I don’t know if anyone else has this experience, but among my family and friends, all the birthdays seem to be concentrated in just one time of the year. From June until February, there’s maybe one or two birthdays a month (sometimes none at all, like July, December and February). Then March arrives...queue the birth of everyone I know!
|This is how I celebrate MY birthday!|
My goddaughter, my Mom, Vasnefy, my older brother and my sister-in-law all have birthdays within a two month period, with Mother’s Day thrown in for good measure. (I was also born in this period, but luckily I don’t have to find presents for myself!) As you might imagine this means that I tend to have gifts on the mind from about the middle of February onward. It takes a while to find just the right thing for each person!
Luckily gift-giving can be something very enjoyable.
When I was in high school, I read a novel called Pilgrim’s Inn (which I highly recommend, if you ever stumble across a copy). At one point the female protagonist, Sally, is shopping for Christmas presents. The narrator makes a point of observing that she always took great pains to find a present that the recipient would like, even if she herself did not like it. For example, she buys a friend interested in medicine a book of anatomical diagrams, even though she herself finds them gruesome and disgusting.
This tiny scene made a great impact on my fifteen-year-old mind. It’s actually quite a challenge to find gifts which are neither just generically likeable, nor specifically to the giver’s tastes, but solely and completely driven by the recipient’s interests and desires. Being able to meet that last qualification implies a considerable degree of closeness between giver and recipient, since otherwise the latter’s tastes are much harder to discover accurately.
From this I’ve concluded that the best gifts are inspired by love.
|Our gifts should be as refreshing as nature's!|
In this case, I don’t mean love in a romantic sense, or in any specific sense of the word, in fact. Rather, I think that true gifts arise from the most general attitude of love: a focus outward on other people. If we’re willing to spend time observing others and thinking about their needs and wishes – and what’s more, exerting the effort to remember what we thought and observed – then the process of gift-giving becomes something meaningful and enriching to both the giver and recipient.
This is one of the reasons why in my adult years I’ve been as much delighted by finding presents for others as by receiving them myself (I’m not going to lie and pretend I don’t thoroughly enjoy getting gifts – but giving them is an equal and sometimes greater pleasure). There’s something so refreshing about forgetting one’s own concerns for a moment now and then, in order to think of something nice which could be done for or given to a dear friend or family member or loved one. Making presents can purify us, at least for a little while, from our personal concerns. After all, these can become too burdensome and absorbing if we don’t sometimes look outside ourselves at others.
This realization brought me also to a new idea for writing.
You see, if gift-giving implies a great deal of intimacy and a deep knowledge of another person, I think it can be used to help us fiction writers with our characters. It’s always fun to ask oneself, ‘What’s my character’s favorite color? What does he like to eat? What does he think when he walks into a roomful of strangers?’ The answer to each of these questions gives us a better-rounded conception of the character as a person.
My new question is, ‘What would you get your character for his or her birthday?’
|Perhaps your character might like a tea party...|
I know it sounds silly, but if you can answer the question, it implies you’re really in touch with your character. After all, if someone asks what present you're giving to your best friend, your ability to answer, ‘I’m getting her CD’s because she’s really into music right now,’ (for example), tells us that you're attuned to your friend’s tastes. If you can answer the same question about your character – maybe even giving specific presents for specific birthdays, based on development in his or her personality – you're also attuned to the defining elements which make him a realistic person for a story.
If I take the novel I’m (almost finished) editing and pick the main character—Charles, a blind sculptor—I’d probably be inclined to give him recordings of poetry readings. He never learned Braille, he’s often bored, he struggles with depression, and he loves art. Readings of beautiful poems would give him some relief from his various personal demons, plus occasional moments of much needed enjoyment.
So there you have an example. If you have an original character you write about (or hope to write about), I’d love to know what gift you’d choose for their birthday!