Every Character Has an Idol

Every character has an idol–morphine, romance, money. My books are about idolatry. My life is about it too.  Idols are interesting and different and not usually little sculptures made of wood. They’re insidious and lurk in the shadows of our consciousness.

Dear Mr. Frith was cheating on his wife when he painted this.
Dear Mr. Frith was cheating on his wife when he painted this.

Here’s the list of idols I’ve worshiped over the years: Perfection, thinness, my children’s success, my husband’s perfection, teaching success, 100% non-toxic food and at the moment a “successful” writing career.

Maybe you worship youth and beauty?
Maybe you worship youth and beauty?

How do I know these are idols and not just good old fun passions? It’s easy because at some point they fail. They don’t do that thing I expect of them. They actually have no power to bring lasting satisfaction or joy. Have you ever noticed how short the time is between a good review and worrying about the next good review? Have you noticed that after a long day of shelling organic almonds to make the perfect almond milk for the tofu dinner your family will hate robs you of the joy of even having a family? Has it bothered you to find out that after all those years eating soy that it’s the most pesticide ridden crop in the US?

Are you a slave to your art?
Are you a slave to your art?

Here’s some of my characters’ idols: morphine, family, approval, money and beauty. Nothing wrong with that list of things. I love money, but it’s one of the few idols I don’t have. I’ve learned to live with it and without it. But take away my writing! Watch me turn ugly. Writing is great. The excitement, the passion and even the fear in it brings me real happiness–until I let it become my idol.

Instead of having fun writing about people stumbling towards something higher I fret over not getting enough time with my idol. I feel extremely pissed when someone I haven’t seen in ages wants to have a chat. I stay up all night designing covers for a book, but have no time for anyone else. I snap at people, I annoy them with my despair, I impatiently wait for them to get done talking so I can relate their words to my writing. I turn inward (it’s very dark in there, by the way).

Do your passions eat you alive?
Do your passions eat you alive?

As David Foster Wallace once said (and boy, did people get pissed) everyone worships something. What do you worship? Does it give you what you need? Just curious.

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” David Foster Wallace

Character Development Revisited/ Grenville Dodge

Grenville looking cool, hanging out with the guys.
Grenville looking cool, hanging out with the guys.

Okay, you non-history buffs–this isn’t really about a Civil War soldier railroad guy so calm down. Well, it is sort of. A while back I wrote glowingly of Grenville Dodge, but (and this is the good thing) he’s more complex than I originally thought, not quite so heroic in all things. In fact he was a hater. He hated blacks, Irish, Catholics (he really hated Catholics) and most other people. I don’t mind someone who hates with abandon–at least they’re being fair.

Soup throwing jerk I love.
Soup throwing jerk I love.

It seems he also may have painted a hand injury in a different light from the way it really happened (he forgot he had a pistol in his pocket or something). But haven’t we all had those moments? Once when my husband and I were obsessed with making stained glass( it was like working in a sweat shop but we were the bosses and the workers) I grabbed the wrong end of a soldering iron. In this case there was no hope of me dressing up the story–not with a hostile witness standing nearby 🙂

Back to Grenville. I shouldn’t have put the guy on such a pedestal. I mean, he’s still great for the things he accomplished but he had a bit of a temper–once he threw soup over a black waiter because the guy was staring at the gold buttons on his jacket for too long. Dear Grenville was proud of this story, so okay, he was a bit of an ass.

C'mon Grenville, give us a smile.
C’mon Grenville, give us a smile.

The characters in my series will get into railroad stocks, bonds and swindles in the late 1880’s so I’m not sure if Grenville will make a cameo but he does get high marks for character development, and I still adore him. Is that wrong? I think not.

My first article on Grenville.