by Annette Januzzi Wick
I’d known Julianna for a long time since my father passed away. Her presence in my life kept me up late nights, early mornings, so I asked her to meet me. I couldn’t shake the sense she had wisdom to impart.
Julianna was the protagonist in my novel about a young woman who lives in Mississippi, separated by miles and mindset from aging parents in Ohio. When her father dies, she finds her mother’s handwriting on old Frank Sinatra song sheets and sets off to uncover the secrets of an estranged mother who is obsessed with Sinatra lyrics but forgetful of her past.
The novel was based on my life experiences with my mother and a series of blog posts I wrote.
The work had a title, though it changed three times. The story was complete with the requisite details, descriptions, and plot. The book contained all the elements that create the hodge-podge we call fiction.
For the past month, a writing sister, Tina, and I had been swapping manuscripts, trading places with each other’s characters. After exchanging chapters each week, we met again in the back of a dusky bookshop and offered developmental feedback and insights on each other’s work.
When I read my opening chapter to my partner, I sensed a lack of oomph or as the Japanese call it, umami, that deep, intense taste, the presence of something to make my work stand out.
“Have you done much writing about your characters?” Tina asked.
I had. Plenty. I had diligently filled in the character description handout, deciding on the character’s religion, exercise level, the color of hair. And, I had written an entire novel about said character.
But in Tina’s question, I understood the problem. Julianna was still a stranger to the reader because I had written about my character—as me. I was having difficulty separating from myself. Sounded like a Freudian analysis, right?
After Tina left the bookstore, I slouched back and poked around on the Internet for ideas about livening up my character and discovered an interesting practice.
According to litreactor.com, The University of Iowa recommends: Choose a character from a story you have written or are in the process of writing, then write a scene or multiple scenes in which that character interacts with you. This isn’t just for the benefit of the character, but also the author. It’s a way for the writer to detach from a character… finding out how much you share, and where they differ from their creator. What does your character think of you?
Disillusioned but not giving up, I slid my laptop toward the table’s edge. I needed a drink of not coffee so started to write. “A writer and a narrator walk into the bar.” Two hours passed as I returned to the document to edit, incorporate details, create more of an arc, and add quotation marks.
“What are you drinking?” I ask Julianna, breathless from marching the two miles from home and treading across the swaying old, bridge to meet in this dank, cramped space.
Julianna is already seated at the bar. She fluffs her close-cropped onyx hair and licks her plump lips. “I’ll have the berry wine cooler,” she says to the noontime bartender.
As I’m sitting down, I swing my head toward her, my errant curls following, and raise an eyebrow. “What? No one still stocks wine coolers do they?”
Julianna ignores the comment and digs into a large canvas tote. “I still drink them. Did in college. On a budget. Um, I haven’t gone to the bank machine.” She opens her tote wide enough for me to peek inside.
The exercise forced me to see my character as a whole, as someone seated at the bar.
I took note of Julianna’s drinking habits and the exact nature of the cut of her hair. She wore grey. She didn’t see herself as a mirror image of her mother but that was one of the main threads running throughout the story.
I came to a deeper understanding of my character’s motivations. I had unleashed Julianna (after half a wine cooler) and she had free reign to prance across my page and squash any last inhibitions I, the writer, had about making her do or not do certain things.
I also absorbed a few things about relationships. What kind of relationship did Julianna have with her father? How was that different from mine? Here was Julianna’s response:
“My dad was a hard person to read. Wished I had an operation manual for him. For Mom too. But he worked in machines all his life. Wanted everything run smoothly like a machine. But my relationship with my mother was a like a cog in his wheels. He talked about family, but he didn’t understand family the way he understood machines. So our connection was not really real, just a perceived one where because our personalities were alike, everyone thought we had this bond, as long as it was greased it was great. If it wasn’t oiled by his interjection, then nothing ran well.”
In the end, writers and characters eventually overlapped in some twist on the Venn-diagram. They were both human, in a way. There were only so many human traits that existed in the world and therefore, they could not completely separate from each other.
The conversation in the bar ended with Julianna leaving, imparting the wisdom I, the writer, had been seeking.
“I think I’m done here.”
Tapping my toes on the footrest beneath the counter, I point out the obvious. “Wait, you still have a few swigs of your wine cooler left.” I don’t want this new but familiar person in my life to leave. We belong together. I want to touch her cheek and tell her she is forgiven. So I stall and curl a finger around the cooler bottle. “Look the line is still at label level on your bottle.”
Julianna swings her long legs, clad in gray jeans, off the barstool. “Haven’t you been listening to anything I said? I told you, I never finish anything.”
As I continued with manuscript edits, I clearly saw Julianna for who she was—and felt closer to her than ever before.
Annette Januzzi Wick writes on how she “treads a measure” with her mother’s dementia and is at work on a novel about the influence of Frank Sinatra’s music on an old woman’s dementia. She is also a teacher for www.womenwriting.org and is passionate about workshops on story-centered care.