Saturday, August 22, 2015

Breaking Your Novel Out of Your Circle

"Write what you know." Author Elif Shafak asserts in her TED Talk that taken too seriously, this piece of advice locks our creative work into an airtight bubble where it will shrivel and die. She beautifully describes the value of stretching our imaginations and writing diverse characters who live differently than we have.

I heartily agree with her. I believe that it is not only ethically good to seek an understanding or imagining of what others' experiences may be like--it is artistically important to include a variety of different characters in a work of fiction to let it come alive.

On the other hand, I also believe in the notion I've seen floating around social media lately, that in this culture of high criticism, everyone has not become "too politically correct" or "too sensitive"; we've collectively become wiser and more empathetic. We know better, and we're trying to do better. I see this striving toward representing humans better in films, books, and children's media, and where the media has not yet caught up to the mainstream public's "knowing better," there is a huge deal of criticism flooding the internet about misrepresentation of people based on gender, sexuality, race, family structure, disability, and more.

I believe that this is a promising shift, and it challenges today's storytellers to tell more thoughtful and nuanced stories with more complex characters. I think that's a good thing.

I believe that authors have both an ethical and an aesthetic obligation to produce better work than has been acceptable in the past. As an author, I challenge myself to push outside my comfort zone and take risks, knowing that I can't possibly please (or avoid offending) every person who reads my work.

I think that we should stop asking ourselves, "Should I even try writing a character who is unlike me?" and start focusing on, "How do I write my diverse characters well?"

Knowing how to write an "other" character well isn't exactly about liking people who fit the description so much as being truly interested in their experiences. It doesn't require agreement or approval, but it does require empathy. As a woman, I am acutely aware of when female characters written by male authors come off as real, vibrant humans or frail stereotypes. I don't believe men shouldn't write from women's points of view; I do believe they should try to write them well. And the only way to write a human character well is to know human people well. Based on aesthetic, qualitative issues alone, I can tell that Anton Chekhov had a better rapport with ladies than his contemporary Hans Christian Andersen. And I enjoyed reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a deeply flawed character who was nonetheless more than a simple, tired stereotype. I got the sense reading this book that Tolstoy may have had issues with women, but those issues--and women themselves--fascinated him and inspired him to write interesting narratives about women. To use another gender example, author Joyce Carol Oates has been frank about her lifelong wish to understand male violence toward women, which compels her to write almost painfully intimate narratives concerning the motivations of such men.

As a reader myself, I'm no enemy of the good. I can acknowledge the flaws in a work of art and also see its value at the same time. One of my all-time favorite books was written by a wealthy German man in the 19th century and populated with vibrant characters of all ages, both genders, and diverse classes, religions, and nationalities. Ekkehard: A Tale of the Tenth Century by Joseph Victor Von Scheffel, is filled with characters who don't stray radically far from expected roles of gender, class, religion, or nationality, giving it a strong feeling of historical realism, but they are dimensional enough to often surprise the reader and catch each other off guard. They strike a lovely balance between familiar and lively so that they feel like real, individual, human people. They are neither boring nor too far-fetched. In a hilarious display of self-awareness, Scheffel even wrote dialog for his heroine critiquing Virgil for doing a poor job of writing a believable female character.

In this same book, however, there is one ethnic population of people that is portrayed as a flat, historically inaccurate caricature. (Read my review for all the details.) This might not be apparent to a reader who knew absolutely nothing about the population misrepresented in the novel, but to pretty much any modern reader of any background, it sticks out as a jarring flaw. And even if we give the author himself a "pass" on racism or insensitivity or whatever moral failing he may not have been aware of committing in his position as a 19th century German gentleman (which I don't feel I must do, based on the evidence of his broad knowledge of the world and its human diversity), the scenes involving the ugly caricatures stand out as simply ugly.

