Better Free, Say I

On March 15, 2020, Raina wrote, Thanks for responding to my question, Gail! It really gave me a lot to think about, especially the part about how the difficult topics might be pushing me to write about them. I think that’s a very real possibility for me, but in that case, I’m running into another question/problem: how do you know/make sure you’re writing about these difficult problems “correctly”? How do you know if you have the skills/knowledge/experience/”right” to write about those problems? And how do you find the courage to write about difficult topics?

Without going into too many details, there have definitely been books recently that tried to tackle difficult topics that, due to the way they were written/presented were…not well received by readers, to say the least. And while opinions about those specific books may vary, as well as the general atmosphere of the publishing/book world currently, I think it’s pretty evident that sometimes writing something can have serious and far-reaching consequences, and good intentions aren’t enough of an excuse. I think there’s a lot of sides to this issue, and I understand why different people have different stances. Maybe what’s happening is good, maybe it’s not, but that’s an ethical discussion for another time.

But in this atmosphere, how do you know whether you should be writing what you’re writing? And how do you get over the fear of “getting it wrong”? And how can you make sure (and get over the fear of) that what you write isn’t misinterpreted by others to mean something you never intended? I know sensitivity readers are becoming more common these days, but even that isn’t failproof, and some issues aren’t directly tied to matters of identity that can be linked to a specific sensitivity reader. I guess what I’m asking is, how do you get out of your comfort zone when you feel like you don’t have a safe place you can fail?

This is a really thorny topic, I know (sorry for the string of downer questions!) but it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time.

Two of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I know what you mean. I have an unfinished story that’s sat for decades because I’m not sure I’m doing it justice. It’s about a brilliant student wizard who’s become mentally ill. He’s got the power to reshape reality-but he’s not perceiving reality the way most people are, so he kills somebody thinking he’s helping them, and his magic is sex-linked, so if he could be made to use his power to change his sex, he’d stop hallucinating…I decided it was WAY too much for me to take on.

Katie W.: Yes, my current WIP has a similar problem. My dragon MC faces severe prejudice and was abused as a child, but becomes a lovely dragon in spite of it and ends up a queen. And, no matter how I try to squish it, there’s a part of me that’s worried that people will read the story and think I’m writing it from some kind of personal experience, which I am totally not. But since I, possibly the most oblivious reader in the history of books, can see it, I’m worried others will too, even though it was never my intention. Like I said, 99% of me knows I’m probably being paranoid, but the 1% keeps worrying.

Melissa Mead (to Katie W.): Some people probably will think that. I guess the question is: How much would it bother you? Would a random person’s incorrect thoughts hurt anybody? There’s a really lovely essay in Jane Yolen’s book Once Upon A Time (she said) about how once an author puts a story out into the world it becomes each reader’s story, and they may find things in it that the author never intended. Sometimes in wonderful ways, too.

I am absolutely with Melissa Mead (and Jane Yolen) about stories belonging to readers once the stories are out with readers. If someone jumps to the wrong conclusion about something we intended, their mistaken leap doesn’t encumber us at all. Someday the writer may be interviewed about her writing and be asked if any of it is autobiographical. Then she can set the record straight forever, or she can say, mysteriously, that she leaves the matter to readers to decide!

Raina, my strongest response is that you should write what you want and tell it as well as you can. Period.

End of post.

That was a joke.

Several years ago I taught an undergraduate course in creative writing at a university. One of my students thought in stereotypes, which revealed themselves in his writing and even when he talked. He was blithely unaware of the offensiveness of some of what he said and wrote, even though other students were offended and said so. It got a little sad when he didn’t understand why he wasn’t well liked. I don’t think he meant ill; he was just so un-self-reflective that he couldn’t assimilate the feedback.

Most of us–the vast majority in general and here on the blog–are unlike him. We know that other people have feelings and perspectives that are different from ours. We don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t think we should worry much when we write or speak. If we get it wrong, we’ll be corrected and we’ll learn. That’s good.

