Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Writer's Middle Finger Part Seven: The critical and the humanist brain & breaking bullshit rules.

This one's about those other rules you need to ignore. The rules out there that tell us what we should be writing about. Oh writer. Please don't listen to these rules.

It starts like this.

Author sits at desk. Brain tells author to write a story...maybe about a kid. Once the writing starts, it turns out the kid has a specific hurdle to clear. Maybe his parent left and never came back. Maybe his parent is dead. Maybe he's doing drugs. Maybe his girlfriend fell in love with his best friend. Maybe he's gay. Or maybe his friend died. Or maybe he has cancer. Or he eats to make himself feel better. Or maybe the kid is a football captain and he falls in love with a cheerleader.

Are you rolling your eyes at any of those?

Which brain are you using? Your humanist brain or your critical one? Oh I know these aren't mutually exclusive. But sometimes one can overtake the other.

The critical brain is there, as writers and reviewers or critiquers, to define certain story elements or plot lines and then look for flaws or well-executed characterizations or any number of story elements. The critical brain is allegedly objective but rarely is. How could it be? Never has a book existed that isn't both panned and raved. But the critical brain is important when we write and read and especially when we review or critique. It has criteria. It has rules...which vary from person to person. It can sometimes be very cynical about life events because they are shown through fiction which it is reviewing. 

The humanist brain, on the other hand, is the brain that translates characters in a novel into real people and is concerned about the characters' welfare. The humanist brain feels the emotions of the characters and relates. It is why we often love a book. It is also why we may hate a book. The humanist brain is allowed to be subjective. It doesn't care. It knows it's spewing opinion. The humanist brain has emotional rules. I know people who cannot read anything about child abuse. Or dog abuse, for example. Those people usually say "I'm sorry, but it's just not my taste."

Here's the truth: Sometimes football captains fall in love with cheerleaders. That doesn't make the book or the idea bad. It's all in what you do with it.

I went to art school. I took classes on critique. It is true that there are elements by which any work of art must be judged when critiquing. And the best critiques stick to those rules. For example: "The image is well framed and uses the rule of thirds expertly." If one mightn't like the actual subject matter, one may add the very fair humanist-brained opinion, "However, I'm not a fan of photographs of infants cradled in cabbage leaves, so I can't say I love the actual image." It doesn't help anyone to be too humanist: This baby grew and is a natural part of our world! Isn't it beautiful? Same as it isn't very helpful to be over-critical: How many freaking baby-in-cabbage leaf pictures can there BE? I am so sick of images like this!

Fact: Anything--ANYTHING--can work if it's done well.
Fact: But you will never please everyone.

No subject matter is a guarantee of...anything.

Sometimes there are lists of what you shouldn't be writing about. Sometimes there are lists of what will  give you a better shot at getting published. Trends. Coming trends. Comments like Why haven't I seen any books about a woman who is a circus clown and cocktail waitress while juggling a meth habit? True. The writer of this statement may want to see a book like this. However, if it's not something you naturally want to write about, then you writing it is probably not going to work out all that well.

Readers are finicky. So your job is to write about something you care about. And even if you do that, some people will criticize it. And that's fine.

I tend to read with my humanist brain. I want to like the book I'm reading. I want to find the human connection that is inbuilt. I want my time spent to be time well spent--enjoying, feeling and wondering Why did the author tell this story in this way? It's a naive tack, I'm sure, to some reading this. I'm okay with that. But know this: I have very little time to read. I am able to find pleasure in most books I pick up.

And I'm just not the kind of person who would read the flap copy, slot the entire book into a tidy labeled box, roll my eyes and say "Oh God. Not another dead mother book." Or "Ugh! Another gay book!" Or "Here we go again! A teen dealing with the death of a friend. Sheesh!"
"If you go into a book thinking you know what it's about, then that's all you'll usually get from it." --Me, earlier this year
(Same goes for writing a book...but you probably already know that.)