Apart from any ethical concerns, it's a weak point in the aesthetic fabric of the novel. Being dense or insensitive about human beings isn't just an ethical issue for an artist; it's an aesthetic issue for the artist who creates portraits of human beings, whether pictorially or in words. Questions about whether the artist "was a racist" or "is a misogynist" or any other label attached to the artist are irrelevant to the work itself; the fact remains that for whatever reason, the work has failed to represent its intended subject.
So how do authors learn to "get it right" when writing diverse characters? First of all, it's critical to have a healthy interest and empathy in other people's life experiences. Characters written simply to shore up a stereotype or make someone else look good by comparison are doomed to flat inhumanity. It helps to get to know real people who share something in common with the character. When it's hard to do that, I think the next best thing would be to read a variety of books written by various people who are like your character.

author Alexandre Dumas

This careful work does not guarantee that every reader will like your character or that no one will be offended by your characterization. But I believe it's a risk that any serious artist--artist, not simple craftsperson--should consider worth taking. Otherwise, as Elif Shafak warns, we risk walling our creations into small, sterile circles of safety where they can wither away.

I found a great resource on giving advice on how to write people of color, with illustrated examples from a variety of writers.

Now let's turn the question around, because all serious authors are avid readers too.

How do you feel when you read a character who is like you in some way, written by an author who is not? Are there different times when it has it felt good, not so good, or something more complicated? Why?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Three Generations Going Up North

This summer, we went on a classic Michigan vacation! We packed multiple generations of family into a couple of cars, hit up two cheesy tourist traps along the road as well as several rest stops, and stayed at a rustic family cabin "Up North."

We made the most of it, because this is the first time my dear husband and I have been out of town in over a year! Of course, our vacations now are a lot different than before we became parents. For one thing, there is absolutely no privacy or intimacy. We're sharing a bed with a kid and a cabin with my parents. And of course, we all drive each other up the wall on occasion. But we also have a lot of fun together, with more players for games, more conversation, and more opportunities to relive childhood memories of family vacations past.

Some highlights of our classic Michigan road trip included:

  • The distinctive surf and sand of Lake Michigan. The shores of the Great Lakes offer a full sensory experience like no other. You can sense the sea of freshwater before you see it, by some indescribable quality of the clouds. Then comes the sparkle and the majestic horizon of sea and sky which somehow lend each other impossible visual depths. The wind blows cool and steady, fresh and clean with a hint of well water's metallic flavor, over warm, natural beaches studded with surf-polished Petoskey stones, other primordial ocean fossils, and weathered scraps of driftwood. The sand feels plush and just a little gritty underfoot, the delicately rugged texture of the dunes that rise in marvelous swells to their pine forested crowns. Seagulls call above the crash of curling waves, and the sun glows with the lulling, lazy smolder of long, northern summer days. The water is shallow a long way out, but the waves hit hard enough to smack a city kid upside the head and suck your feet out from under you. The spray tastes like iron and earth. 

At Petoskey State Park, the beach is draped with bodies reveling in the feels. There's no pressure to look sexy or perfect Up North, and it's a great place for a kid to learn the joys of living in a body--any body. It doesn't matter how fat or skinny, old or young, leathery or pasty-pale, bald or sasquatch-hairy. Folks of all kinds go there to feel and smell and see and find tiny treasures nesting like eggs in the dune grass. Everyone floats in a state of awe for the natural beauty of the place, all the more interesting for its odds and ends.
  • Tourist traps with the best junk food in all of 'Murica. Speaking of odds 'n ends, Michigan has the world's best rest stops along the freeway and the best Midwestern tourist traps! There are the elaborate attractions along the way like Frankenmuth (where it's a German Christmas all year long), and then there are the dinky pit stops fueled by nothing but kitsch and hype, like Cops & Doughnuts in Clare (a sweaty, geriatric diner with doughnuts that taste just like the finest of Quality Dairy's, except there are a thousand kinds of them--including inside-out jelly rolls with sandwiches fried inside of them) and the infamous Mystery Spot over the Mighty Mac in the Upper Peninsula, which is... well, you'll have to go see for yourself. I'm not telling. In between, there's Murdick's made-from-scratch fudge, supersaturated with local maple sugar and childhood memories.

