When we come to the keyboard as writers, we take our whole lives with us. No, this isn’t another long-winded blog post about writing what you know, it’s something else entirely. Something I’ve spent a long time celebrating, but only been able to put into words yesterday after reading an interview with David Mitchell on Salon.com.
I’ve spent my entire life being different. Unpopular. A freak, as an old neighbor so nicely yelled to my face five years ago. But I don’t think these things are bad, or were ugly experiences in my life. They strengthened me. Made me a better person. Because of those experiences, I am an individual, unafraid to think or speak up for myself, and do what I want - as long as it’s within the rules (I don’t even jaywalk).
How can this translate to writing? Easily.
There is this stratification among writers where they believe they must be a certain kind of writer. They wrote some science fiction, so they are a science fiction writer. They published three stories in literary fiction journals, so they can only write literary fiction. They want to write a memoir, so they must only write creative nonfiction to practice. I think this is limiting - not only to the stories a writer can tell, but also to the writer’s education in how to write.
I’ll get to the second point first:
Approaching a literary fiction story is very different than approaching a fantasy story or a creative nonfiction piece. As I explained at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, “Approaching and writing literary fiction is much dirtier than fantasy. With literary fiction, you really get your hands in the viscera of life and expose it to the reader for them to see, while still offering them some hope to keep going. But with fantasy, you have to reach up and try to catch that one magical thing just out of the reader’s reach and hold it only briefly so they can catch a glimpse, and then let it go while they still have that sense of wonder, and before they see how it works.” And with creative nonfiction, you’re laying your life bare on a journey that you weave in and out of lessons to the reader; you have to be both witness and educator.
By learning how to approach each different avenue - applying what I learned in how to write literary fiction to my fantasy and science fiction stories, they became stronger stories, better stories. I started getting personal rejection letters. Yes, still rejection letters, but ones with feedback, asking me to submit again. And I used what I learned from writing literary fiction and fantasy to write the essay that got published on Salon.
I stretched my muscles. And I learned from my editor at Salon how to make a story truly personal, which I will use in editing my novel, and I used in writing my latest story.
Why pigeonholing limiting to the stories a writer tells?
To paraphrase the RAC in Killjoys, “The Story is all.” I had an idea for a science fiction story. It came to me just before going to bed, and I scribbled the whole thing down furiously on 14 post-it notes. The story continued to evolve over the course of a month while I worked on my book. The main character changed, the location changed, the villains changed. I got an opening line, I had an ending, and the main character changed again. But the story remained science fiction. I’d decided I was good at science fiction and wanted to be more of a science fiction writer.
When I was writing it, the story was not science fiction. The story revealed itself as more weird-fiction/horror (no Lovecraft inspirations to be found). I didn’t scrap the story because the original idea was science fiction. I didn’t try to hammer in more of a science fiction feeling or edge, because I wanted it to be more obvious that was what I was trying to write. No, I let the story be what it wanted to be, because that is what I needed to do as a writer.
I have to trust myself and my ability that I can and am able to tell these stories in the genres they want to be told. Earlier this year, I was trying to write a literary fiction story and I realized it wasn’t working. I kept trying breathe life into this heroine in a world where she would always be a victim, and I realized she needed to exist in a science fiction universe. I was working with someone at the time who was helping me write the story, and she agreed. That particular story couldn’t be literary fiction because I realized I couldn’t do it, whereas I have written other literary fiction stories that have stood fine in the real world; those stories wanted to be told on this Earth, in our time.
To bring the two points together:
As all writers need to write as much as they can, they also need to read as much as they can. I don’t believe in reading bad books just to make myself feel better about how good my writing is. That’s a kind of literary schadenfreude I don’t subscribe to because I don’t have time to read stuff that doesn’t improve my writing, instead I need to learn how people who write better than me do it.
I read books I enjoy in all sorts of genres. Fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, poetry — I read a lot of poetry. I don’t read a lot of military fiction, because I don’t like it, but I’ve learned how to write combat and military scenes from going to panels at places like Origins Game Fair on how to write fight scenes and military battles. Plus I’ve gotten a lot about military history from reading historical fiction. There are a lot of brutal fights in Irvine Welsh’s books, and he writes wonderful literary fiction, and he choreographs very well, so I sort of use him as a study for fistfights and bar brawls. So you can learn a lot from unlikely places. Hell, although I learned a lot about writing emotional range from all the poetry I read, I also learned a lot from reading Jeff VanderMeer.
We become great by being ourselves, and being true to ourselves. That’s not only true in writing, that’s true in all things. I couldn't look in the mirror every morning if I was trying to live up to anyone else’s example but my own. Everyone marches to the beat of their own drummer, and some people’s keep consistent time. But my drummer must play in Amon Amarth — he has constant time signature changes, and there's lots of headbanging.