The humanist brain is more curious, regardless of whether a subject matter is something it's seen before.  It's allowed to be either interested or disinterested in the story, and if the subject matter is just not their thing, they put the book down. No eye-rolling. No imperious knowledge of what's supposed to be in books.

That's what bullshit rules are. Bullshit rules are what other people believe should be in our books.
You have no idea how many times I've heard that my character should have thought or done or been. You have no idea how many times I've had people assume what I was thinking when I wrote a book. I can tell you this: these guesses are incorrect. Whether stated in a positive or negative fashion, the jury is in: You have no idea what goes on in my brain.

I can't imagine many authors ever woke up in the morning and declared, "Darn it! Today I'm going to write a cancer book/gay book/drug book/dead parent book/ dead friend book/love triangle book/cheerleader and football captain fall in love book!" I'm pretty sure that most of the time these things just happen. And not from lack of ideas or creative power, either. Sorry. Anyone who thinks this is underestimating writers. And to me, that's disrespectful. And hell yes, if you say this, I will call you on it and tell you that you are living by a set of literary bullshit rules.

Why I'm thinking about this today.

I wrote something on my blog back in June. I'm going to link to it here so you know where this post is coming from. You should really go read it, but in case you don't, it was about the flippant comments I see periodically that might say something like, "If I read one more [dead parent] book this year I'll jump off a cliff!" It was about how I know some kids who lost their father this year and how those flippant comments are...too flippant. This internet. It gives us so much power. Oh how I wish we could be more human when we use it.

Last weekend, another teenager I know lost his father. We just buried him yesterday. We are heartbroken. I physically feel a hole in the world because of his loss. I feel a hole in my world because I know the pain this is causing his family. But my hole isn't nearly as big as theirs. My friend's wife, his son, his parents, his siblings, his friends. This hole--it is real. It is nothing to be scoffed. Nothing to be tsked. Nothing to be cynical about.

Only an overly-critical brain could be cynical about that hole.

In real life when we lose people, it is rare we act with our critical brain. We are human-thinking through and through. But when someone dies in a book, and we are reviewing a book, we have to run this death through a set of criteria. Was it believable enough? (Whatever that is.) Did the characters react the way they should have? (Whatever that is.) In believable ways? (Whatever that is.) Did the after-effects of the death seem realistic and cause the right amount of tension? (Whatever that is.)

As the writer of that book, you wrote it because you cared deeply about the subject matter and were thinking with your humanist brain, so yes, it's hard when that work is dissected by someone who just didn't get what you were trying to say. But please remember, that's their problem, not yours.

Those flippant commenters can claim Dead parent as gimmick. Dead parent as plot device to give teen main character more experience and savvy. Or my favorite: Dead parent as a very convenient trick to get rid of parents in books.

Convenient my ass. A dead parent is not fucking convenient. Ask anyone who has one. And as for teens having them? Happens all the time. All. The. Time.

Bullshit rules, man. They make us scared to write about what comes naturally as we sit at our desks. They make us wonder if maybe, just maybe, this time we can hit a home run and please everyone.

But then I look for my magic finger. You know the one. (Hint: it's the one who knows I will never please everyone.)

Writers: life is short. You're here to write what you want to write. I told you in my first post not to listen to rules. Dirk and Sally. No confusing tenses. No big words. And whatever other rules out there promising you easier publication if only you'd write what they want to see. 

Today, I want to remind you that those deeper reasons we write--those are more important than bullshit rules that somebody's brain made up in order to tell us how trite it is to write about what has come naturally for us to write about.

Write it.
Fucking write it.
There will always be critics who will roll their eyes at the pain your characters experience. They are not thinking about what it would really be like to, in this case, lose a parent as a child. Their job is to find flaws in your reasoning. In your characters. In your ideas. And ultimately, in your own brain.

And they don't mean a damn thing.

