When the Puppet Master Becomes the Puppet

All acts of creation are labor. Really. Even though it might not look like it, creation takes a lot of energy. It drains the creator, takes something out of him or her. Even acts of creation that seem effortless – something has been taken from the creator. The laws of nature insist – you can’t make something out of nothing.

When I finished my first (published) novel, it felt like it had taken forever, but I had only actually been working on it for about four years. But they were long, hard years. I can tell you the exact date and time I typed “The End” on the last page: Tuesday, October 25, 1994, 12:22 a.m.

The elation I felt at finally putting those last two chapters together, at finally finding the direction I wanted to go and making my characters go there, at finally finishing something that had occupied my life and mind for so long, is indescribable. The only other times I felt like this was when my daughters were born. Then too were the soaring highs, the feeling of major accomplishment, of having done something so remarkable and miraculous that it could never be matched by anyone else. That’s quite a feeling to have.

And of course, soon after I finished the book, there came the shattering depression that comes from finishing a major project that has occupied your energy for so long. This is also a feeling only understood by another creator.

This project was in the making much longer than four years. I started the book when I was much, much younger, and soon discovered I wasn’t ready to write it yet. It deals with things I didn’t understand in my ‘teens and 20s – loss, grief, and remorse — emotions I hadn’t yet experienced. I had to put it aside and wait until I was a little older, a lot wiser, and much more accomplished as a writer to take on the themes I had chosen.

When I finally decided I had attained the years I needed, I looked at the idea with fresh eyes and began to outline where I would go. Like a good writer, I came up with character sketches, giving depth to the people who would be walking through my story. I researched the places they would go, the activities they would conduct, the timeline they would inhabit. I did all the things the books and courses teach you to do.

I was ready to write. And like any good writer, especially one who is an obsessive-compulsive, overachieving perfectionist with control freak tendencies, I followed my outline and fully expected my characters to follow it, too. I worked hard to make things work smoothly, to get my characters to do and act as I wished. I walked them around the set like a good puppet master, and for the most part, they obeyed my wishes and commands, and life was very, very good.

As I wrote, of course, I saw things I hadn’t planned on – little things that change as life changes – but being a good writer, I was able to incorporate them, into my overall master plan, integrate the new people my characters met, add new settings and ideas that introduced themselves to my characters. I was feeling very good about myself at this point, and my project. I was accomplishing something. I was creating!

About halfway through the book, when my main character was beginning to direct himself to the ending I planned for him (a very messy suicide by handgun on Christmas Eve – that’s the despair I didn’t know about before), I began to experience some problems. Minor things, to be sure – Jack (the impending suicide) started thinking things I didn’t put into his head. He started examining his life in ways I hadn’t told him to. His dreams and fears and regrets took on new life, became so much more than I made them. The characters Jack interacted with also became more than I had created. Jack’s past began to take on a more insidious shadow – it became real. It became so real it made him begin to see himself in a totally different light. And it gave him ideas …

Jack saw himself in a more three-dimensional way. Gone was the self-pity and blame that was supposed to lead him to his ultimate destiny (decided on by me, the writer). He started seeing the flaws in his characters – flaws I had created but kept hidden from him, because too much self-examination on Jack’s part might ruin my plans. And he began to see the other people in his story – his life – as more than one-dimensional objects who were hampering his desires. Dear God, he began seeing them as … PEOPLE.

I’ve been writing for a very long time, but this was the first time my characters took on serious lives of their own. Oh, sure, I’ve had characters suggest new aspects of themselves to me and give me ideas for new directions. But they’ve always asked me tentatively, hesitantly, whether we could try something different. My characters know I am OCOPWCFT, and until then, never had the nerve to confront me on this type of issue.

Then along came Jack. As he grew stronger in his sense of himself and where he had been, he began to re-examine where he was going. And it became obvious to everyone except me (convenient blindness, I suppose) suicide was not where he wanted to go. Or where he should go.

Suddenly, about a year into the project, when I thought we were sailing along, Jack balked. No, wait, “balk” isn’t the right word. He stopped. Dead in the water. Wouldn’t move. In any direction. Said, “No way. Uh uh. Not a chance.” And as hard I as tried to push him back into righteousness, as much as I struggled to get him to realize I was the creator, he the creation, and my word is law, he was the original immoveable object. A sword stuck in granite. Dead stick. Not going nowhere.

Enough to send a writer into despair. And I went, like any good writer thwarted in her master plan. Right into surrender. I quit. Stopped the book, said, “Okay for you, Jack.” I told myself I was waiting for him to decide where he wanted to go. Let him make the hard decisions, I told myself. See how tough it is. He’ll come running back so fast … I waited. And waited. Patiently (really) at first. Then impatiently. Finally, I threw a temper tantrum, yelling, “To hell with this. I never wanted to write this stupid thing, anyway!”

Months later, when my writer’s group started getting on me to accomplish something, I took it out again. I took a deep breath and opened myself up to Jack’s explanation. And I found Jack had taken that hiatus and grown up, become a much more interesting character. He was a person, like one of my own children (who also never listened to me). He knew where he was supposed to go, whether he wanted to or not. I was skeptical, not the least because I wasn’t sure I had the talent to take him there. But I had already invested so much in this man; I said I’d give it a try.

As I suspected, his direction was much more complicated than my original idea. It involved much more thought, emotion, and energy. It was probably one of the more difficult tasks I’ve set for myself. It involved delving into Jack’s psyche, his emotions, which should have been easy, since I gave him life. But the other characters – while I created them, Jack set their direction and made them what they were becoming. So I was meeting new people while I tried to get them to go where I (actually, Jack) wanted them to go. Stage directing isn’t easy – now I know where the phrase “herding cats” came from.

In the end, Jack knew more of what he was doing than I did. I wanted to take the easy way out, avoid the emotional growth necessary to finish this book and get Jack where he should get to. It’s funny how that happens sometimes. We believe we are doing the manipulating when in fact, we are being manipulated without knowing it.

I learned a great deal from Jack. As he is a better person than when he began, I am a better writer. And the book is a much better product than it would have been had I gotten my way.

In the creating, I lost more than energy. I lost my arrogance. I lost the sense I am God when it comes to writing. In fact, I am just another character who is being manipulated as I manipulate. I am a creation of those I create.