With so much free time this summer, my impulses is to just be lazy and play a lot of video games and watch a lot of Netflix, but at the same time, my mind is preoccupied with two fictional characters: Jack Smith and Emmanuel Sanchez. These are the protagonists of novels I wish to finish writing someday. I haven’t really got anywhere in writing the thoughts of these characters and the life circumstances they will face, but my imaginations throughout the day continue to float back to these guys. In my mind, I’m getting somewhere, because at the very least, I finally know what I want to title these stories, and I’m coming to have a good idea on what their journeys will be like.
By this point, I’ve imagined about these characters for a long while. Jack Smith after all was a character in a short story I had written back when I was a high school senior. In that short story (which I had named “I Want to be With You”) Jack wasn’t given a last name, and he was a very minor character, the best friend to the main protagonist of the story- David Tillman. When I wrote the story, David was a bit of a persona that mirrored my own, being considered weird by many of his peers at the school, and a hopeless romantic more and more illogically falling in teenage love with his girlfriend Ashley. The main issue in that story was simply that David eventually decides to be held back a grade so that he could have the same lunch period as Ashley. That of course turns out to be an idiotic move because meanwhile, Ashley had actually begun cheating on David by becoming romantically involved with a more terse and masculine skateboarding sophomore named Blake. “I Want to be With You” was – and especially upon looking back on it – a really corny teen “love” story. Last time I read it, I found myself constantly cringing at its cheesiness.
But every time I thought back to this awful short story that I had written (and I consider 50 pages a short story), I grew more and more attached to the characters of the story. “I Want to Be With You” is told in first-person, from both David’s and Ashley’s perspective. David’s idealism and Ashley’s naiveness had the writing be cornier than I probably intended, but perhaps through someone else’s lens, their personas can be more complex and interesting. Immediately then I thought to continue the story through Jack. I gave him one of the most common American last names, because I thought that would be really fitting to his rather sarcastic (and increasingly caustic) personality. Jack Smith, as the name would suggest, is a generic white kid (blonde hair and blue eyes) with an ordinary American life in the Fresno suburbs. Things begin to change a bit after David breaks up with Ashley, and after Jack himself experiences a maddeningly tragic loss. As David changes, so does Jack. This is why at one point I wanted to title the overall story, “We Were Not the Same After That,” thinking also to mention the Ben Folds song with a similar title.
But then, my idea of Jack’s story grew even more morbid and complex. The more I imagined Jack Smith, the less and less I related to the guy, and I actually grew intrigued by this. As Jack experiences his shitstorm of a life, he undergoes massive changes. He in some ways matures into adulthood quicker than many boys his age, but his thoughts and emotions are perhaps so confoundingly abrasive and morbid. HIs friendship with David becomes more and more estranged as a result, until the pivotal moment in which David punches Jack in the face and their friendship of close to two decades comes to an abrupt end. At the center of Jack’s transformation into a womanizing asshole (and also his growing self-awareness of this) is Ashley Erwin, David’s ex and an ironically moral center of the story. The story is essentially Jack’s letters to Ashley, and it pretty much begins with Jack writing, “Hey Ashley, it’s me, your friend Jack. I get the sinking feeling you’ll probably never get to read this.” Even with the sad awareness that she may never come to read it, nonetheless he writes bluntly, as he has a lot to share.
Jack is someone I don’t think I could ever be. I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing or not, but even though he is so different from me, I find myself oddly comforted and inspired by thinking about how to create this guy. I worry a bit too, because if “I Want to Be with You” is too corny, then this sequel The Jackass That I Am is perhaps way too morbid. It’s my attempt at dark humor, one in which I don’t really want to censor myself, because Jack certainly wouldn’t. This is a guy who’ll pretty much say and do what he thinks, accepting of the crazy consequences that may result from such behavior. Hopefully, Jack’s sarcasm and the crazy characters he considers his friends keep the story light-hearted enough.
