So, when I was young and starting out in my writing I fancied myself a poet. I filled notebooks with quasi-confessional prose poems (all very terrible), one of which started out with this line:
“If it wasn’t for shame, I’d have nothing to wear.”
I won’t bore you with the rest of this overworked, tired metaphor about shame being an article of clothing. It went on and on in that sort of melodramatic way one hopes is confined by adolescence. There is a beginning and end to those sorts of leanings, right?
I digress. The idea of shame is a powerful one, and I came back to ponder on this topic a few months ago at Squaw Valley. I took the Gil Dennis “Finding the Story” workshop. Would I have signed up for this if I had truly known what it entailed? Probably not. I had to share with a group of strangers (about a dozen) three stories: my most terrifying moment, the moment where I felt the most shame and finally the moment where I felt the most joy and/or pride. Talk about feeling over-exposed.
We all wrote down each person’s story and in the end found patterns in how all three stories were related. In essence, we learned each person’s individual story. We all have one, and shame is the back story to everything else.
It is a compelling idea, really, if you think about it. Shame is what drives us, drives characters. On the plane ride home I went through the characters of my novel in progress and wrote down each of their shame stories. Most of these are not elements of the book itself, but knowing what defines each character’s story gave me a new perspective and insight on their motivations. I had been struggling with one character in particular. There was something that didn’t feel right in the narrative. Something was off. Digging into her shame story showed me that I wasn’t being true to her personal story. I was molding her to fit plot, not the other way around.
Exploring shame can be one of the most powerful tools to elevate your fiction. Just stay away from wearing it.