When last I posted, some fifty days ago, it was to comment on and share a discussion from Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks about strong female characters. The presenter of this discussion quite hit the nail on the head with regard to what makes a strong character strong, no matter that character’s gender, while also tackling the issue of the often misdefined strong female character. When a piece of popular fiction does showcase a strong female, she often appears in the guise of Warrior Woman—a hero fighter typically stripped of the opportunity to be more than two-dimensional. Some would argue, perhaps, that the best known of these Warrior Women are complete, and their argument would be something along these lines: Cute+Sexy+Tough=Three-Dimensional.
This is a topic that nags at me, because I am both a woman and a writer. I am a woman and a writer that enjoys complete characters, unpredictable stories, and stories with encompassing messages.
Hey, I enjoy the female form clothed in magical, modern, or medieval armor slinging deadly weapons with rage-infused precision just as much as the next guy, but what about those women whose most efficient weapons are intellect and voice? What about the women who witness or suffer injustice and deal with it on a deeply personal level without waving signs, or battle flags, or the bloodied remnants of their enemies? What about women whose spiritual and emotional strength win the ultimate prize of self-awareness?
The good news is that writers and readers are tiring of stereotypical women, and thus, stereotypical story lines. Likewise, they are tiring of a fictional woman demonstrating her strength only through physical acts of violence, or devious sexual wiles. These lessons are being learned thanks, in part, to nonfiction writers who undertake the telling of true stories. Stories about real women.
We don’t have the pleasure of encountering many books with such characters, do we? I’ve developed a theory as to why we face this dilemma, and it has less to do with a male-dominated publishing industry (or gender-based consumerism) and more to do with the difficulty of capturing genuine, multifaceted character traits in a drop of ink. Life is long; life is short. Life is both. Creatives have an incredibly short time here on Earth to develop purposeful, artistic expression with real-world application. Likewise, creatives endure an excruciatingly long time on Earth distracted and beleaguered by traditions and rules set by past artists from whom they are obligated to learn.
For the sake of identification, I will call this elusive Thing we crave the Grand Revelation. For the sake of conveying a smidgen of understanding and empathy for those creatives who have attempted to capture genuine, multifaceted character traits in a drop of ink, imagine the abounding frustrations suffered when a life’s work falls short of the Grand Revelation. While I do enjoy high fantasy and science fiction, I cannot escape the belief that all fiction is tasked with mirroring realistic characters playing out realistic scenarios, and that the progression of the story can, and should, bring us to a conclusion that carries with it a moral of sorts (either grand or small). That moral can then be translated into a real-world application, and thus, its entertainment value and cultural value is multiplied exponentially.
Am I putting too much responsibility on mere fiction? I don’t think so.
It is only recently that I developed this theory that focuses on the difficulties of expression vs a male-dominated publishing industry (or gender-based consumerism). Although my own creative frustrations include a great deal more than expression of the Grand Revelation, I still carry the need for that unnameable Thing when seeking out various forms of art. Too many times I have been left annoyed and disappointed by books and movies that bring me to the brink of almost satisfying the craving only to veer off into a subplot engineered to sate a commercially-perceived notion of what a paying audience desires.
Half-way through Beth Kephart’s Small Damages, I realized a personal truth—I had long since stopped hunting the Grand Revelation, and had become accustomed to cheap, quick thrills. Perhaps, that’s what most of us have done. Fortunately, Beth plunged forward into my unconsciously assigned resignation with lyrical prose and uncanny insight. Beth rescued me. She read to me in the sweet, fragile voice of an intelligent young girl who begins her story emotionally wounded by the loss of her father, the cold betrayal of her mother, and the responsibility of carrying a child that she alone considers hers.
This grief-stricken teenager is left with a mother that has hardened herself against grief, hardened herself against failure, and thus, hardened herself against the irresponsible actions of her daughter. Kenzie, the child who should be embarking on a promising film school career, Kenzie who has a promising Yale-bound boyfriend that her besties adore, Kenzie the apple of her father’s eye fails her mother. She threatens with the sin of social embarrassment and is unceremoniously pushed into hiding in Spain where a vaguely remembered friend of a friend will house and feed her until the “mistake” can be adopted by wealthy, never-before-mentioned friends of friends. Meanwhile, Kenzie’s mother will spread the word that her ambitious daughter has opted for culinary studies abroad rather than a bourgeois high school graduation.
While the mother’s actions seemed quite appalling and improbable to me, I wasn’t abandoned to wrestle over the absolute coldness of this premise because Kenzie’s voice struggled on past it into the heat and glaring light of a Spanish countryside. Her voice records the sights and sounds and movements of her briskly appointed caretakers with poetic grace that deftly illustrates how dumbfounded with the pain of betrayal she is. Grief lingers while she suffers the daily onslaught of her new caretakers’ expectations.
Beth Kephart tells a story that lacks the blood and gore torn from those who betray her protagonist. There are no swords or high-powered rifles, only kitchen knives wielded skillfully against the skins of fresh fruits and peppers. There is music, and unexpected kinship, and sun dried maternity dresses, and romantic, lonely skies. There is history, and very intimate horrors softened only by seasonal rains and the aged bosom of a good cook. There is a letter that contains twenty-one stingy words. And there is a boy with deep dark eyes, a pair of birds and a barebacked horse.
Where is the Grand Revelation? The beauty of Kephart’s work is that its moral is never lined up in a tidy sentence. The Revelation is sprinkled in the colors and scents of those fresh fruits and peppers, the romantic, lonely skies, in the soft rains and aged bosom of a good cook, and in the deep dark eyes of the boy with a pair of birds and a barebacked horse.
Unlike her mother, Kenzie doesn’t harden. She blossoms. She opens herself to pain and beauty, grief and celebration. Kenzie allows herself to feel, and gives herself the gift of choosing. She accepts that all important lesson often refused when the universe foists it upon us—the lesson that strength rests in vulnerability.
I picked up Small Damages after reading two chapters of Kephart’s memoir text Handling the Truth. In the first chapter Kephart’s voice comes through with profound clarity as she approaches teaching memoir with utterly bemused exhilaration. She is, even now, surprised by her success as a writer. It is that surprise, that wistful joy of doing something she loves, that reminds her that she has stumbled upon her true calling. By the second chapter it becomes clear that, unlike many writers who dare take on the task of explaining their writing, Kephart embraces both the skills honed by other writers as well as the inexplicable qualities of Inspiration. Likewise, she touches on the necessity of opening up and listening for Inspiration.
Kephart proves her knowledge of the writing craft in both her memoir text and the incredibly deft, lyrical prose of Small Damages. It is in the latter chapters of Handling the Truth that she reveals the secret behind her storytelling talents: Staying vulnerable.
From Beth Kephart’s profound memoirist insights, as well as from examining other writing, other opinions, and memories of favorite characters (real and fictional) that I carry in my wide writer’s heart, I have learned that without vulnerability true strength is impossible to achieve, or depict. I now enjoy the emerging understanding that successful fiction cannot pour from even the most educated, eager omniscient pen. Such might create entertaining stories, but an expansive view is likely to miss the more intimate dialogue and gestures that camouflage true revelation. Step in. Listen intently. Open up. Tell the story as if you were poised in the midst of it all.