Friday night, D. and I and a bunch of friends went to see the Zinedine Zidane movie at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It’s a documentary in which 17 cameras follow Zidane for 92 minutes, a full soccer game. The audience was mostly soccer fans with colorful team scarves wrapped around their necks. (Even if you’re not a fan, certainly you heard of Zidane’s infamous head butt in the final game of the 2006 World Cup. France ended up losing in a shoot-out.)
I’m sort-of a soccer fan, but mostly I was there to hang out with my friends and to support D., who definitely is a soccer fan (and a former player). I’ll admit that I was more interested in the drinks we were going to get after the film rather than in the film itself. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to make me think about writing. Surprise, surprise.
The whole 92 minutes is a character sketch of a soccer player doing what soccer players do: run, shove, stop the ball, etc. In Zidane’s case, there is also a great deal of spitting and sweating (from his earlobes and the tip of his nose), and shouting (hey! hey! allí! allí!). But by the end of 92 minutes, I actually felt as though I knew the guy. His concentration was palpable. I admired his skill (even I could tell how good he was), but I also had a sense of him as a person. And this is exactly what good writing does: lets us get to know and understand people.
Serendipitously, we were talking about character development in class this week. We read Jane Shapiro’s “Poltergeists,” and Sharon Olds‘ poem “Five-Year-Old-Boy.” I love Sharon Olds, and I will dedicate a whole post to her at a later date, but today I want to focus on “Poltergeists,” which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1993. It also appeared in Best American Short Stories of 1993, but I found it in the wonderful anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, edited by Katrina Kenison and Kathleen Hirsch. (This book deserves it’s own post, as well.)
Though “Poltergeists” is fiction, I decided to use it in my nonfiction class because the story has a very nonfiction-esque first-person narrator, and Shapiro is a master of character. And one of the ways she creates the believable teenagers, Zack and Nora, is through body language. They are “glossily beautiful, standing in the kitchen in pure ringing silence.” Zack’s girlfriend, Bibi, “slip(s) off (her) boots and lie(s) down with her feet in Zack’s lap. Then she fondle(s) the cat in several remarkably inventive ways, and Zack watch(es) her.” The story is chocked full of body language, and it works. I know these kids and I know their narrator mother.
Body language is hard for me. Sometimes when I write about D., my descriptions are a little flat, and I think this is because I’m around him so much that I can’t fully see him anymore. (I don’t mean this in a bad way–he’s not invisible or anything.) But his movements and habits have become so familiar to me that it’s hard to separate them out in the way that I need to in order to write them well.
So thanks to Zidane and “Poltergeists” I’ve been thinking about this all week. I wish I had 17 cameras at my disposal.