Rummaging through my mother’s box of papers recently, I found a missive entitled “Why I Haven’t Written Anything in the Last Month,” a cleverly written excuse to her writing group explaining why she’d not produced any pages for the past few weeks. Quirky and diverting, it is vintage Mary Ann. She references John Steinbeck, Aristotle, Seneca, and Anne Lamott as if they were old friends.
Her writing group was not fooled, however, and she was summarily marched back to her typewriter and told to get on with it. Luckily for readers everywhere, she did get on with it, and together with my cousin Annie Barrows, they published the much-beloved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Why I Haven’t Written Anything in the Last Month
By Mary Ann Shaffer
John Steinbeck kept a diary while he was writing East of Eden. Apparently, the story gave him lots of trouble, and he came close to hanging himself twice. Then, after the book came out and was such a tremendous success, he published his diary—two books for the price of one.
If he can do that, why can’t I? Other than a slight disparity in name recognition, I don’t see why I can’t do the same. He had an unfair leg up, too; he had real live people to model two of his characters on: Cain and Abel. Not to mention their Father, who was God Himself, on moral matters in Salinas. But there, I don’t want to whine.
I have started a diary on why I have written only two piddley pages since we last met. I will paraphrase it, to save myself acute pain.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
If you will recall, I had a “set-up” for a story I liked, a group of unlikely friends who are thrown together because of the exigency of living under the German Occupation during World War II. Not a plot, but a stance to start working from.
What I do not have are a handful of characters I can like. After all, a book’s characters are supposed to be enduring or endearing (save for the vile ones any story needs). After hours of cogitation there is not a one of them I have any desire to spend time with. Up to now, they are all wrong, and I don’t know how to make them right.
It is not that I haven’t tried. I have, but no one appealing comes. I’ve filled pages with possible people I’ve conjured up. I’ve given them different names, forms, faces, foibles, work they are engaged in. I can see them in my mind’s eye. I can see them with one another under the trying circumstances I’ve devised for them. But what I cannot do is enter their minds and hear them speak. There they stand: bored, boring, and mute. Furthermore, they don’t like me any more than I like them.
We are at an impasse, which leads to my next problem, a plot for them to act in. It is time to move from “set-up” to business.
Plot possibilities are not a problem; I have five. Unfortunately, that means I do not care for one over another. Each plot denouement depends upon the character of the actors, so it is a matter of which comes first, the people or the plot. I am getting nowhere with them in tandem.
Since this is to be a book of letters, I have written imaginary letters from five of the characters. They all sound exactly alike. I only know how to do characters who are not altogether rational, and I am truly stumped on how to come up with even one who is not slightly off-key. I can’t think of anything more tedious than five off-key people.
This failure of imagination, of course, leads to intense questioning of one’s own life—and that always makes me sick to my stomach. Aristotle, or someone of that ilk, said the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, I have news for Aristotle. The examined life, ad nauseam, is not worth living. What with one thing leading to another, self-examination could go on for days—or years—and I do not find myself that fascinating.
Of course I have many friends who are not eccentric, but I honestly don’t have a clue as to their thought processes. I need someone to talk to me about character development. They should take me by the hand and say, “Thus, Mary Ann, we can go from B to C. Now, on to D.” My mind goes from A to R, and then throws in a P. That’s as close as I can come to my own thought processes, and that is not likely to help me structure my book. I have to face the fact that I do not have the imagination necessary to create diverse people. A bitter pill, but true.
Writing-as-teachable-craft gurus say that latent writers are supposed to slink around with little notebooks, culling bon mots from eavesdropping. Then you take them home and file them against the day you can use them. What a hope!
I tried another guru hint—the subconscious. It appears we ignore IT, and IT would speak to us if we but listen. Again, keep a little notebook close at hand. Get in your pjs, sit on the edge of the bed, and have a word with IT. In the most specific terms tell IT your problem, ask IT for help, then go to sleep and let IT do ITs work. You must be ready to rise, write it down, and flop back on your pillow.
I had two difficulties with this; first, I have not been sleeping well for worrying what to do about my book, and second, the one time I spoke audibly and succinctly to IT, here’s what I read the next morning: “Kill Mr. Mercen’s dog. Kill Mr. Mercen.” Clearly, I had better not start listening to my subconscious.
But I do have all the facts I need on the German Occupation. I have re-read in the last month five factual histories of the war in Guernsey, one photographic book, four memoirs by islanders who lived under the Occupation, and several books about people who were sentenced to prison in Germany as political prisoners. One had kept a hidden wireless, and the other was a woman who’d worn her son’s RAF pin in public. You can see what “treason” consisted of in the Nazi view. My books are full of things, tiny and large, that happened from June 1940 until May 1945. The material for a book is there.
Annie Lamott said the thing you need most for each character is something for them to care passionately about. By 1943 all Guernseymen cared about one thing and one thing only: food and how to find it. Guernsey was seven square miles, so they couldn’t produce much, and 90% of what they did produce was commandeered by the German garrison. Supplies from France, 20 miles across the English Channel, were scarce, and mostly sold on the black market. Supplies stopped altogether after D-Day, and the Germans starved along with everyone else. Here is Dr. Lewis’s sample menu from 1943 (before things got really bad). Breakfast: oatmeal made into porridge with water and eaten with his daily ration of ½ pint of skim milk. No sugar. Lunch: a heap of parboiled potatoes, scorched in a dry pan—no fat—eaten cold with a slice of Occupation bread (when there was flour) and a thin scrape of butter. Supper was an egg, if available, more scorched potatoes, and sometimes a gruel of minced wheat with sugar beet syrup for flavor.
No salt, no tea, no coffee. Or if there was, it was made from ground-up nettles, beets, or acorns. There was no heat save firewood, no light after dark, except a ration of one candle a week—and later it became one candle a month. So everyone’s time, energy, and thought was on one thing: how to scrape together some nourishment. Everything else went by the wayside because they were too weak to think of much else—and the war had two more years to go. So I think each character’s abiding passion was how to get something to eat.
This where I stand with plot and characters for the Seneca Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
I got quite cheerful last Friday when two things occurred to me—I am leaving next weekend to go to Monterey for four days (surely my mind will start kicking over by the seaside) and I may not have developed any living characters, but if there is one person I know everything about, it is Seneca, dear old Seneca.
I picked up a book of his letters, and the page fell open at this. “You say you are going on a short sea voyage to think matters over. My dear Lucullus, you don’t need a change of scene, you need a change of character.”
Well, here’s a man of pith, humor, and no tact. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be his penpal. However, he may be just the person my characters might like to read while they are in bondage. Think about this.
Author Photo: Brook McCormick