My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, October 2, 2015

On The Stories We Tell

There's a story our society tells when an atrocity is committed (and "atrocity" is the right word, not "tragedy"). As we grab for the answer, if we find something strange and different like a religion or an ethnicity that doesn't belong, then we blame that.  Code words pop up like "domestic terrorism," "immigration," "thug," and tell us exactly who has committed these atrocities.

When the offender is more like us though, these ways of slipping them quietly into other groups that explain their penchant for committing terrible actions breaks down. And that is when we turn to mental illness as the story we tell. "Mental illness," or whatever euphemism ("deeply troubled" "crazy" "insane") you might prefer. The problem is that even when these things are true, they are still irrelevant and focusing on them both harms others and pulls the scrutiny from where it belongs.

It is actually a good and wonderful thing to lament the deplorable state of mental health treatment in this country and culture. The lack of easy access to affordable care is revolting, and the stigma is huge. Most people are still trying to tell folks with mental illness to eat right and exercise and just try NOT having that chronic disease. And those are the ones not simply recoiling in fear. Ten lifetimes of focused activism would be badly needed and on point.

However, when people tell the story of mental health ONLY after someone has committed an atrocity, or care about the mental health failings of our culture ONLY after someone has committed an atrocity they're actually making things a lot worse, not better. They are only being harmful, not empathetic.

First of all, they are usually are using "mental health" as a shibboleth for "people who do terrible things." The suggestion is that no one who does something like this COULD be sane. Let me be absolutely clear about this: that is, by every psychological bellwether, completely inaccurate. People who commit atrocities are diagnosed clinically sane ALL THE TIME. And the vast majority of people with mental illness are victims of violence not perpetrators. By a huge margin.

I know it hurts to think that humans are capable of violence without something being fundamentally wrong with their mental processes, and that the capacity to do violence indicates that something MUST be wrong, but that simply isn't true. (Or maybe it is true but what we should be looking at is our culture, not the functionality of specific brains.) We can all be monsters under the right circumstances. Some of us are. And I'm sorry if that's scary, but many are as sound of mind as you or I. The things that make us monsters are not always bits working incorrectly. Sometimes it's the culture that tells us the "other" isn't worth living. Sometimes it's an expression of the hate we are taught every day. Sometimes it's the bits working a little too well.

When people DO this–when they say that "of course he had mental illness because no one who didn't could have done such a thing"–it's not only sloppy and uncritical thinking, devoid of logic and the slightest psychological accuracy, but it also perpetuates the stigma that the mentally ill are dangerous. They equate the two in a way that is not only inaccurate, but also causes a lot of splash damage to those suffer from mental illness.

And even, as in the case with the Oregon community college shooter, when the presumption turns out to be accurate, it is a red herring or at best a mcguffin. We might as well turn up proof of athlete's foot or tooth decay for all the causation that is indicated by a diagnosis like Aspergers or "psychological problems." People with far worse "psychological problems" aren't violent at all, and most on the Autism spectrum are extraordinarily non-violent. So that's clearly not actually the cause even though that's what the media tries to dig up. And even if such a condition increases a predisposition, ignoring the underlying cause would be a little like doctors shrugging when an immune compromised person gets an infection instead of finding out what the infection is.

Because here's the other problem: they are using "crazy" to circumvent a lot of relevant social analysis that could and should go into the calculus of such an event. Everything from the absurdly simplistic and unregulated access to instantly-lethal, multi-lethal, ranged weaponry to the effect of toxic masculinity on young men, to racial inequality to a sense of white, male entitlement, to tribalism and othering is simply swept under the rug in one swoop because that person was "obvs crazy." We dismiss dozens (hundreds?) of conversations about the culture these minds were marinating in to simply write it all off as being about mental illness. "Oh well, what can we do. Just another disturbed mind. Hope it doesn't happen again...or again...or again..."

