Artistic Freedom

On February 4, 2010, April asked, Have you ever had an idea for a story that you love (and love its characters) but were too embarrassed to tell it? Perhaps something that’s terribly violent, or overly mushy, or focuses on a topic that you find fascinating but you’re afraid of being made fun of for it.

If you have, what did you do? Leave it? Change it? Tell it anyway?

I have a story that’s been rolling around in my brain for about 10 years that I *love* but have never put down on paper. It’s really romantic, and I’m afraid of what my friends and family would think if I let them read it. (Hearing all the bashing of the “Twilight” series only intensifies my embarrassment.)

Then, on February 17, April added this related question:  On a different note, I have another question—though it ties into my “embarrassed” question I asked the other week: What if you want to write a story where the main characters have a belief (moral, ethic, religious… whatever) that is very different than yours? I’m a Christian, and I worry about the reaction I’d get, both from Christians and non-Christians, if I wrote a story where the main characters clearly do NOT believe what I do, and that in their story that’s fine (vs. by the end they’ve been “fixed” to believe what I do). I hope that question makes sense.

Taking the first question first, a possible reason for not telling a story you want to tell is if telling it will hurt someone.  Years ago, I was asked to contribute to an anthology of memoir pieces about grandmothers.  Since my father was an orphan (family history that I fictionalized in Dave at Night), I had only one grandmother, and I hated her.  She had died years before, but my uncle was still alive, and I didn’t want to upset or embarrass him, so I talked to him about the project.  He said I could go ahead.

If he’d preferred I not write the story I wouldn’t have, at least not during his lifetime.  However, I’m not sure I would always feel bound by this self-imposed restriction.  If there were a story I felt I had to tell, that was very important to me, I might warn the person who might be hurt and tell it anyway.  Or, if it were going to be published in something the person would be unlikely to see, I might take the craven course and say nothing.

As for romance writing, there is romance in most of my books.  In Ella Enchanted and Ever, love is a major thread.  In literature and life, romance is an eternal theme.  At every stage in life, loving and being loved are huge.  So I think there is no shame in writing romance.  I have read and enjoyed romance novels, and if you do it well, you will be contributing to the genre.

As for shame, I can think of two possibilities, and you can do both.  Of course I don’t know your friends and family, but you can tell them that a romance is what you want to write next and see what happens.  The response may be different from what you expect, and it is likely to vary from person to person.  If you are made to feel bad you might reveal that you are a little bit fragile on the subject and you would like support and not ridicule or criticism.

And – or – you can adopt a pseudonym.  If you like, you can inhabit the pseudonym.  Ivorie Moonstar is writing this story, not April, and Ivorie is totally into romance, the romancier the better.  You can keep Ivorie your secret or you can share her.

The thing about writing is that it should always be about the writing.  Short of violating our core beliefs – you won’t tie up your children to make time to write, and you won’t rob a bank so you can quit your day job to write – we writers need to carve out intellectual and emotional space.  It may be that not writing the romance is clotting up your other writing.  Once it’s written, you may find a surge of creativity that takes you to new and surprising places.

So I say, go for it.

Now for the second question, which is also about artistic freedom.  Whenever we can pull it off, it is great, marvelous, and magnificent to invent complex characters with their own interior lives and even their own belief systems and to not judge them.  If they come to life and play out their conflicts on the page, the writer is doing good work.  I don’t always achieve this.  I’m not sure I ever do in a full way, but I value it.  I’m aiming for it.

Take Peter Pan, for example.  In the original novel by James M. Barrie, and not in any other version of the story that I know of, Peter, in addition to being brave and good-hearted, is vain, despotic, and entirely self-centered.  Barrie lets him be and still makes the reader love him.  It’s quite a feat.

One of my favorite characters that I’ve written is Vollys, the dragon in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.  She’s evil, but she’s also complicated and lonely.  Some readers wish I had made her become good in the course of the story, but if I had, I would have taken away her essence, and she would have diminished.

There’s also Wilma, the main character in The Wish, who wants desperately to be popular, not a particularly worthy or self-respecting goal.  But it is what she craves, and I decided to go with that.  She gets reformed a degree or two by the end of the book, but there’s no one-eighty.  She’s still a girl who is over-eager to be liked.  One of Wilma’s friends is a supremely judgmental character, who isn’t all bad.  I don’t change her.

On the other hand, I haven’t so far managed to have humans kill other humans in any of my books.  I may someday.  I have nothing against murder in books or movies, but I haven’t been able to commit it.