Write the books. Be defiantly creative. When you shy away from writing a story about abuse, don't think of the people who will roll their eyes. Think about the 1 in 4 kids who have been abused. When you shy away from writing a story about rape, don't think about those who will say teenagers shouldn't be reading about rape. Think about the 1 in 4 who have already experienced it. When you dare to write about death, do not think of the "Disney trope" someone's going to wheel out in their wagon full of critique words. Think about those kids you know who have a hole in their life so big, they can't breathe some days.

And do it for them.

It took me a week to write this blog. I see-sawed on posting it. Then I thought about my friend Scott and what he would have done. And he would have posted it. So this one's for you, Scott. Hope they're playing punk rock wherever you landed on this journey.

(There are other Writer's Middle Finger Posts. Six of them. Type "Writer's Middle Finger" into the search box up there on the left. It's like a treasure hunt, right?)


Beth Kephart said...

Amy, you are so right about all of this. And I'm so sorry about your friend.

A.S. King said...

Oh thank you, Beth. Your opinion about things like this means a lot to me. Can't wait to see you tonight!

Bryson McCrone said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, Amy. I'm even more glad that you hit two of the topics that I'm writing about right now. It's the 1 in 4 that truly matters. And if I can touch any of the 1 in 4, then I'll be happy. Because I reached someone. Maybe I helped them. And that's enough for me.

My mom has been asking me a lot about the book I'm working on recently, and I don't really want to tell her. It deals with subjects she would frown upon. I wish I could tell her that there is someone that needs to hear this. Someone that's lost and and needs to be pulled back onto the path. And I think I will. Because sooner or later, she's going to find out. And sooner or later, she's going to have to accept the way that I feel about this novel. It's closer to me than any other I've ever worked on. I was struggling a few weeks ago, and writing this book was what pulled me back on track. I know who I am. And who I want to be.

Books and authors help people. And that's the beauty of them.

K. M. Walton said...

Sweet Jesus did I need to read this. You have no idea. I'm hugging you. I'm high-fiving you. I'm giving the middle finger alongside of you. And I'm punching the air. Repeatedly.

As always, well said.

I am so sorry for your loss.

See you tonight.

Michelle Schusterman said...

Completely wonderful post.

Debra Driza said...

Wonderful post, Amy--I love your insight. And the flippant comments--I so agree. The vast majority of authors write about topics that speak to them; they don't consciously try to come up with gimmicks.

So, so sorry about your friend.

Matthew MacNish said...

A-fucking-men to this, Amy. Thanks for writing it. We all need to hear this from time to time, especially writers.

Personally, I always went about my writing thinking, oh I can get away with writing dead parents, because my mom died when I was a kid. Or, oh I can get away with writing about drug abuse because ... well, you get it.

But that's bullshit too. You don't have to have actually lived through something to know how it would make you feel. And therefore, by extension, how your characters might feel.

And if your characters would feel different about something than some critic's characters would? Fine. They're YOUR characters.

So a-fucking-men, and thanks again.

A.S. King said...

Bryson, I've been thinking about your awesome comment for a few hours and I want to toss this out there as well. See, when we write books about hard subjects it can help those one in four. But it can also help the many people who surround that person.

Being less critical about subject matter on a whole is a good thing. For friends of survivors. For family members. For all of us, really. I remember, long ago, thinking that suicide was a selfish act. I was young. I just thought, "Why would anyone do that?" I was lucky enough to have never felt that way. But I had friends who have felt that way, and so reading a book about it (and discussing that book) helped me understand it rather than, say, belittle their emotions.

I'll tell you this for nothing: when I told some people in my life last week that we'd lost a friend, two of them chose to ask if our friend was unhealthy (eating habits, smoking, whatever) before they ever offered condolences. What a cold, critical reaction, right? I know of people who will forever say, when an overweight person dies, "Well, he/she didn't eat right" or if a smoker dies, "Well, he/she smoked."

The world has taught us to judge and we judge.
We often forget that this person--it could be our friend and WHO CARES what their lifestyle was like? I know plenty of smokers who lived to 80. Etc.