The stakes do get higher when we’re writing for publication, but we can show our work to beta readers and ask them to focus on the areas that worry us. If a literary agent is interested in our work, she’ll point out any problem areas. Our editor will too. Mine alerted me to sensitivity around the word invalid for a person with a long-lasting illness, because the spelling is the same as for the invalid that means not valid and is pronounced differently. I was surprised, but I found another word. And I learned something.

Another thing about publishing: Timid writing doesn’t stand up well, in my opinion. If publication is our goal, we should take a stand and write boldly.

Here’s a confession: I read reader reviews on Goodreads. Not everyone likes my books. For example, some readers (many!) are grossed out by Ogre Enchanted (which I’m reading on Facebook at the moment, if you’re interested. Reading my books there is my effort to provide comfort during the pandemic. You can find my page by typing in my name.) Okay. My sense of humor is pretty broad, excepting only meanness and stereotypes, but some people don’t go for it. They have that right. My editor was untroubled, so I felt I had license to be a little outrageous. Readers have a right to dislike any or all of my books, and I have a right not to be too concerned as long as I wrote the best book I could.

If we don’t experiment, we rob ourselves of some of the greatest values of writing: the opportunity to explore, to find out about ourselves, to discover what we can do, to see what surprising ideas we can come up with. We need freedom for that. We don’t get freedom by self-censoring.

Of course we can research an issue we’re not sure how to address. Say we want our character to go mad, for example, we can research mental illness, which is a very big field, but we can narrow it down. We can read memoirs by people who suffered from the kind of mental illness that interests us. Memoirs will give us an inside look.

Naturally, people who suffer from depression, for instance, don’t experiences it identically. It may be worthwhile to read the voices of at least two people who’ve been depressed and then use our imaginations to invent our own character with this illness. This does not mean that our depressed character has to be good. She can be our villain. The depression can be part of her evil or aside from it.

My historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, as you may remember, is told from the POV of a Jewish girl in late medieval Spain. I’m Jewish but I don’t represent all Jews, and I certainly don’t represent medieval Jews. I’m not religious, and I didn’t have much of a religious education. The experience of a more orthodox Jew would be very different from mine. Mostly, I relied on my research.

In children’s literature, there’s a move toward “own voices,” the telling of stories about marginalized communities by members of the communities. Following “own voices,” a writer wouldn’t write from the POV of, say, a Vietnamese-American unless she herself was a member of that group. Here are two interesting and thoughtful links that discuss this: and

If we’re not writing for publication, though, we can write in any voice. We can read about the war in Vietnam and imagine ourselves a Vietnamese child during the war. Without doing a very lot of research–not only about the war but also about customs, religion, daily life, etc. in Vietnam–we’ll certainly get it wrong. Even with the research, we’re likely to get some of it wrong, but the effort will be a wonderful exercise of sympathy in our development as a writer, and we can move some of what we learned into other stories, maybe as the basis for fantasy.

I hope the message of this post is a shout for freedom. Please write what you’re drawn to, which, more than anything else, will make your writing authentic. We can’t control what other people think, so let them think it.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in several voices: the witch, the mother or father who wants to lose the children, Gretel who thinks Hansel is a pest, and Hansel who craves independence. You can try this more than one way, changing which characters are sympathetic (or maybe none are).

• At a national debate your MC draws a very unpopular position to argue, a position she disagrees with: say, euthanasia for dogs who growl more than once at strangers, or, more seriously, the death penalty for children who commit certain crimes. Or a topic you choose. She argues so well she wins the debate and finds herself despised by the people she cares about and hated on social media. Write the story.

• Read Hamlet or a synopsis. Write a modern-day version, in prose or verse. Hamlet not only seeks truth but also right action once he discovers that his mother and his uncle really did murder his father.

Have fun, and save what you write!