Writing for me is a largely subconscious process.  My perspective creeps in no matter what I do.  Inevitably everyone’s does.  If you can develop characters who are unlike you, whose actions may be unpalatable to you, and if you can treat them with sympathy, this is a tribute to the largeness of your nature.

But, you may be thinking, if you write compassionately about a bully, for example, then real bullies may feel even freer to behave badly.  I don’t think so.  A real bully who is a complex person (and a reader) is likely to react in any of the ways people do:  be unaffected, understand something about himself or herself, experience empathy, sympathize with the victim, laugh, cry, stop reading.

I suppose it is possible to write something that will horrify you.  You don’t have to publish it or show it to anyone.  You can revise it, tame it, and bring it back as something that pleases you.

So I say again, go for it.

If you are an adult writing for children – unless you’re aiming for the older end of young adult fiction – you do have to hold back, not so much in subject matter but in the way you handle whatever subject matter you choose.  I don’t generally find this restrictive because I’m naturally drawn to writing for kids.  If you do feel as if you’re in a straightjacket, then children’s literature may not be for you.  Or you may need another outlet as well.  Poetry does that for me.  I’ve written poems that don’t work for kids, that they wouldn’t be interested in, but that satisfy me.

April, I’m grateful for your question.  This is such an important topic.  Alas, no prompt is coming to me, except this general one:  Set your imaginations free.  Write what calls out to you, and save whatever it is.  And have fun!

  1. That was wonderful. Your words are extremely encouraging to read, and if it makes sense, optimistic. Loved this post, has to be my favourite. I, too, have the same problem as April – I have a plot that can strictly be classified as romance, and I would be *too* embarrassed to show it to anyone! I've started writing random scenes for it – through which I've discovered that there might be some action – but I know I can never show my family, haha.
    And I liked the character of Vollys – at first, I was surprised to find you had killed her off – her 'playing' with Addie almost led me to believe she had a compassionate side, and that she might ultimately do good or something. The Two Princesses of Bamarre has to be my favourite after Ella Enchanted – I LOVE Ella Enchanted. Ever also seems a good one, from the excerpt I've read. Btw, I heard you were planning a sort of prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre? That may be entirely wrong, of course, but before you started this blog, I used to stalk your wikipedia page from time to time, hoping for updates, and this is what little I gleaned from it. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for this post, Mrs. Levine! Both questions were excellent, and I had problems with both of them. For number one, because I don't usually like reading romance, but sometimes it finds its way into my stories anyhow. Sometimes my siblings, cousins, or friends tease me about that, especially since they all know that I don't read romance. I've overcome that, putting in romance when necessary now.

    Another suggestion for question one would be to just write it out, without worrying who will look at it. (If you're the person who has a story notebook everyone wants to look at *coughcoughlikemecoughcough*, maybe this would be better in a journal.) Once you have your work finished, and have edited it and gone over it as much as you can stand, find a trustworthy friend that you know won't tell everyone. Get their advice first, and if you get good feedback, introduce it to similar people. Once your story has been developed nicely, then introduce it to others.

    I especially like the idea of a psuedonym, especially the part about making it up.

    I know that some people post their work up on online sites where readers can review. I don't do this because these stories can sometimes get stolen (and I don't actually write in that sort of way), but it works for some people.

    Thanks again, Mrs. Levine! (Thanks for asking the question, Mrs. April! Some of these questions I've had for forever, but haven't asked.)

  3. Great and intriguing thoughts. Thanks for answering those questions.

    Though I feel as if you left the second question's answer a little bare.
    The issue is not "Should I write something that might horrify ME" but the issue is "Do I, as a Christian, have a greater moral obligation to GOD and to my READERS to stick to moral characters?"

    As a Christian writer (not yet published though), I would still say go for it on the basis that the creative process was created by God, and He put your creativeness in you. Write it out, see what you get, and ask the Lord about it. If it still bugs you, ask another Christian to read over it for you and voice your concerns too them.

    As a general rule, I think God is more glorified when we stay true to our artistic sense than when we try to inject a moral or an ideal into a book that otherwise would have shown forth in its natural beauty.

  4. That's a really inspiring post. I don't really have that kind of problem, when I have an idea for a plot that's a little embarassing, although I sense it creeping upon me at times. But I think that the idea of our creativity not being limited by what others would think is really important- isn't that what liberty is all about? (sorry, we're studying a bit of democracy at school) I think that, though, if we do write something that could hurt someone's feelings, we shouldn't use really harsh words- although that seems a bit obvious. Or maybe, make it so that the reader can see your point of view, even if it's not quite your point of view and they might not agree.