We blame victims. All the time. Everywhere. It's what we do, and usually we do it because we need explanation, yes, but also because we have to come up with a reason--maybe a superiority--that answers why we're still alive when someone else is dead. I'll tell you: Keith Richards is still alive. Lifestyle has nothing to do with anything. :)

I write books so people who read them might take a minute to stop and ask themselves questions. If I'm lucky, I might change a mind or two. Make people less quick to judge. I want to reach whomever is willing to be reached. Not just those who are in that 1 in 4...but those around them so they can help.

But really, I'm writing so I can better understand a thing, and that's why I think most of us write, eh?

Keep at it, brother. And fear not what anyone thinks. You are exploring what matters to you, and that matters most of all.

Bryson McCrone said...

That is an excellent point and I'm glad you made it. I've never had friends who've had problems such as these. I've never really thought about those who surrounded the 1 in 4. But I sure am now.

I told my mom, too. I told her that what I'm writing matters a lot to me. And that's it's helped me. And that just because I'm writing about someone having a hard time dealing with their sexuality after being raped doesn't imply that I was raped or am dealing with my sexuality.
I told her that I need to write this book. And I do. I can feel it.

I'm writing like my family is dead, just like you told me to in our chat. It's gotten easier to write those difficult scenes that would make them wonder just what the heck I was thinking. Right now, this feels right. What they think doesn't bother me. People are going to label me no matter what I do, no matter what I write.
And that's not going to stop me.

A.S. King said...

"People are going to label me no matter what I do, no matter what I write.
And that's not going to stop me."

Bryson. You rock.

Jon Clinch said...

Well done, Amy. Good on you.

Jennifer Castle said...

Yes, yes, yes, and thank you for this. Oh, and YES again. Exactly what I needed to be reminded of right now, at a time when these two brains battling out their garbage block my path to what drives me forward. Sometimes I get nostalgic for the vacuum-packed time I spent writing my first book, my "oy, another grief story" novel, because my critical brain was relatively dormant. I can never go back to that state, but I can re-read this when I need to. Did I already say YES and THANK YOU?

José Iriarte said...

Awesome post.

You know which companion middle-finger-rant I'd like to see? The middle finger to "This doesn't sound like a ."

It's not supposed to sound like a girl. It's supposed to sound like this girl. It's not supposed to sound like a boy. It's supposed to sound like this boy. Because there are assertive girls out there, and there are sensitive boys out there, and frankly, both make more interesting central characters to me, because both have to pay a societal cost just to be who they are.

(I haven't gone back and read the first five yet--but I will!--so my apologies if you've already covered this.)

José Iriarte said...

Oops. HTML Fail.

That quotation in the first line should read, "This doesn't sound like a [insert gender other than the writer's]."

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Amy, I'm so sorry about your friend. I lost a friend in June to suicide. It still hurts and I wouldn't even consider myself her "best" friend. I know her family's pain is far greater than mine. But it still hurts.

I love your advice about writing and I'm going to keep it close. Too many people have tried to tell me what I can and can't write about (or which craft books I "must" use, or which rules I "have to" follow).

From now on, I'm writing what I need to write. Thanks. You rock.

Martina Boone said...

Thank you for this post! We edit ourselves all. the. time. based on what we think someone else is going to say. It ends up interfering with the truth of what we want to say and the characters end up being shallow and stunted. (At least mine do.) If I take the time to know my characters well, to know my story well, and I love that story and feel I have something valid to say, then that's what I'm ultimately going to have to find the courage to go with. Easier said than done though. But the other way is a recipe for disappointment.

A.S. King said...

Thanks Martina!
I can't say I edit myself all that much based on what others are going to say. I just work for me, my agent and my editor. I agree that when we start meddling with ourselves for other people, our characters and voices disappear, and that's certainly a problem. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

Joanne, Jon, Joe, Jen etc (all J names): thank you for the condolences and for your kind words. *bows of gratitude*

Joe: I agree. I am not a typical girl, whatever that is. And I don't react in typical female ways...whatever they are. And so...yeah. I have a lot of issues with people slapping criteria on gender. Big time.