Mental illness affects a certain percentage of people all across the Earth–why do these atrocities so often happen in the U.S.? And why are they so often done BY white males? These are the things we should be digging into–not finding out every person in a shooter's past who ever said they were troubled.

Mental illness is not homologous to "evil." And people really should either bang that drum all the time or think hard before they give it a whack after a highly visible event.

Because the stories we choose to tell might just be making things worse for a group that is already erased, marginalized, and stigmatized.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Three Points on Process

I’m just over 8300 words today on the first draft of Book Three of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series.  I know where I’m going for the next 8,000 or so and I’m tickled. Now, it’s much easier. Even when, as the fox-woman did today, the characters take over and lead me somewhere else, it all falls together. I see the scenes scroll though my mind. I know I’m in draft mode because I write pages of dialogue and almost no description, though I see the scene. When I rewrite, I will expand on character action and reaction, insert setting, scenery, season and specifics, adding a very necessary layer. Too, that will add to the word count in a useful fashion. There will be massive cuts — there always are — so it will even out. I don’t have to worry about word count for its own sake now. More scenes and words will appear as the story develops. It will grow and change almost organically under my hands. It’s a magical feeling. Oh, I sense a potential continuity problem that will need tweaking, and I do have a practical paradox looming in 10,000 words or so. It’s tough being a legend in a world that doesn’t believe in you!

I am having fun.

The days I spend wandering around crankily thinking about "what happens next" are the harder ones. Mostly it’s my subconscious working, which means forcing it isn’t possible. "What happens next" has to simmer on the back burner, like a chili or soup working away on a wood cookstove. Those are days to walk, to bake, to boat, to ski, and talk to nobody human. This is when I start reading cookbooks and re-reading mystery series I know almost by heart. Those are days to let the mental silence reign, so my mind can work in ways I don’t consciously perceive, though I can feel them bubbling along underneath. Finally, at last, the light dawns. I know where the next scene starts, and the general direction in which I am going. I can play my keyboard like a musical instrument, as the words fly out of my brain and onto the page. When this happens, I can’t wait to get to my computer. I can’t lose this. I have to get it out and down to make room for the rest that’s just waiting to flow. My writing, like my workout (which I won’t do unless it’s fun), is a task I often schedule as a reward for getting my chores done. I did that yesterday, spending the morning cleaning the house, writing blog posts, and so forth. I’m always excited at this point, so chores go quickly. There’s no procrastinating now.

Yesterday, I happily settled down, chores done, to work on Book Three. I’d barely opened the file when Aaron Cat brought in a bird and let it loose. I am pathologically afraid of birds flying into my face, so you can imagine my reaction. Yes, clinging to the ceiling by my fingernails just about covers it. I tossed the cat outside, closed the door, and called a neighbor. The bird was loudly alive and sounded uninjured. Aaron is not that great a hunter. When he catches something, it’s mostly alive and healthy so it can be rescued. My neighbor came over but the bird was silent. We looked everywhere. No bird found. I blocked off the room as much as possible and opened the front door. I took Sally, the dog, out. On our return, she, true to her poodle heritage — they are water retrievers — located the bird hiding in the stacked firewood. The bird vocalized, probably telling her to get lost. I now knew exactly where it was. My neighbor returned and dismantled the wood pile, actually getting a sighting. A single layer of firewood covered my newly cleaned floor. But we saw no bird. This saga continued through two more attempts, the rebuilding of the firewood stack, and three other neighbors. Sally focused on a particular potential hiding place enough to rouse human suspicion, but no bird. Telly, the Shiba Inu next door, focused on getting to Sally’s food. No bird. Was it possible it actually left on its own? Eventually, I had to bring Aaron, the cat responsible for all this turmoil, in for the night. I had to to close the outside door. I retreated to my bedroom, door closed, expecting to wake to carnage.

Nothing. Perhaps the bird really did leave on its own. There’s no sign of it and neither Aaron nor Sally are interested in looking for it. I have cleaned the floors anew. Unstacked firewood makes a huge mess. The bird doesn’t seem to be anywhere in this house. I hope it’s outside, happily being a bird again, albeit one that’s a little more careful of large black cats.

