“What men do is who they are” (?)
The off-season ticks along—those four months where I pretty much just hermit and read and write and think. Recently, I’ve been reading everything I can about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. You know them. They’re the brash little band of artists that painted things like this:
And they were wonderfully brassy and idealistic and romantic about it all. Honestly, I’m not always sure why I fall down these rabbit holes of research. Usually, it’s because there’s something I need to learn from it. And there is something the Pre-Raphaelites need to teach me, I just haven’t sorted out what it is yet.
So I was reading Wives and Stunners: the Pre-Raphaelites and their Muses (the author gets a little breathless in spots, but it’s rich with domestic detail), and these lines have been rolling in my head ever since:
Generally speaking, it may be observed that what men do is who they are; sculptors are men of mud, frequently covered in clay and sporting a dusty air; scholars incline to the ink pot and often have calluses, if right-handed, on the third finger of the right hand. As for gardeners and the like, no one knows what bunions, warts, and other deformities their work may have induced…
Wives and Stunners, Henrietta Garnett, p. 283
“Ah,” I thought drily, “so that’s why I have terrible eyesight and wrecked shoulders—I’m a writer.”
I can’t tell how tongue-and-cheek she thinks she’s being, but it’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? What [people] do is who they are. Of course, there are a few ways to look at the idea: in the physical sense, and then in a more metaphorical one.
Physically, she’s probably not far wrong. Although it’s easier to see how work shapes us in physical jobs (the only time I had arm muscles was when I worked in a historic kitchen—all that kneading, carrying, and scrubbing…), sitting and typing has an effect too. I’m a writer. I do not always write in ideal ergonomic conditions. As mentioned, my shoulders are in appalling shape. On the bright side, I type really quickly. Countless hours at the keyboard have overcome my poor fine motor skills; at least, in this arena.
So far, all well and good. Now I want to flip it around.
Who people are is what they do.
Generally speaking, writers like words (she says, tongue firmly lodged in cheek). But seriously, if you don’t love language, why on earth would you become a writer? Writers are detail-oriented. They do not give up easily. They are interested in people and ideas.
Of course, some might be saying, “Well, bully for you. I do data entry. That’s not who I am!”
Well, no. But what else do you do? What hobbies do you pursue? Why those ones? What do you do with yourself outside the office? What does that say about who you are?
Now let’s really stretch the original meaning. Who people are is what they do. Okay, so let’s say your boss gives you credit on a project…but actually, your colleague did most of the work. What do you do?
Aha. Now it gets interesting, doesn’t it? What do you do? It depends entirely on what sort of person you are. And of course, this is precisely what builds characters in stories. We all know this. You never tell the reader what sort of person your character is. You show them. Who they are is what they do.
When you really get down to it, it’s a mirroring effect, back and forth. Who we are informs what we do. And then, often, what we do helps to shape who we are.
So. Who are you?
What I’m Listening to This Week
When I lived in New Zealand, maybe a dozen songs comprised my personal soundtrack. Mostly songs about loneliness and the promise of one day returning home. “The Soft Goodbye” takes me right back there. Shivering in my unheated yellow bedroom, working out which direction pointed to Toronto. Walking the sloping footpaths around the Otago campus, nose stinging from the nearby spice mill’s burnt-coffee reek. The rubber mat and fresh paint smells of the student gym; the tiny, tiled locker rooms; the windowless lecture rooms; my legs aching on the staircase to my one class in the geology building, which had fossils and rock specimens displayed in the hallways.
I loved it, I really did—but I was also terribly, terribly homesick, and I think it’s this paradox that’s finally demanding to be processed through my fiction. Home and exile have been themes in my fiction for four years, but they’re getting a little more overt in my treatment of them, I think.
Anyway. Lovely voices, haunting flute solos at 1:39 and 2:40, drums that drive us forward from 2:45 to a triumphant finish. It’s a goodbye…but it promises a return. That was the most important part for me.