I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where the stories we write come from.
Sure, we get our ideas and we jot them down or plot them out, but what interests me right now is the deeper levels of what makes it onto the page. Writing is an interesting dichotomy. It is at once catharsis and emotional drain. A relief and a burden. For ourselves and for others. What we write is ours until it finds readers’ eyes. Introspection and conversation. In and out. Private and public.
A lot of what makes it onto the page is an expression of conscious desire. We know the story we want to tell, and we may even decide upon its themes rather than seeing what emerges.
If we create something, whatever it is we create comes from us. It’s made of our synapses and intentions and subconscious thoughts. Which means we can simultaneously take credit for the good while also bashing our noses on the fails.
Because of that, I want to look at this from a couple different angles.
Words Come From Culture
If you put a pair of white underwear in a pot of water that also has tea bags in it, your underwear will change colours. Not because the underwear itself is doing anything in particular that tries to get pigment attached to it, but because there’s tea in the water. If all you have to wash your laundry in is tea, all your laundry is going to smell (and look) a bit like tea.
It’s the same with society and culture, both for the positives and the negatives. If we’re born into a world filled with cultural stereotypes, mores, assumptions, prejudices, and structural inequities, those are pretty powerful teabags. We are all going to smell like them a bit, just because we’re not being raised in water without any additives.
When our stories end up on paper, they are filtered through us…and we are steeped in our own cultures with whatever teabags exist. A love of freedom? Whee! Systemic racism? Uh….less whee.
Game of Thrones is something I consider a really good example of this. I don’t think GRRM set out to be like, “I’m going to pull a classic White Saviour trope here. I’m gonna send Dany in as a whitey-whitey white person to free all the brown people, who will then love and follow her because she saved them when they could not or would not free themselves.” I don’t think that was his intent. Buuuuut it happened, and it’s a valid critique. (Requisite reminder that you can love a thing and still critique it. Dany can be an amazingly strong and complex character and still be representative of the White Saviour trope.)
What comes out of us also is a product of our culture, and as writers I feel it’s our responsibility to be as aware as we can, especially when we are writing outside our own experience or writing about marginalised people (yes, even if we’re creating a world from scratch).
Words Come From Us
Beyond the cultural framework we project upon our writing, our words also come from us. Our own personal biases and perspectives are a part of that (and tied to my first point), but beyond and deeper than that, I want to talk about what happens when we don’t realise we’re writing our own stories through our protagonists.
I’ve written about how A HALL OF KEYS AND NO DOORS, my next release, was me writing through my own coming out to myself. The Ayala Storme books were me coming out to my community and owning my own identity for the first time.
We weave truth through the fictional stories we put on paper. We do it when a loved one dies and our characters grieve their own loved ones. We do it when we survive abuse and write other survivors. We do it in the small ways, the estrangements, the break ups, the finding of soulmates, the laughter, the tears — everything we experience becomes how our characters breathe.
Sometimes in our own books we learn truths we’re too afraid to admit to ourselves. Sometimes we see so much of our own rawness in a character that we can’t let them live. We kill the character because it allows us to postpone dealing with where they dwell in ourselves. Sometimes that hurts others, because sometimes those deaths play into tropes that have been done a thousand times. Sometimes we take the unforgiving and harsh histories of our world and inject it into ourselves — or we steep in it so much that it becomes part of us, and when our words become a mirror, sometimes it’s too much to see.
But sometimes that mirror brings us clarity. It brings us hope. Maybe sometimes we can let those characters live instead, and through their lives we can learn that we deserve life too. That we can give those parts of us the air they deserve.
And sometimes, the mirrors we make for ourselves may show someone else their own truths.
I’m struggling to write this week for this very reason: I see myself too clearly in a character I fear.
I think writing him is worth it anyway. I don’t have to become the worst version of his possibilities. I can try to become the best instead.
Want to support my word-making? For a dollar a month, you can get new short stories. For three, you get my books in eARC form before they hit stores. You can do that on Patreon.
My next release is A HALL OF KEYS AND NO DOORS, available in print, ebook, and audiobook on 6 September, 2016. You can preorder it here.
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