Friday, March 19, 2010

Who you are

Back in October and November I discussed writing outside yourself – writing from the perspective of another gender or ethnic group; writing as a citizen of worlds you don't know. These are important skills, tools that should be in every writer's kit. But the fact remains that writers – at least all the writers I know – are human. We can never quite get away from being who we are. And part of being human is putting a part of yourself into everything you create.

My grandfather lived to be somewhere between ninety-four and ninety-six. (He was fairly sure he was eight when he arrived as an orphan on Ellis Island, but the medicos who kept him quarantined until they were sure he didn't have TB were more sure he was six.) My father, who will be eighty-seven in a month, gave up golf only last year. As I close in on sixty, I have the sense that at least a third of my life is still ahead of me. But there's no doubt I'm older than I was, and as I've aged my view of the world and of myself has gone through a distillation process. In many ways I am not the man I was at twenty-five, while in just as many ways I am that man honed and refined. All evidence indicates I'm going to remain inescapably me for the foreseeable future. Which means every word I write will be written by me and probably heavily influenced by me as well. No getting around it.

So who am I, this person I let affect my writing so? My faith is a big part of my identity – perhaps the biggest. I'm a Christian of the anti-fundamentalist anti-evangelical sort. (Quick recipe: Start with Kierkegaard, leaven with a large measure of Brother Lawrence, fold in some C. S. Lewis, and simmer in Sojourners for half a decade.) My family is also vital – I define myself as husband and father. I'm by personality a teacher and mentor. I love living in the south, though I am perpetually a stranger in a strange land I think of myself as a southern writer. I love language – both beautiful and punful – and find just about everything funny.

Being who I am will always impact my writing; shape my voice as a writer. Being me will not, note the difference, limit what stories I tell, but it will dictate how I tell those stories. On one occasion, spanning nearly three years of pitching, my voice prevented me from writing for Warhammer 40,000, a gaming universe I very much wanted to break into. The universe of WH40k is one of unrelenting war as humanity fights a futile battle against Chaos. (No, that wasn't a spoiler. A fundamental fact of the IP is that evil eventually wins.) I don't do futile well. I could not not write a happy – or at least poignantly hopeful – ending. As one editor who really liked my work and wanted to fit me in put it: "You're too damn cheerful."

But that is only one market, and was the exception rather than the rule. For example: I am, have grown into being, a pacifist – war is a waste of lives – yet most of my published stories are military science fiction. How do I pull that off? I find angles of war I can approach. My first sale to BattleCorps was about a six-year-old girl whose belief in a cartoon action character gives her courage when war machines rage across her family's farm ("The Immortal Warrior at the Battle of Vorhaven," recently anthologized in The Corps). "Commitment" concerned the balance between marriage and duty; "A Line in the Dust" examined the tipping point between duty and justice; the list goes on. Even tales that look like straight stand-up-and-shoot stories are about values and personal growth. Honor, difficult choices, consequences of actions, love, all of these are a part of the experience of war.

So when your story requires an element you think you do not understand – something outside your experience and alien to you – do not shy away from it. Do not weaken your story by leaving out something the proper telling calls for. But more importantly, do not cheat the readers by employing cliché or set pieces; they deserve your best. Take the time to study, to look and to think about what you're looking at. Sooner or later you will find a thread or stepping stone – something within the strange that speaks to you; and ingress that will lead you into the center of the story and let you make it uniquely your own.

Never think that who you are is a limitation on your storytelling. It is your most valuable asset.


Jewel Amethyst said...

Great post as usual Kevin. I can always count on learning a thing or two from your posts.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, KeVin. I've overheard many writers talking about dropping aspects of their stories, just because the felt they had too little experience of the subject. That filled me with disappointment. Some people take "write what you know" far too literally.