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!