Sunday, May 25, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Thing You Can't Write About

Something in your life hurts so much you can't write about it. (If not, my goodness, aren't you young and lucky? Keep reading anyway - your time will come. And you'll live through it. We all do, until we don't anymore.)

You can't write about it, you can't even think about it, and it's nobody's business. Maybe it isn't even that big a deal, as you keep telling yourself; not in the grand scheme of things. But it hangs over every part of your life, everything you write and say and do and think and feel, they all refer back to this even when you're not consciously thinking about it. Or because you're not consciously thinking about it. Whatever.

As long as you avoid writing about this, you are avoiding learning things. Maybe learning these things would make your life better, maybe not, I don't know; but writing about it will necessarily make your writing better. Yes, even if the thing you actually write is dreck. You have to write badly in order to learn to write well.

Now, for most of us, The Thing crops up repeatedly when we write, anyway. Maybe we don't realize it till later; but when we do, we often get too uncomfortable, and we stop, and write something safe, and this is one reason why you see some people write the same book over and over and over again. (Other reasons exist.)

So you realize you're doing this and that if you're ever going to advance as a writer you have to write about The Thing, but it hurts too much and you can't.

So back off. Breathe. It's allowed. Let's find you another angle. Because now you've realized that you have to write about The Thing, you'll never respect yourself again if you sit in the middle of your own road quivering like a toxic jellyfish.

So let's back up a little.

There are people in the world you've never written about. That you are even afraid to write about because you're sure you'll mess it up and Everyone Will Know that you're racist or mysogynist or ableist or homophobic or whatever (even though, you promise yourself, you're not really or you wouldn't be worried about it - would you? Whatever gets you through the night, honey.)

So what if The Thing didn't happen to you, but to one of those people you never write about?

How does The Thing play out for that person?

Now, that is an interesting question.

That is a story question, not a quality-of-life, coping-with-my-demons question. That is a specific research problem. You can do Google searches on blind + cancer + mother, or HIV + Hispanic + straight; you can hunt up books and newsgroups and magazines targeting Asian-American mothers and look specifically for discussions within of divorce, adultery, miscarriage, rape, rejection, bullying. Whatever The Thing is, if it hurts, people will talk about it, and write articles about it, in the places where they are comfortable.

And once you find the places where these people you are afraid to write about are comfortable, and listen to them, particularly when they are expressing themselves about The Thing you can't fully express yourself on - they aren't going to seem nearly so alien. That shared experience gives you an "in," a place where you overlap with The Other, and you can build from there. Especially if you are humble and engage and listen and think about the person you are listening to and not just about yourself anymore.

Now, maybe you can't find (for instance) a public forum in which specifically transgender people are talking about the abortion they weren't allowed to have, or which was forced on them, or now regret having (or not having) - but you can read around it. Looking for that place will, if you go into proper research mode, lead you to all kinds of fora and resources for transgender people; and you are going to run across, if not The Thing, other points of common personhood that you can identify with enough to start imagining what The Thing would have been like for a transgender person as opposed to what it was like for you.

And that will begin to make it possible to think about The Thing Itself. The mental and emotional cross-referencing will begin and you can start creating a character. You can even meet real live people who are so unlike you that you're afraid to write about them and start treating them like anybody else: i.e. cannibalizing their traits to build new characters who aren't like any one specific real person but are convincing three-dimensional fictional constructs.

Now maybe, in the end, you still have to write while taking evasive action around The Thing. Maybe you have to invoke magic; maybe you have to go into metaphorical space; maybe, in the end, only you and someone who went through The Thing alongside you would recognize what you're writing about. Maybe, in the end, you'll have a hot mess of a manuscript that will never amount to anything.

Well, when is that not true? When you sit down to write, you never know if you'll have a Mess, a Mediocrity, or a Masterpiece at the end of it. A lot of the time you don't even know then.

But if you get through this manuscript, you are guaranteed to have learned a great deal. Which increases your chance of winding up with a Materpiece eventually.

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