    Thanks, Mrs. Levine, for all of the writing tips! They really do help. 🙂

  5. Those were fantastic questions April! I loved this post, Mrs Levine.
    I agree totally, sometimes I've been much too embarrassed to put down a story with romance, but I've managed to overcome that by repeating the fact that no one will ever read it (hopefully!), and I certainly can never show my parents any of that lol!
    I'm actually a Hindu, but I"m thinking that we're talking about the same values and God here. I've never been able to make my characters do things I don't believe in, unless they are the bad guys, but I do think its fine do write things that does not go with your own values. It depends on how much you love you story I think.
    I mean, when I read Interview With a Vampire, I was stunned into shock for quite a while and the horrific things in there, and then realised they weren't exactly reflecting the author herself, whom I read was a Christian. Anyway, I did find that horror was not my thing. I much too meek for that.=)

  6. What an interesting post!

    I think it is related to some advice that I have heard about writing, which is that to be a great writer you need to write about something that makes you uncomfortable. So, April, maybe you need to go for it and then see how you like it when you are done. Ask yourself, now that I have written it, would I want to read it? Or if it is for kids, would I want my child to read it?

    I have a manuscript that I have written that makes me uncomfortable, because it has the word "poop." in it. 🙂

    You see, I was writing to the prompt in Writing Magic that said to write about someone looking for something. So I was writing along about an old lady looking around in the garden for something, and as I wrote, it turned out she had lost her wig. I wasn't sure where she was going to find it until… "A bird pooped on her head." Now, I would never intentionally write a word like that, it just happened.

    But I liked the story and I have revised it many times into a picture book. But I still can't get up the courage to submit it. Because it has the word "poop" in it.

    So now when I think about my "need to write something that makes me uncomfortable," it makes me laugh. I don't think that would qualify for most people, but I am so glad that it does for me, so that I don't have to write about all those other things that make me uncomfortable. 🙂

    F- Two Princess is also my favorite after Ella Enchanted!

  7. I deeply sympathize with April's last problem. A very close friend and I have started a novel together, and the novel features male/male romances. Most of my hardcore Catholic family would be absolutely repulsed by this. I'm considering a pen name, but at the same time, I'm proud of my characters, I'm proud of my own beliefs, and I don't want to dishonor my writing partner by putting down a "false" name next to hers.

    There are still many months (even years) to go before we finish this project together, so I have time to think about it. But it's such a frustrating, creativity-inhibiting thing to deal with.

  8. Thank you for the great post! Sometimes I have the same problem as her–with any of my stories. I don't usually show anyone my work outside of my family.

    I have my own question. I've always wanted to try incorporating romance into my stories, but I've never really known how to write a romance well without it seeming, I don't know, too sappy? I don't know if you've answered this in a different post, but do you have some tips for writing romance?

  9. F–I have thought about a prequel to THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE. I don't know if I'll get to it, though, because I keep thinking of other things I want to try. We'll see.
    Marzo–I'm not a romance genre writer, and I think there are rules I don't know about, but I bet you can find books on the subject. However, I always enjoy making characters fall in love, so I'll add that to my list of future posts.

  10. I finally bought Writing magic! I had planned to go through and read everything plus do the prompt but sometimes I only have time to read or I am just too lazy (which I need to work on). I will probably do all the prompts over the summer. Woo-hoo! Vacation time is approaching!

  11. Ms. Levine – Yay, I'm glad! Of course, it is always hard having so many ideas in your head (currently, there are quite a few I want to write, but…time management is my vice.) Anyway, can't wait to read anything you come up with – I love your style.

    @Erin: Haha, I know what you mean by the word 'poop' disturbing you! Some words just make you uncomfortable! Like sometimes I want to reference something to make a point, but that 'something' I actually find annoying, and that ruins the whole vibe of what I'm writing for me, lol. That make sense?

  12. Ok so after reading that my question is does this all cross over to you shouldnt dry down fight scene's? my book is the same age as yours, but I try not to go into too much detail or make it sound gory? I figured I wanted parents to be more comfortable with their kids reading it?

  13. Oh and Also I read the comments about the princesses of Bamarre I totally did stalk wiki too! But I really was hoping for a second one after cuz then rys is in it! Like pick up where it left off! But thats just me I would prolly wnjoy it either way.!

  14. This was very encouraging to read. Thank you.

    I think I may struggle over this a little longer, but your advice definitely makes me feel like dipping my toes in a lake I've always stood 10 yards away from. Maybe someday soon I'll be able to really jump in and swim.

    By the way, I completely agree with you that not writing these stories makes it hard to get out any other stories. They all feel… stilted, somehow. And I know I can do better than that.

