When I think about writing and what I studied in college, I often wonder why we didn’t study Thomas Wolfe. To study his work falls short of his life from what I have pieced from articles and books about him, but his work was unique.
While his work is long like Melville’s transcendental Moby Dick, Wolfe had a rhapsodic prose like no other. It amazes me that Wolfe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather all lived and worked on now famous prose in that era of the 1920s and 1930s. They were all very different writers in method and voice, but all wrote because they felt the need to do it. Their characters give readers a vision of tangible lives that might have been. Great characters create great characters, as Wolfe lived and proved.
Thomas Wolfe’s quote leads me to think about my writing. We are not the characters we want to be. I understand that statement in so many ways. I live through the characters I write in that they can do things I cannot, and say things I wish I could. I also give them situations to contend with that I wonder how I would handle. We are the characters we are. I interpret this two ways. My first interpretation is that I am all the characters I create and they are me. I put some or all of my emotions, experiences, and desires into the character’s lives to make them real. I also give them a voice that matches my inner voices, including the darkest of whispers I dare not share. Sometimes the only way we can really change our deepest self is to grow through our characters when they are witnessed by the world, real or imaginary. When we are not the character we want to be we create on paper what we want to be.
The creation of character is a personal, lonely and sometimes torturous activity for some writers. When a writer has met that goal of a recognized creative presence by a publisher or any writing success, it gives life to the character and also to the author. The author feels the life lived above the page is an alternate reality to the life characters live on the page. The writer and what is written is woven together for that time of invention. This is why it is hard for an author to let go of their words and finish the work to move on to the next piece.
I have yet to finish every single word of any Thomas Wolfe novel. I end up skipping, losing site of the story within the poetics, and generally don’t want to finish because I enjoy the journey too much. Once in a while I read a sentence that I have to read several times to grasp the complete intent and it stops me from moving forward. Like the characters I write, sometimes I lose motivation–they lose motivation–because I don’t want the story to end.
I own a copy of “You Can’t Go Home Again” and feel it will ultimately leave me feeling a little sad when I finish it. Because of my reading about Wolfe, I know the summary of this story well. Parts of this story reflects a basic emotion in me. I miss my hometown and family terribly and am living far away. I know I cannot regain what was lost through time and even if I return, life there will not be the same. I carry a version of my original character in life with me but, ever changing, I will not be the same even if I return to the same place I once lived. This is my second interpretation to the quote, We are not the characters we want to be. We are the characters we are.