The take-away points are three. First, don’t worry about having a short word-count at the end of your first draft. NaNo aims for 50,000 words. An adult novel is half again as long, at minimum. First draft is a time to plow through and get the story down, to turn the ephemeral into the physical. Don’t go for perfect, go for the line from the beginning through the middle to the end.

Second, while I strongly believe in writing consistently once I begin a first draft, sometimes writing isn’t in front of the keyboard. It’s silencing your mind and letting the process flow. Just make sure you’re doing that, and not drowning the process in conversation, drugs, liquor, sex, a new book, a new band or any other distraction, or bashing yourself because you’re not at your desk with words pouring out. Honor this part of the process; give it a chance to work. When you recognize that this is part of the creative process, it’s possible to plan for it.

Third, except when it isn’t. Life happens. Life gets in the way. The absolutely only way to deal with this is to recognize your art, your writing, is your priority and step back on the metaphorical horse and ride on.

And best of luck to that little blackbird.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

MOAR MUSES (And Miscellany)

I'm beginning to learn that any hope for a "meaty" article going up on Wednesday is predicated on having a productive weekend, and not one spent running around Southern California putting out familial fires.  One of these days I'm going to have a "normal" week, I swear.

But that's okay since I have some important announcements to make, and I'm behind on various other clean up efforts. And of course I'm starting to send out thank you notes.


While we literally couldn't do everything we do here at Writing About Writing (whether it's take a night off to focus on writing, get a babysitter tag in for a few hours a week to focus on writing, posting daily–sometimes even twice–on weekdays, getting up more than one "meaty" article a week, or giving really nice donations to children's literacy programs), some of our donors and supporters go far above and beyond our average donation of about $15.  The patron muses have donated lump sums to Writing About Writing that make me gasp in horror and check to make sure that they are going to be able to afford rent, set up substantial monthly donations, were my "biggest fan" and encouraged me back before anyone (but them) really even knew I was writing at all, help me by beta reading and pointing out my mistakes so posts aren't even worse, and sometimes who just like and share so much stuff on W.A.W.'s Facebook Page that I know over the years, I've been seen by probably tens of thousands more people because of their influence on the FB algorithm. And of course my impeccable sense of decorum prevents me from going into detail about any hawt groupie action that may have inspired me.

So today I am breathlessly honored to add Ginger and Anna to our list of patron muses, bringing the total to eight: Ginger, Anna, Laura, Gillian, Alisha, Kelly, Terra, and Tracesea.

Don't forget there's always room for one more!

Still grinding out some thank you notes. The first of them should start going out today. (They have kind of a "core" similarity, but each one is actually written to each donor because I just can't stand to send form letters.)

Lastly, we got the first of our "Blogust" fund raiser feedback back. After trying for hours and even waiting a couple of days for an e-mail to get back to me, I gave up on trying to send that money to the overall Oakland Reads org, and just went into their "Classes in need" section and gave to those.

Mrs. Solly got the tail end of our $535, so she still has $339 if anyone wants to help her out.

The other $500 got spread around a bit, and I will share those thank you notes with you as they come in, since they are essentially thank you notes to all of YOU!

Thank you all so much!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Memo: Death Approaches

Shown here already rocking birthday swag.
What a doof!
Dear Chris:

The staff here at writing about writing would like to remind you that you are now one year closer to dying than last year at this time. 

And now, after reading that last paragraph, you're even closer. 

Also happy womb liberation day and all that crap. As you know, the first duty of a prisoner is to escape.  This is true of whatever confines hold them. This includes poorly paid guest bloggers and their mental prisons, or cushy wombs that take care of one's every need.

Viva la resistance.