  • Indigo buntings instead of alarm clocks. Indigo buntings live at the edges of forests, right outside the windows of many Up North cabins. They are bluer than blue, little neon-bright spots that hover and dart after insects and sing melodic songs through the woods every morning. Ah, Michigan!
  • Hardcore kinship bonds. Up North, it's beautiful and unique enough that whole families fall in love with it for multiple lifetimes, and it's hard enough that folks stick together. We visited my husband's family cemetery and found the graves festooned with personalized, cheeky ornaments that the deceased would have appreciated, such as zombie gnomes, sexy angels, and ethnic solar lights. My husband has two cousins in this part of the family who both had their first children on Nux Gallica's birthday--the little guy below on the very same day, and another exactly one year later. Nux's "twin cousin" is showing her the fabulous play structure his dad built, on the 10-acre compound that his extended family shares, with several houses and generations dotted through the picturesque, hilly woods.

Up North is where family memories and bonds grow! Below, Nux frolics with her grandparents. Next weekend, we'll be heading right back up the same freeway to gather at a family reunion on Houghton Lake (another area where clans cluster on connected parcels of land), this time for my branch of Nux's family tree.

  • Pristine air, water, earth, and fire. Even the dirt Up North seems clean. We city slickers don't even realize what filth we live in daily until we get out of it for a week. This is my kind of cleanse.

  • Adventure golf in the shade. There's nothing like putting 'neath the fragrant shade of a mature pine forest. Only Up North.

  • Endless trails used primarily by coyotes, deer, and giant birds. We biked and hiked through forests rich with the scents of sun-soaked meadows and pure, lush greenery, with not a sign of another human, just deer and coyote prints, lovely melodies by birds and insects, tree whispers, and the occasional heart-stopping terror of a startled grouse. If you've never startled a grouse in the woods, the beating of its wings sounds just like either a chainsaw or a charging bear. It's a thrill. We hauled Nux along for a ride from the town of Indian River through a forest.

  • A 20th Anniversary Listen to 25 for the Earth: Nature Inspired Music. When I was 12 years old and my brother was 9, our family took a road trip to the UP and bought this album at a nature center. We thought it was the greatest. I'm not gonna lie, it is New Age cheese with a variety of Michigan nature sounds mixed in. But it's absolutely the all-time best album of that description. It sounds like loons and rain and horses running through the fields, and it's the perfect drug to make a kid fall asleep blissfully in the back seat.

Michigan's North is one of the most beautiful places on this Earth, and it feels so good to share all this classic family fun and rustic adventure with our little girl.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fairy Godsisters of the Pigasus Pen

Presenting the Pigasus Pen! These women are the most important of all influences on my life in fiction. The name of our writing circle is borrowed from John Steinbeck's personal motto, "ad astra per alas porci (to the stars on the wings of a pig)." It nicely complements the earthy humor and high hopes we all share, though our writing styles and genres vary.

Pegasisters Christina, Meika, Jeannie, and Victoria

Founder Christina writes hilarious love stories with serrated edges. She also sits on the board of the fabulous Capital City Writers Association. She's a whip-smart interpreter of strange human behavior, a fearless leader of the Pen, and a wizard with glittery eyeshadow/scarf/nail art combinations. Go follow her if you're into hard gut laughs and nicely curated writing tips.

Meika also writes hilarious love stories--silly on the surface with deep undercurrents, smoking hot lusty scenes, and an offbeat aftertaste. She has an impressive eye for detail and word choice, and her youthful immersion in pop culture keep her stories fresh. Follow Meika if you're part of the Insecure Writers Support Group and also love puppies, hot movie stars, and cherry pie.

Victoria writes young adult fantasy starring adventure-seeking girls. She has a background in publishing and journalism, has lived in several countries, is married to a linguist, and participates in book groups. Oh, and she has twice as many adorable children as me, so she's an inspiration to those of us who feel compelled to produce people and novels at the same time.

And this little piggie said, wee wee wee! All the way home... to her castle in the clouds.