The other protagonist I spent a lot of time imagining is Emmanuel Sanchez, a 35-year-old, light-skinned Puerto Rican man who’s been living in a homeless shelter for the past six months. Before coming to the shelter, he’s been in prison for about seven years after having been convicted of a rape charge. He has a stoic personality, but his past is full of events which he would rather keep as a mystery to everyone else. He’s unlike anyone I know in real life (hence why he’s a fictional character), but this is the person I immediately came to think of as I reflected on my year of working at a homeless shelter. I wanted to write a fictional story about life in a homeless shelter and this character is what came to my mind. He’s my image of a typical person that can be found living in a shelter, because what typical means in a shelter is extremely unique. People who end up homeless are people just like us, though of course, their circumstances and their pasts are so often beyond our general assumptions. The power of a show like “Orange is the New Black” is that it humanizes people in prisons, and my idea of Emmanuel’s Home is to humanize the people in shelters – the clients living in the shelter, the workers serving those clients, and the friends and family members of these folks.
Initially, I thought to write this story in third-person perspective, and having each chapter of the story be a day in Emmanuel’s life. In my initial attempt, chapter 1 began as Day 153 since Emmanuel started living in the shelter. I ended up with a writer’s block after I wrote up Chapter 4 (Day 163). Well, maybe it wasn’t really writer’s block per se, but I think my mind was too preoccupied to continue writing. I guess ultimately, that didn’t really matter because now I’m rewriting the whole thing. I’m thinking to write it in a completely different manner. The story will be told in first-person, not in the perspective of Emmanuel Sanchez, but in the perspective of a shelter worker David Ha. The story will still largely focus on Emmanuel Sanchez and the people in his life, so for the most part, it’ll almost feel like it’s in third-person, but I wanted to taint the storytelling with David Ha’s subjectivity.
When caseworkers write up progress notes and otherwise draft documents about clients, their bias and subjectivity gets written in too, like invisible signatures. A note that states, “Client arrived to the session five minutes late, unshaven and wearing worn-down pants” is not completely objective. It, like all other notes, carries a certain degree of judgment and assumptions. That’s the danger of writing about clients – especially such disenfranchised people like the homeless – in third person. In writing about a homeless person – even a fictional one – I don’t want my writing to be considered as objective. I’ve never been homeless myself, and while I can try my best to empathize, the words I write will likely never do real justice to the real struggles and challenges of a homeless person.
Even before I recently came up with this idea to tell this story in David Ha’s perspective, I actually planned to have a David as a character in this story. Only, initially, I thought to have that character share my name – David Kwon. If everything in this story was completely fictional, there still had to be one element that had to be very grounded in reality. To personify actual people I know or have come to know I felt could be offensive should any of those people ever come to read it. (Highly unlikely, but still…). So hence, why not let that person be myself. I worked in a MICA homeless shelter for about a year and then I was fired. That’s what also happens to David Ha in the story. For the most part, David Ha is me. In a way, that makes Emmanuel’s Home like an autobiography. But it’s not, since everyone else int the story are completely fictional. Even the shelter is fictional, and does not at all resemble any of the shelters I myself have worked in.
I don’t really have to imagine David Ha much, because though that character is fictional, he is still pretty much me. His perspective is like my own, and that gives me comfort and ease in writing about Emmanuel Sanchez. Still, I actually want David Ha to be the character in the story that gets the least amount of exposure and dialogue. Emmanuel’s Home should be a story told through David Ha, and not a story about David Ha. I want the focus to be mostly on the homeless living in the shelter – especially Emmanuel – and the people working there.
Whether I’ll actually end up completing these two stories is not for certain right now. Whether either of the stories will actually be worthwhile reads is probably even more of a toss-up. But it’s quite an amazing thing for me to imagine characters such as these. This is what it feels (at least in some way) to be a writer. It’s a feeling that I could see myself reveling in for quite some time.