I’ve just returned from my second week-long residency in Santa Fe for my MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I attended a wealth of craft talks and readings and am full up with the insights and good cheer brimming forth from the faculty. This coming semester, I will be working with Chip Livingston as I develop and expand a memoir. His kindness, expertise, and wisdom on the other end of my writing will most likely yield excellent material, so I thought I’d share a few tidbits from his craft talk, “How Writers’ Habits and Characters’ Habits Enhance Productivity and Dimensionality.”
The rich list of rituals that Chip shared opened up windows on how I might consider and render characters, both in fiction and nonfiction. In particular, sobriety and coming to the table rituals (my husband and I have different expectations about how our family should come to the table when a meal is ready—the insight I gained from Chip’s talk might turn into an essay about these differences).
Breaking ritual can be a way to show the growth of a character and when the character encounters the ritual again, it can be a re-unification with the past. These elements: rules, food, power, and place were an excellent way to consider character, and Chip suggested that ritual is the fifth dimension, the means to move from one social position to another. In my developing memoir, education is a key piece, so graduation ceremonies hold a special significance that I can more directly work with as a result of this discussion.
Another fantastic point offered writers a craft move when working with a cast of many characters; ritual might be the way to differentiate them. We see what is important to characters by their rituals, their eccentricities, and showing character in a given ritual might be a deft means to open a story. For example, a narrative that opens with a person in fervent prayer immediately establishes character.
I am assigning myself the suggested task of watching the first minutes of twenty films to see how backstory is immediately established. I relish this very specific suggestion to improve my ability to understand how ritual can effectively create a full sense of character.
Finally, Chip’s discussion of writers and their rituals married the point that ritual is essential for understanding character as well as establishing one’s relationship to the writing process. Chip shared the story of a writer who wrote in the nude—he couldn’t leave his writing studio until he had finished a project. Without clothes, he was forced to remain in the writing space. This example powerfully demonstrates how important it is to cut yourself from your distractions after identifying them. Rituals as access to another worlds is a rich entry point for understanding character—and is a powerful insight for the access writers desire and require when creating worlds.