The other day, on the rental car bus from the Denver airport, I was sitting across from a lovely Spanish-speaking woman who had a cello with her. She smiled at me with soft eyes and genuine kindness. I overheard her and her companion, who could have been her daughter, but more like an assistant, talking about her travel arrangements. My mind immediately decided that she was some sort of cellist in a large symphony orchestra. My biases had made up a whole elegant version of her, that I really was drawn to.
My brain creates easily
I started to wonder what it must be like to earn your living from your art. I even went so far as to explain her outward behavior as being due to this inner peace she must feel living life as a successful artist.
I caught myself and made a quick note. All of that was completely fabricated based on what I saw, and how I wanted her to be, nothing at all based on reality except that she spoke Spanish with a very lovely accent, not the Mexican variety we hear most often. She was absolutely stunning, refined, sophisticated.
My creative bias filled in the rest. And while it wasn’t bad in this case, it happened so easily, so naturally, that it caught me a little off guard. I felt like I was my mother peeping through the blinds to accuse the neighbors of being drug dealers.
I can’t trust my own eyes
But it got me thinking about our perceptions and biases and how strongly they are ingrained in our personalities. Everything we see comes through that filter, everything we hear as well. How can we trust ourselves?
At some point in human development, this instinct kept us alive. If it looks dangerous, we should probably stay away from it. The problem is, it doesn’t just get limited to dangerous situations. It carries over into everything, which means we have to constantly be questioning ourselves to make sure our motives aren’t suspect.
It’s the kind of thinking that will end up making my head hurt. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in his book Blink. We make snap judgments in fractions of a second, and they are based on limited information. The problem I have with it is, I don’t like to be wrong. I don’t want to make snap judgments about people from how they look, I want my judgments to be based on who they are. But sitting across the aisle from someone in a rental bus does not afford that opportunity.
I suppose just being aware of it is a step in the right direction. Now, I have to be on guard to make sure I know when I’ve made one of these snap decisions and make sure it’s not unfair to the receiver.
I also think all the writing has caused my creativity to wake up, so the backstory that gets immediately created is much more complicated than it used to be.
Let the creativity flow
So how can we writers tap into this bias for character creation? You have to let it run its course. Instead of backing away from it, I have chosen to acknowledge that I’m doing it, so I don’t think that it’s reality, and then I let my mind go wild.
I envisioned this lovely Spanish woman walking around in a silky red evening gown, with long pearl earrings, even white gloves running up over her elbows. I envisioned her at a black-tie event where she mingled through the crowd catching up with this and that person, smiling and laughing and generally being highly thought of. She was the reason everyone was gathering, they wanted to hear her play, but they also wanted to get a chance to meet the woman behind the cello. I wrote a little blurb down in my idea folder to catch the memory of her so that I can pull that out if ever needed down the road.
This is another reason writers need to get out once in a while. We need to interact with other people if only to observe and document our ideas about those we see. It’s fuel for the artist side.
It’s easy to do, too. You just look at someone who interests you and make-up what you think they are like. This can be good or bad, it’s your creative exercise, you get to do it however you want. I tend to collect characters this way. When someone catches my eye, I immediately go to their backstory. “I wonder why they’re here,” I tell myself. Since a lot of my interaction happens in airports, it’s a great venue for asking that.
The girl standing with cutoff shorts, covered in tattoos, waiting with a single flower in her hand. Who is she waiting for? her hair is dyed red, but not a natural red, a “hey look at me” red. Who will come out to meet her? Why is the girl buying the flower? Oh wait, I’m being biased and assuming she’s waiting for a man. Maybe she’s gay, and waiting for her partner. Maybe she’s waiting for her mom, or her brother, who’s coming home after a long stay at a rehab facility and the single rose represents something deeper between brother and sister.
I actually turn away before I see her meet her phantom because I don’t want reality to spoil my fun and the vision I just drew.
It comforts me knowing that I will never be without something to write about as long as there are other people in the world and they gather together. I could easily use the ever-cliched Starbucks to do this exercise. It would end up being very cynical because the one thing I’ve noticed is that your attitude comes out in your bias. So if I’m in a grumpy mood, my backstories will be dark and cynical. But if I’m in a romantic mood like I was that day, I get a nice backstory about a lovely Spanish cellist who came to Denver to play a benefit for cancer research.
I’m sure she was exquisite. Although, I was a bit shocked that she went home with a gentleman who resembled me quite a bit in demeanor and appearance. They had a lovely passionate night together, and she left in the morning. She forgot one of her long white gloves, and it still smelled of her. He spent most of the morning reminiscing and taking deep breaths through her glove to burn her scent on his memory. He stuffed the lone deep into his luggage, hoping to keep it until they met again.
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