When I first set out to write my story, “The Love Letter,” for the “Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest,” I knew that the story would be from Mark’s point of view. And therein lay my greatest challenge for composing the story. He is a man, and I am a woman.
Dr. Mark Hinton has just finished his residency, has accepted an offer to work with his dream team medical group and things are looking bright on his horizon. But there’s something inside of him that haunts him: his past—roads not taken and not always by his own choice. At the beginning of the story, Mark is resentful and angry over what he has lost, though he covers those deeper feelings with a veneer of indifference. He’s also smugly satisfied with the way his academic and career successes have compensated for those personal losses. Using this as his fuel, he ignores the gaping hole in his personal life for as long as he possibly can.
When I decided that this story needed to be told from Mark’s tight first-person point of view, I was aware that I was behaving unconventionally: both for the genre itself and for the general unwritten rules of writing fiction. Most often, when a female author chooses to represent a scene from a male character’s POV, she uses the third person to insert the voice of the narrator to cover the gap between the character’s maleness and her own femaleness. Typically, the narrator’s voice acts as a “cushion” between herself and the masculine viewpoint, outlook and voice. When a work is written in first person, the voice of the character infuses the narrative, not just the dialogue, and there is little to distinguish the voice of the author and the voice of the character. Authenticity is imperative.
For this task, research was necessary! Some of the things I did to capture Mark’s mannerisms and voice were to watch the males around me. My husband happens to be my most common test subject—I ended up asking him all sorts of bizarre questions. He’s learned by now not to worry about where those questions come from or why I’m collecting data. I also quietly observed other males around me without interrogation.
But what about Mark’s emotions—the churning conflict going on inside of him? Deep down, he wants to let go of his resentment but at each turning point in the story, when he has a chance or reason to let it go, he grasps at anything to latch on and cling even harder to his anger.
I glean some of my most visceral emotions for writing through music. For this particular purpose, I needed a male point of view, someone who felt deeply about his situation, who had a lot of bitterness and rage over the past and was not willing to relinquish it without a fight. I started listening almost constantly to the music of Eminem while writing “The Love Letter.” What is shocking is that I was never a fan of Eminem’s music before this point. I always dismissed his work as misogynistic and too violent for my tastes. But somehow, somewhere, the pure emotion and the vivid language that Mr. Mathers used in his music swirled around me and clung to me like a shawl. I couldn’t get enough of it. To feel Eminem’s emotions through his lyrics, the driving rhythms of his music is to understand the bitterness, the intensity of emotions that Mark traverses throughout his story arc. Suffice to say that since the day I submitted, I’ve only listened to a few of my favorites.
There are many worse things I could do to “suffer” for my art. At least I didn’t do something silly like crush a beer can on my head or belch a four-part harmony.