SxS: Want Character? Look Around

It’s one thing to delight in moves on the page performed by a writer whose work you’ve pulled from your bookshelf. You never met the writer, but the book has been within reach, likely for years, because you know that inside it, among other things, are moments that please you, that keep pleasing you, and that reacquaint you with admiration for this art. But that’s a distant delight compared with what comes from the more magical event of holding pages from a young student of yours and seeing on them a degree of skill and vision that not only exceeds your teacherly hopes but that has you thinking you’d better make some room on your bookshelf. 

For instance, this memorable passage from the point of view of a character named Sister Columbine, and from the capacious imagination of a past writing student of mine, Kaiyuh Cornberg:

Some of the angels painted on the church ceiling wear their robes off the shoulder, and naturally none of them wear winter clothes. In the summertime, when I gaze up at them, they look cool, even through the hot layers of rising incense. In the winter their clothes, or lack of them, bring goose bumps to my arms; they look as though they might freeze and fall off the plaster. In the dark of the night mass, the candles’ arrangement casts shadows across the ceiling so that some angels, at the dome’s pinnacle, are always in shadow.

This comes from a long story titled “Departures.” (I write that sentence and think: Well, aren’t we all in a long story that we might call “Departures”?) For Sister Columbine, who is one of the younger nuns in a far-north convent, impressionable and very observant of her fellow habit-wearers and their habits, the question of whether to stay or to go never goes. There’s plenty more to the narrative, of course, but that’s enough context. I hear Flannery O’Connor: “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” (“Writing Short Stories”)

Go back to the excerpt and maybe you can sense the emotional undercurrent to Sister Columbine’s observations. See how she sees, both concretely and in her imagination — and note that the seeing she does in the church is not with bowed head but with curious upward gaze. See the painted angels with their robes “off the shoulder.” (Elsewhere in the story we learn that Sister Columbine loves to be the one to place the food orders for the convent because to do so she must use the one telephone, and “[t]he vent on the floor under the phone box hisses the hottest air in the entire convent.” She admits to us: “I hold one foot over the vent to let the warmth blow up my skirt.”) See the cold and possibly falling angels in her mind. And see, ultimately, that the highest angels remain unseeable.

"Place … has the most delicate control over character," I now hear Eudora Welty remind us. "[B]y confining character, it defines it." ("Place in Fiction")

Before our departure from this excerpt, let’s also note how simple the framework is. The writer sees the angels on the ceiling in different seasons and at different times of the day — during summer, during winter, during the night mass. But that’s not right: Sister Columbine sees the angels in the different seasons and the different lights, and that makes all the difference. That’s empathic imagination at work, and it’s really not so simple.

But these are sentences from a young writer who knows that imagining another’s experience, specifically, is a kind of play. And who also knows that seeing is believing, is where it all starts and ends. Let’s give Flannery the last word: “For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” (“Writing Short Stories”)