I interviewed Brad Watson recently—a writer I very much admire—about his new collection, Aliens in the Prime of their Lives. The stories in Aliens are wonderfully strange, especially the title novella, in which a married, teenage couple has an eerie run-in with two escapees from an insane asylum. The central idea for the novella had evolved, Brad told me, from an abandoned novel in which aliens abduct humans in order to study "where the human imagination takes a human life when unfettered by unexpected circumstances."
OK, I thought, interesting. I sent the interview off to the editor. I ate some ramen. Lived my life. But this idea kept coming back to me. While I walked my dog (pathetically fettered as I am), or stared at the hot bar at the Piggly Wiggly, or refreshed my Facebook news feed. What would my life be, if I freed it of circumstance? Sometimes the question elated me. I'd have an endless supply of white truffles! A work ethic that put Joyce Carol Oates to shame! Better credit! When I dug deeper, it made me feel like I was clutching the bottom of a hot-air balloon rising into the ether. It induced the nausea of too many options, of a five-page dinner menu, a freshly minted B.A. diploma. Life is circumstance, I'd think, bitterly, and sign the check for my renter's insurance.
And then, on a particularly rational Tuesday morning, I woke with the answer pearled on my tongue: I'd live a simple life, somewhere with all four seasons. I'd have all the time I wanted to write. I'd publish a book. My (imaginary) children would outlive me. But, somehow, none of that seemed right either. Without circumstance, there's no triumph. Hoping for a candy bar when you've got a dollar in your pocket isn't hope at all. There was something, though, just in my obsession with the question, something I realized (it was a very rational Tuesday morning) that might be of more use to my writing than to my psyche.
Characters, like people, can be too easily summed up by their circumstances. You're writing, you're on a roll, you decide that your protagonist is a guy who works at a record store and dabbles in veganism, or a single mom in a trailer in New Iberia who watches Real World reruns and sometimes screams at the TV. He must want something, you think. She must want a lot, you're sure, things the story may deliver or withhold. Often, this is enough to propel a narrative, but recently I've found myself slipping Brad Watson's question—What would I do with a life, unfettered?—into my characters' minds. What would they strip away from their lives, what would be loosened in them, what freed? I let them hope foolishly, humanly. I give them imagination, or a fear of it. I try to let them grow beyond the idea that delivered them. I write it all down. And, usually, I cut it all. But, a connection's left between me and them. It's thin and silky and hard to see (a fishing line, mid-cast). Tug it, though, and you'll feel someone tug back.
I still can't answer the question. And I'm not sure that Brad meant it in the way I've applied it. A life of unexpected circumstances is different from one devoid of circumstance entirely. But, regardless, there's something to be gained from letting each character ask it of himself.