    I hadn't thought about the possibility of hurting someone's feelings, but now that I stop and consider it, I have been planning a story based on my late grandmother's life (she was really inspiring, let me tell you). But since I'd have to fictionalize some details for the sake of the story, I should probably have my grandpa and a few other relatives okay it first. Thank you for suggesting that.

    Reesha: I suppose a good part of it is that, too. I often want to create fantasy stories where they have cultures and religions of their own. For those, I'll take your advice.

    As for the horror aspect, I'm not into the horror genre (I get nightmares too easily), but I do have stories I want to tell in which murder takes place. I'll have to weigh those kinds of issues and decide if I need to gloss over the details more/hold back.

    Erin: Submit it! Kids love the word "poop" anyway. 😉

    Loretta: I think the general consensus of this post and its comments are that you should write it all out, and then go back and see if you need to scale back the violence/gore in revision depending on your target audience.

    Gail, again, thank you so much for this post. These questions have been burning in my chest for a long time. I finally feel some relief. I'm so grateful for this blog!

  15. I, too, sometimes get ideas that I don't show to anyone because they seem weird or violent. My writing group consists of my Mom, who is great at coming up with ideas and giving advice. But sometimes, I find myself embarrassed by the idea of showing her certain stories, at least until I write more and figure out if they can work or not. I found this post very encouraging. I'll try not to worry about it so much, but I'm still going to finish the stories before I show anyone.

  16. I often get ideas I feel uncomfortable sharing. So, I don't share them. It doesn't mean I shouldn't write them. I say just write it out, finish it and if you still choose not to share with anyone, then don't. I think doing that is easier than holding back an idea that you really like. And don't worry about your characters contradicting your own personal beliefs. As long as your intention is not to lead readers to believe something that you yourself wouldn't believe in, then it's fine. If I wrote about a witch as the main character, that does not mean I'm promoting witchcraft or believe in it myself. In fact, often I enjoy writing about characters whose views are quite opposite from mine. It's more fun.
    =) Good luck!

    PS. I would love, love, love to read a Princesses of Bamarre sequel/prequel/anything-equal.

    PPS. Another great post Mrs. Levine!

  17. I must admit, I haven't even finished reading your post. I only read the first paragraph or so, but it makes me so happy to know a professional author sometimes has the same inhibitions about writing things down as anyone else. I'm going to go finish reading it now…. 🙂

  18. Hi Gail,
    I really just loved Vollys. And I wouldn't have hoped for her to suddenly turn good; I don't know why, I just loved her the way she was.
    The only thing I wasn't expecting is for Addie to kill her, that took me by surprise.

    I also think that writing stories with characters who possess far different beliefs than yours is a wonderful thing. Other than your point on artistic freedom, this also helps you look at the world from another perspective, which is just good for your character.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

  19. Thank you! Yes, embarrassing plots are definitely a problem. I agree with your viewpoint on Vollys. Not all characters are completely good, that would be boring. Thanks again for the tips. 🙂

  20. This isn't a comment about the post but i was unsure where to put general fanmail. i just wanted to thank you for your books, Ella Enchanted was my favorite book when i was younger, and i remembered it when in my english class when we were assigned an author bio paper. so i did my paper on you which was really interesting (i want to read Dave at Night now i didn't know it was based upon your father), and i thought i'd post it on here so you can read it if you have the time, and tell me if i got anything wrong lol, but i just wanted to thank you again for your books they are wonderful and thank you for being the subject for my paper. 🙂
    (btw my thesis was how your childhood experiences were a big influence on your writing basically)

  21. Author Research Paper on Gail Carson Levine
    “I am a writer because of the books I read as a child and how important books were to me as a child” Levine said in an interview (New Moon Girls, web). This statement really emphasizes the point of how her childhood experiences are really the foundation that her writing relies on. Her parents’ creative influence is one of those experiences. As well as her own activities that began during her childhood and continued on thru adulthood. Ella Enchanted and The Two Princess of Bamarre have many examples of influences from her childhood.

  22. Levine’s parents both were very involved in the arts. Her father owned a commercial art studio while her mother was a teacher who was quite creatively involved with her students. Remembering this time she said, “I grew up in New York City. My father was interested in writing, and my mother wrote full length plays in rhyme for her students to perform. Both of them had an absolute reverence for creativity and creative people, a reverence that they passed along to my sister and me…” (Gale Reference Team) Her sister was an influence as well although at first a reason to find an escape, “I had to share a room with my sister, who is five and a half years older than I am. We didn’t get along well, and I felt that I had no privacy. So books were my privacy…”, (Smith, web) Levine related. Later however her first dreams, before she wanted to write,
    were to be a painter like her older sister or act (her sister is a professor of the fine arts, and paints Jamaican subject).

