Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Going There

This post is really born from two different sources…

One, THE COURAGE TO WRITE: HOW WRITERS TRANSCEND FEAR by Ralph Keyes – a recommendation from Rachel, if you remember from our book giveaways. (Unfortunately, I only made it halfway through this one before I finally had to call it quits and give it back to the library. They were sending me all of these overdue messages for some reason. Greedy muthas. I'll get it again soon, tho. J)

Anyway, one of the bits in Keyes' book that really struck me is when he said that we, as writers, have to be willing to Go There. (I'm paraphrasing.) What did he mean by that? Well, he basically meant that we have to be willing to take our writing into certain dark places that perhaps we're a bit scared to show others. We could be scared because it too closely resembles our own life experiences, character traits, etc. and we really don't want to share because it's far too personal to us—or those close to us. It could be that we're scared because we're uncomfortable tackling a subject matter that might cast its shadow back on us. i.e. if we manage to convincingly write about an abuse victim, some people may believe we ourselves were once victims of abuse. Or even worse, if we can write about someone who molests young children, does that mean we secretly harbor such fantasies?

Uncomfortable yet? Well, that's really the point, right?

Two, I've been on this huge Stephen King kick lately. This past year had me listening to most of the Gunslinger series and several others, including THE STAND, which I'm in the middle of right now. If you've read any of his books, you know you can count on some seriously weird shit. I'm talking characters that disgust you beyond all measure. Characters that seem to have no moral compass and do completely depraved things. If you've read THE STAND, you probably remember Harold Lauder (sp?), the pimply, masturbating geek who just so happens to be a sociopath. Just reading about him makes my skin crawl a bit.

If there's one thing King does well, it's the cringe-worthy character. Just think about the father from DOLORES CLAIBORNE, the old witch from WIZARD AND GLASS, the Sisters from RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION…the list goes on. He is definitely not afraid to tackle seedy character types.

With Keyes' book in mind, I started thinking about how Stephen King is perceived by readers. I think most writers are able to distinguish the writer from his/her work. While I've certainly been made uncomfortable by some of the things King writes about, I've never thought to myself…oh man, this man is SICK. Obviously he has some pipeline right into the minds of twisted individuals. That must mean he's thought and/or done these things. That he uses his books to act out his fantasies.

No, I've never thought any of these things…but what about other people? I mean, who hasn't heard the myth that Stephen King sold his soul to the devil and that's why he's so successful? Pretty absurd, but given how long that particular gem has been floating around, is it really that farfetched that some people might equate his characters with the man himself? Makes you think, huh? I for one am extremely glad he goes there. His characters may be evil personified at times, but damn, I sure as heck remember them. They have made a mark and I applaud his nerve to take his writing There.

Now, just because I've focused on the "bad" doesn't mean the comparisons won't spring up in other areas. Let me give you one example I've experienced. LOL. When I finished the original FAKING IT, I gathered ALL of my courage and let a couple of family members read it. It has to be the most terrifying thing I've ever done – well, other than actually being in the room when people read and/or critiqued my work, but I digress.

My aunt finished it and I'll never forget her comments…or those of my mother. My mother said something along the lines of… "It's just SO sexual." And though she didn't say it aloud, it was fairly clear she assumed I had done all of the things (cough) my character had. My aunt said something like… "It was just so hard to read because I didn't want to picture my niece doing those things.

In their minds, Madison in bed = Jen in bed.


*smacks forehead*

What the heck would they think if I wrote a graphic sex scene? What about a rape? What about a murder? What about some petty shoplifting? What about masturbation? What about… the list goes on.

It's almost funny how quickly you could write yourself into a corner if you let fear of what others will think stop you from Going There. The truth is, you SHOULD be uncomfortable with certain things. Being uncomfortable means you're stretching yourself to new levels…new characterizations that you've never tackled before. Chances are if you're uncomfortable, your readers will be uncomfortable too. I'd almost venture to say that if you've never been made uncomfortable by your own writing, you're doing something wrong. Dig deeper. Go There.

Just some food for thought. (g)


  1. Jen -- Maddison in bed = Jen in bed...Mruwahahahahahahaaaa. That (that being me =character) is the number one thought that makes my steps falter and the sweat bloom when I think about being published. "Holy Sh*t!, my friends and neighbors are going to look at me and think, 'so that's how it is...'" Gak! LOL, of course I then thing, well I better make it good!

    OTOH, I've read a LOT of complaints from writers about how barely any of their friends actually read their books. So maybe we've got little to worry about anyway. *bg*

  2. "OTOH, I've read a LOT of complaints from writers about how barely any of their friends actually read their books."
    I think that's the case with me. My mom'll read anything so I'm always wary of her criticism, but at least, since I'm writing YA, I hope she doesn't think 13 year old Austin is me! Plus, she writes a little here and there, so I think she sort of understands the distinctions.
    I have no idea what would happen if I was writing Janet Evanovich type stuff or books like The Lovely Bones (which I haven't read yet) or The Birth House - stuff that my friends might actually read. What would they think then?
    I always liked DG's story about taking tea with some reading group ladies who were all deploring Jack Randall and Diana was thinking to herself how they didn't realise he was sitting there with them :-)

  3. I do read that way. Sometimes I'll throw in my own personal experience (albeit quite converted and hidden) into my own stories, and it's a mix of curiosity and comparison to see if I can find those special moments in other authors works.

    Stephen King has always seemed just a little weird to me, but that's because I don't think I could bring myself to write in his genre. I'm not comfortable with horror and it's as foreign to me as someone who prefers classical to rap music. Just not my thing and the other guy is strange. But to each their own.

    And that's not to say I haven't written a creepy character before - I once had a dark, pedophile who had a habbit of ripping off his own fingernails because he liked the pain. *shudders* When my readers met him they gave me the strangest looks and couldn't understand how I could invent such a nasty man! It stems back from an old piano teacher (a woman) who accidentally lost a nail. The black finger grossed me out then and still does now.

    I guess because the most interesting/disturbing aspects of some of my work ARE founded in abstract bits of my life, I just assume it's the same with other writers.

  4. When I told my mother I'd finished my first draft, her only question was "Is there any sex in it?", followed by a prudish sniff.
    "Hell yeah," was my answer. And then she turned the conversation to her orange tree.

    I *really* don't want to be in the room with her if she ever reads my book!