Also, we demand that you make an alteration to your will to leave us the Writing About Writing compound upon your death so that we can sell it off piecemeal for cash turn it into a profitable endeavor. This is to make up for all the years of working for free exposure and half price W.A.W. t-shirts.

Sorry to be macabre. I know this isn't "natal felicitations" talk. But the inexorable march of time means we have to start thinking pragmatically. Really you look a little rough around the edges these days. We can't be sure you don't have a fatal underlying condition. Can we?

We will kindly refrain from mentioning today how you really needs to fucking do something about the Evil Mystery Blogger who keeps hacking into the signal and dispensing bad advice. For this one day we will not mention that you have been derelict in your duty and we will not needle you to get the fuck on it. We will not mock your loser-like indecision and lack of action. 

But just for today.

Oh and the groupie threesome you tried to hook up (again) this year. We regret to inform you that it was looking pretty good, but when they found out you were a writer, a couple of them canceled. Are you SURE this job is as glamorous as you were led to believe?

Best wishes for another year of approximately 34.2% less jazz hands,

The Staff at Writing About Writing
P.S. Please don't tell people you're thirty. It's getting fucking embarrassing. Please don't go try to buy spiced rum so you can get carded and feel better about your mid-life crisis. Just buy a sports car like everyone else. (It might help with the groupies.) 

Awww. You guys are the best.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cishet White Male Authors and Their Characters (Part 1)

What is my writing responsibility as a white cis het male?   

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I'll mostly get back to the hard questions in under a month. Mostly.]

Joe asks:

For a while, I've been thinking about fair representation of non-white het cis folks in literature and what my responsibilities are as a writer. Then I re-read your Mailbox topic today about the industry being whitewashed [I added the link there -Chris], so it prompted me to ask: What is, in your opinion, my responsibility as a white cis het male when it comes to representing other types of people? I often feel an obligation to write such characters, but I'm reluctant because 1) I don't know those perspectives, 2) I'm not nearly experienced enough as a writer to do it well, and 3) I don't have a natural interest at this time to write characters outside of my experience.

That is, main/POV characters.

My reply:

I love these easy peasy questions. They mean I get to knock it off and play my Night Elf Druid before noon, and that's what really matters in life. But, just so you know, if you guys want to ask me what I'm watching on Netflix these days for the next Mailbox question, I'm okay to dig into something crunchy.

In one of those weird coincidences that look like the universe engineering life (to those unfamiliar with the laws of large numbers) I actually got this question three times over the last month (and once more since I started writing it.) And I got the question in enough different forms and slight variations that it's going to take me two parts to answer it fully.

Also worth noting before we dig in: I'm so so sorry that it took so long to finally sit down and write it, but it is important to me to try to get it right–important enough to not slap dash it up to the blog while I was sick or didn't have time to really put into it. It turns out that this is an anxiety of mine as well, and it involved a bit of research and a lot of careful thinking.

Joe's question is actually easier to answer because of his last few sentences.

Joe, if you were an established author, with a broad collection of books that were all from the perspective of a cis het white male, I might encourage you to embrace the professional challenge of exploring other voices that were further from you in terms of social oppression. (This has less to do with financial or commercial success or number of books published and more to do with pushing comfort zones.) Some authors definitely seem limited in the scope of the perspectives they are willing to portray. Cis het white male urban wizard is not so different than cis het white male starship captain, after all.

But that is over the arc of a career. For a writer still finding their inner voice, and struggling with writing their first or second book, they should really write what embiggens their passion. Assuming that we're talking about the focalizer characters, and not a lack of diversity in the book's cast overall (this is technically a different, and even bigger, problem), you should write from the point of view that compels you to the page.

Write the story you want to read.

If you want a challenging point of view perspective, write a challenging point of view perspective. If you want to tackle issues, tackle them. If you want your focalizer to be a cishet white dude, that's okay too. It is perfectly possible to explore and examine important issues through the POV of a cis het white dude who is discovering that a lot of what he thought he knew is based in his own privilege.

