LAURA SHAINE CUNNINGHAM is the author of two acclaimed memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, which were first published in the New Yorker and went on to become bestsellers. She is also the author of six novels, including Beautiful Bodies and Dreams of Rescue. Her plays are published by Broadway Play Publishing and have been produced by Steppenwolf Theater, in New York City, and in Russia, Romania, Croatia, Finland, Portugal, England, and Mexico. She is an alumna of New Dramatists and a playwright member of The Actors Studio and Herbert Berghof Theatres. Laura is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. She’s taught creative writing at Muhlenberg College and the Hudson Valley Writers Center, and was recently a keynote speaker at Marist College.
Read Nina Shengold’s Chronogram profile.
“Character Studies” 10/16/14 – The Exercises
This week’s subject: “Character Studies.” The ebullient Laura Shaine Cunningham read a passage from her memoir Sleeping Arrangements about her childhood friend Diana, “a dirty blonde in every sense.” Then she treated us to a guest appearance by the equally delightful Laura Rose, who read excerpts from her just-published The Passion of Marie Romanov, #1 Amazon bestseller in Russian History.
We had a lively discussion about writing unforgettable characters in memoir and fiction. Some insights from Laura Shaine Cunningham:
“Actions speak louder than words. So do your senses.” She provided some wonderful sample sentences:
SIGHT: “She was a flash of silver glitter pasted over a total torso tattoo, and moved her buttocks independently of the rest of her body, so fast they blurred. “That’s my big booty dance; I came by it naturally…”
SCENT: “I could smell her before she even entered the room. Patchouli. I was almost unconscious when she appeared, looking quite the way she smelled: a harem dancer, with Theda Bara bangs and a scarlet smile.”
SOUND: “She was cracking gum between her words, and I could hear that snap, with an occasional juicy swoosh, as she suggested, “I could meet you after…”
TASTE: “She must have been swimming in the sea and not had time to shower. Her full mouth seemed to be encrusted lightly, like a fine piece of fish.”
Laura also observed that the people you write about are those who have an impact on you, and that her fictional characters are often a mix-and-match composite inspired by physical and behavioral specifics of people she’s known or observed.
She reminded us of the fearlessness of children’s imaginations, and the joy that comes from writing. “Don’t be scared of writing. It’s life that’s scary.” Writing can offer escape and catharsis. Laura’s pamphlet about writing memoir, Write For Your Life, is available through her Memoir Institute, which also offers full editing services as well as publishing under the imprint Memoir House. email@example.com
LAURA’S CHARACTER EXERCISE:
Give one character an action that defines her, using the senses. Now add a second character, and have their interaction define them both. See how high you can go with the number of characters and actions.
NINA’S CHARACTER EXERCISE:
Think of your most eccentric relative, and write a scene in which that person gets a new pair of shoes. Invent the character of the salesperson. How do they interact?