  23. In school she however was very involved in writing. “She was a charter member of the Scribble Scrabble Club in Elementary School, and in High School her poems were published in an anthology of student poetry” (Kids Reads, web). Being involved in all this still she said, “When I was a kid I never wanted to be a writer particularly…” (Tween Parents) She continued on in life in theater and the art. As this quote is an example of, “My husband David wrote the music and lyrics and I wrote the book for a children’s musical…” (Scholastic) She felt that her work wasn’t good enough however as an artist as she related in an interview with Tween Parents, but after taking a class on Childrens’ writing and illustrating she found in the writing aspect of it she gave herself a break. From there began her writing career.
    In Ella Enchanted the reader can find many instances were her childhood could very much have had influence. When in the book Ella is sent away to school she isn’t very popular there and has only one true friend this passage relates what she was feeling after being punished with no dinner and breakfast after getting in trouble and being upset about others being unkind to her, “I wanted to throw myself on a bed and cry about being so hungry and about everything else” (Levine, p. 66) Levine can relate having not been
    very popular at times herself as she stated, “I had a bad, unpopular tenth grade” (Smith, web) In The Two Princesses of Bamarre about two sisters who couldn’t be more different
    as shown in this passage the difference between their personalities, one being fearful and one brave, “Once, when I was four years old and playing in the castle courtyard, a shadow passed over me. I shrieked, certain it was a gryphon or a dragon. My sister, Meryl, ran to me, and held me, her arms barely long enough to go around me…” (Levine, p. 1) Levine had an older sister who she herself was very different her sister being five and a half years older, so this novel reflects that very much.

    In writing a writer can have many inspirations, but in Levine’s work her childhood is clearly a major factor. Ella Enchanted and the Two Princess of Bamarre are Prime examples of her experiences with her sister, and some in school. Her family’s tremendous influence first her parents with their creative influence both being involved with the arts, then in school as she became involved in some writing but in art and other things as well. These Factors shaped incredibly imaginative novels budding from instances as a child loving books, such as fairy tales, as she said, “There’s never a dull moment in a fairy tale and they’re always about important stuff-greed, jealousy, death, love, courage, kindness”. (Smith, web) Today she is inspiring a future generation of children, through writing workshops and her book Writing Magic, creating a creative background for future generations. Her unique works will continue to inspire though into the future, these literatures not only inspiring but telling a story of her youth with them.

    Works Cited
    Alexa and Fiona. “Writing Magic: An Interview with Gail Carson Levine”. New Moon Girls. 2008-2010. Web. 3-10-10.
    “Author-Gail Carson Levine”. Kids Reads. The Book Report Inc. 1998-2010. Web. 3-5-10.
    Gale Reference Team. “Biography-Levine, Gail Carson (1947-).” Contemporary Authors (Biography). Thomson Gale. 2004. Online Document from a Book (web). 3-10-10.
    “Gail Carson Levine-Biography” Scholastic. 1996-2010. Web. 3-10-10.
    Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998. Print.
    Levine, Gail Carson. The Two Princesses of Bamarre. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. Print.
    Smith, Cynthia Leitich. “Interview with Childrens’ and YA author Gail Carson Levine.” Cynthia Leitich Smith-Official Author Site and Home of Childrens YA Literature Resources. 1998-2009. Web. 3-3-10.
    Woodburn, Dallas. “Interview With Gail Carson Levine.” Tween Parents. Web. 3-10-10.

  24. Thank you so much for this post, Ms. Levine!
    I have had three *very* mushy ideas in my head for a year now, but haven't had the courage to write them until now.
    Also, I have a problem: I get so stuck in my stories because of the most annoying weakness. I can't get past anything! What I mean by that is, for example, I was working on a story yesterday. I wanted to base the story slightly on a book I had just read. The main character's friend's name was Elaine in the book, and I thought that was just perfect for MY main character's friends' name. But I knew I couldn't use that, because then it'd be too much like the book.
    My writing self wouldn't let me go past it with just a name like Beatrice Burrman and edit it later. No, I had to stay and think on a name or else I couldn't go further. Well, I never did think up a name, and now one of my best stories is abandoned. Help!

  25. call her Elaine, keep writing, and when your editing later you can find her a new name if you still think she needs it! Try a naming book or website…maybe you can find names similar to Elaine that you like just as well 🙂

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