But changing something just to change it can actually be tokenizing, and leads to characters who are flat and whose identity only exists in order to be not what they aren't.

Unfortunately, it's easier with questions like these to point out what not to do. Because there are problems and there are problems. And then there's this vast area that is really up to each individual to decide. Personally, I have opted out of traditional publishing, read mostly authors that are not cishet white men, and try to make every main character I write either unlike me in terms of privilege in at least one way or use their voices as something of an indictment of remaining entitled about those things.

But who am I to be prescriptive? You'll have to decide for yourself how far you want to go. All I can really suggest is a couple of things to be extra careful about. Just keep this in mind when you're doing the calculus of how much you want to do or not do in your own writing: the phrase is not, "If you're not a part of the problem, you're part of the solution."

One thing you want to be careful of is making a story about another's struggle into a story about your POV character. If this is the journey of a white person discovering that racism is real (even without burning crosses and lynchings) that's okay, but you want to be careful to back off your POV's emotional filter if your real story is how a black person in New York deals with racist double standards.

Gatsby is the main character even though Nick is the narrator. A story about Nick would not really have been even remotely interesting even with Gatsby in it. Nick is, at best, reactionary and a bit unemotional but mostly he is just not the real story. The same thing is true of appropriating a struggle for equality to be all about the white person observing it. If it's really a story about someone else, be careful with making it a story about your POV character and their feelings and their processing and how they dealt with everything. Not that this isn't a worthy point of view that could be explored with artistic integrity, but you should understand the full context before trying it: this is the trouble a lot of social justice movements run into–they encounter a tremendous number of whites or cishet folks or men (and especially combinations) who come to their movements and derail them those movements to make them all about how the tactics or rhetoric makes them feel. (This is one of the reasons the concept of "safe spaces" is so integral to social justice.) You can touch on your POV character's feelings, of course, but be aware of the implications of focusing on them.

Here's another thing you really don't want to do: write your character in these stories to be the savior of the marginalized people who just needed your character to come along. There's a fine line between using one's privilege to amplify the voices of the marginalized, and stealing the microphone from them. If you make your character just showing up to the struggle suddenly the most important character in it, your story is going to be intensely problematic. "Oh where would this struggle have been if it weren't for POVCHAR to show up and tell the downtrodden people's tale to those in power." Or even worse than this,  "POVCHAR joined the fight and led the marginalized to their just victory." And you can see this bullshit in everything from The Help to Avatar.

Lastly, by Zeus's flaming holy left nut, seriously what you really really really really don't want to do is fucking change a real story so that it now has a "relatable" cis het white male character who gets credit for something that a person who has less privilege did historically. Or in the case of Stonewall, making a cis gay white male do something that a trans woman of color actually did.

Beyond those problems though, it's very hard to tell you what you ought to do. It's the industry and tropes and society that are broadly problematic not any one author's failure to be didactic. It's up to you to decide how much "course correction" your writing should involve.

Yes, lot of cishet white male writers check the "None" box, so just the fact of this question is somewhat encouraging. Individual authors fail to be inclusive or fail to consider how gender or race (or whatever) matters in the worlds they create because they're writing from a lived experience where those things don't matter to them. The real problem is bigger than what you are impassioned to write, Joe. The bigger problem is that only a certain kind of culture keeps being published, read, and perpetuated within the industry.

Still, generally, your white male characters can be meaningful if they proceed through the world with the same empathy and concern for equality that you clearly do, Joe.

We all exist in our writing, always. It is almost impossible (without perhaps direct conscious effort) for you to ask these questions and care about these issues and not write in ways that challenges the status quo–even if you do not do so directly. So if you are careful of the pitfalls, you will likely find your "responsibility" attending to itself, especially over time.

But I'm going to go into even more detail in a second post because the other versions of this question didn't have the same caveats, or were from those wanted to know if it was possible to write points of view of other characters at all. And writing those characters is a whole other can of worms with lots of different advice.

Part 2 coming soon.