52 Ways to Shift Your Focus

Shift #26: Complete Characters

Warning: this may be my most self-indulgent post. But, in the end, I will relate this to how we make our art. Promise.

Today is my mother’s 95th birthday. I paid her a visit this morning at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. My mother died in December of 2000. I thought about her this morning after I realized what today’s date is and noted how differently I think of her now than when I was, say, in my twenties and still in rebel mode.

I’ve come to see my mother as a complete and complicated person.

My mother is not one of my favorite people. I can say that without guilt and with clarity about why. That is not to say that she didn’t try to be a good mother to me or that there weren’t things she taught me that I value. It is because of her that I feel my daughter should know how to use tools and change a tire and speak up. That is also not to say I didn’t love her. I did. She stuck to her convictions and, whether I agreed with them or not, I respect that.

Mom was a rigid person. Stubborn. Opinionated. Harsh. She also loved coffee, listening to the radio, riding shotgun while my father drove anywhere, reading, mountains, perfume, the color gold, my father. She hated to drive, cigarette smoke (once she quit smoking), her hair, her weight. She loved crossword puzzles. Disliked dogs. Never missed Mass. Felt duty-bound to get dinner on the table every night whether it was edible or not. Never argued with a priest, but argued with everyone else. She could polarize our family over issues of religion and sex.

As I contemplate these pieces of my mother and combine them with what I know about creating characters, I realize that one of the gifts of working as a writer is the way we learn to put depth in our characters and prose. Visual artists look for depth, too, as they focus on some perhaps less-visible aspect of their subject. When I think about how to write about my mother, this skill set kicks in and I begin to pick apart who she was in a way that is different from the purity of a daughter remembering her mother. I can’t separate the fact that I am her daughter, but I can add to my vision of her as I think about what translates into decent prose.

So this shift in focus is really two-sided. One, writers and other artists can look at their family members – both dead and alive – in ways that are enhanced by the skills used to do creative work. This allows us to come to a fuller understanding of these people who helped form us, without whom we would be quite different. Two, flip that around and think about characters we create in our work and do a little role-playing. What if we were that character’s child who looks back at them years later? What would we see differently?

Happy Birthday, Mom. Bet you didn’t think you’d end up here.

Photos property of Kathleen Cassen Mickelson.


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