the second nickname that still baffles me: Miss Barbie.
Me? Barbie? Were all these children in need of vision repair? I really didn’t care. I just wanted class to be over so I could run to a full-length mirror and look at my marvelous self through the eyes of their distorted perception. Once I had locked myself away in a bathroom with a mirror and oggled myself, I couldn’t find Barbie anywhere in the reflection, at least not while in a state of unaltered consciousness, which is a basic requirement for substitute teaching. But, again, I didn’t care. If they saw me as Barbie, then that’s who I was, and damn the mirror for telling me lies. I walked taller the rest of the day and put some sass in my step.
I don’t particularly like Barbie dolls and the unrealistic expectations they shove down the budding awareness of young girls, but it was amazing how quickly my disdain for Barbie and the abuse her creators kick the throats of young women disappeared when I thought I might measure up to that totally screwed up feminine image of perfection, especially when I was feeling vulnerable, old, and rotund.
Writing Lesson #1: Real characters mirror real people, and real people have strong emotional attachments to ideals about which they believe they hold strong oppositional opinions. Arf! Let’s take another run at the thought behind that pretzel of a sentence, shall we? Here goes: We’re not who we think we are. We have secret fantasies we deny. We’re vulnerable to wants and needs we know are irrational and harmful. Within our conscious life runs an unconscious life at odds with our values.
I will never again construct a character without first writing the story behind their back-story. I’ll always look him or her in the eye to find secrets they hide from themselves, deny to others, and their vulnerabilities disguised as crusading opinions. Every character will have a moment when they’re thrown off balance by their own actions and reactions. There will be a sleeping seed inside each character that will be known to only me and their unconscious. Every character I write will have a broken heart.
Miss Barbie was often simply called Coach. I was late to the substitute party and ended up with jobs other subs didn’t want. We’re not allowed to call P.E. P.E. in this state, but if it looks like P.E. and smells like P.E., that’s what it is, and that’s what I “taught.” In these classes I had more opportunity of hanging out with the kids. I loved it, even if the conversation was less than stimulating.
“Yes, I am.”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
There were quite a few encounters with kids like this, not all of them centering on hair color, but all of them on small things. Idle conversations. I had no problem with this, but I did wonder what the purpose was. They seemed more like passing thoughts spoken out loud. It took a few weeks for their meaning to become clear.
This is a small town with a huge school system and an even larger reputation for being the best. Families move here from neighboring states, just to get their kids into our schools. We’re that good and that big. At the high school, there’s a good country mile between the Performing Arts Center and the last of the athletic fields. But as big as these schools are, the school population is relatively small, and the community very tight. Everyone knows everyone, and I often had the same students on different days in different classes.
Within a couple of weeks, I had kids barreling at me with open arms for a hug, or jumping up and down to be seen as they waved to get my attention in a crowded hallway. What got to me most was the number of kids who would come up to me in class or the hallway, usually with fists bunched and held to their chest, as they asked, “Remember me?” Even if they looked like strangers in a strange land, I always said yes, I remembered them–it hit a soft spot in my soul seeing their eyes catch fire and their faces pull into big, goofy smiles when they were told they were remembered.
Writing Lesson #2: Not everyone wants to change the world, but everyone wants validation of their existence. I know, I know, we’re hardwired to connect with other human beings, and the buzz phrase of the decade is “social networking,” but this is connection with strangers, with people who serve no purpose, with people in authority (at least they think a sub has authority), with people higher up the food chain, connecting with people we expect to never see again. We aren’t hardwired to connect in meaningful ways, we need others to confirm our existence.
In every character I construct, they’ll be seeking connection with every other character they come across in the world I create, as well as the reader. If they’re not seeking connection with other make-believe characters–every single one of them in one way or another–they won’t connect with the reader. They won’t be fully developed. They won’t be recognized.
As Miss Barbie, I had an assignment where a video was to be shown the kids class after class after class. I got so sick of that same video I was ready to run screaming down the hallway in hopes of being wrapped in a straight jacket and hauled off the premises. It seemed my only means of escape. Near the end of the day, a small group of boys at the back of the class would not settle down and stop tossing around a foam rubber football. About that time I’d had it, so I went to their little group and grabbed the ball away from them. That prompted the typical rolling of eyes, until I started turning the ball around in my hands and asked, “How do you throw one of these things? I’ve never gotten the hang of it.” Their surprise was comical, then they got serious about teaching me how to rest my fingers on the laces and let the ball roll out of my hand as I threw it. We tossed it back and forth a few times as I asked more questions about technique and they gave me props for doing it right. All of this was done in a much more quiet tone than when they were messing around against the rules, and when I was satisfied with my technique, they surrendered the ball and watched the video in silence.
Writing Lesson #3: We’ve all had the experience of characters saying things we didn’t intend them to say, or ending up writing a different book than the one we started out writing. And we all know readers want their expectations shattered by clever plot twists. But what happens when we break the rules, go out of our minds as creatives and run with whatever falls from our fingers into the story? One of the big elements of NaNoWriMo is word sprints, writing as fast as you can for a set amount of time and competing with others for the highest amount of words dumped within the time limit. I don’t like it and think it’s counter-intuitive to the creative struggle. I found out I was wrong about that. One of my FB friends works with the producer of several smash hits on TV, and she uses word sprints with her writing teams all the time and has since long before NaNo. There are happy accidents that occur while breaking the rules and letting things roll without thought. Most of it is crap, but as the old saying goes, there’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere. And there is. You’ve just got to be alert enough to recognize it.
I have always broken the rules, but now I think I’ll slow down a bit and have some fun with my characters, surprise them, toss a ball with them and see how they react. I’ll take them outside the story they live in and get to know them in a different setting. Especially the villains. I’ll have lunch with them and tell them my woes, ask for their help, make them feel important and of value. I wonder how they’ll change? I wonder if they’ll settle down and attentively watch the video. Instead of constructing characters that are round or deep or fully developed, I’m going to approach them with more curiosity. If I can’t look at them as real people and study them as real people with a life of their own, how can I make them live in the minds of the reader? How will they crawl out of the pages of the book when the story ends and the book is closed?
Now I’m done with my lessons learned from the insanity of substitute teaching. I’ve further defined myself by testing an option and finding it doesn’t appeal to me, doesn’t fit with my temperament. But I’m not done testing the options or running off and doing boneheaded things. It’s too much fun, and there’s too much to be learned in each adventure.
From my time spent as Miss Barbie, the most valuable thing I’ll take away is the understanding that people want to be remembered, be seen and acknowledged. This will help me in developing characters, but more important, it’s a lesson I’ll carry over into networking and marketing. That may be the place where this lesson is most sorely missing.