I will think on a post about that but I think, after so many years away from the real world (ie. TV...ironic, eh?) I don't know what those definitions are. Is it still sugar and spice and everything nice and all that shit?

A.S. King said...

Thanks Martina!
I can't say I edit myself all that much based on what others are going to say. I just work for me, my agent and my editor. I agree that when we start meddling with ourselves for other people, our characters and voices disappear, and that's certainly a problem. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for your comment.

Joanne, Jon, Joe, Jen etc (all J names): thank you for the condolences and for your kind words. *bows of gratitude*

Joe: I agree. I am not a typical girl, whatever that is. And I don't react in typical female ways...whatever they are. And so...yeah. I have a lot of issues with people slapping criteria on gender. Big time.

I will think on a post about that but I think, after so many years away from the real world (ie. TV...ironic, eh?) I don't know what those definitions are. Is it still sugar and spice and everything nice and all that shit?

kathleen duey said...

I know all this. I do. And I have still been circling around something in a book I am writing, spinning wheels for a week now, thinking of ways to make it somehow "different" and less offensive/shocking to those who will think I wrote it because I am trying to BE shocking instead of trying to be accurate and emotionally true. So THANKS. I will now write the fucking scene the way I know it would really happen.

Adam Selzer said...

Well put! I get amused by reviews that criticize me for breaking some "rule" they read - usually when I commit the great sin of referring to pop culture. One review said that the Cole Porter references would date the book terribly in five years, and another said I assumed that the narrator would know who Leonard Cohen was because he was popular when I was in high school.

Anonymous said...


Exactly what I think we all need to read. The most beautiful books come from what a writer finds up in that attic of theirs, not someone else's.


Unknown said...

I'm sorry for your friend, but I'm also so thankful you wrote this. As someone who's currently in the final stages of writing a novel that tackles some issues that are deeply personal to me but some have told me are "overplayed", it just means a lot to have one of my favorite authors talking about this. I'd very much like to raise my middle finger as well and join you on this.

Thanks, A.S. King. Means a lot to have read that.

Anonymous said...

Lovely, touching and so true. Thank you for articulating what I couldn't about the glib requests and rejections we sometimes hear from agents and editors -- and even from other writers. Their comments almost feel crippling because they go against what's true for me. I'm sorry you lost your friend, and thankful you wrote from that pain.

Unknown said...

Teaching 8th grade I've had so many kids' trying to cope with epic problems that I see reviewers roll their eyes at when they see it in a book. Just this past year I had a teen move back in with their mom then find her mom's body days later - she'd committed suicide. Another teen whose parent died from a heroine overdose. Another was in the car where their parents died in a crash that spared only them. And that's only the "dead parent trope." I wish I had "dead parent" books when I lost my dad when I was in 8th grade. I might've felt less alone.

Thinking about the "coming out" trope, I had three girls come out last year, and it wasn't a trope for them. They'd been passing books around: Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and Ask the Passengers, and a few others - you could tell they were preparing for it. One of them came out in a speech during my class. If I wrote that in a book someone would roll their eyes at one of the most brave, and beautiful things I've ever seen as a teacher.

As a teacher I live on the periphery of so many teen's lives that I see the "tropes" every single year: dating woes, suicide, dead sibling, dead parent, foster home, self-harm, cancer battles . . . well, you know. There are a lot people roll their eyes at. People rolling their eyes usually don't see many realities. Thanks for this post. You're wonderful, and kickass.

Zach J. Payne said...

I don't know why I'm finding this blog post, like, 3 weeks late, but I'm glad I did. I needed this one today, as I start working on notes for my new novel idea. One where the MC is abandoned by her parents . . . but in a very interesting way. ;)

You are amazing <3