Thursday, August 21, 2014

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


This is the final WMF post for now. I'm writing #8 in the next month. 
I post this with no comment. 
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First posted: Jan 5, 2013

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?)

2 comments:

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Thank you so much for reposting this. I can always use a reminder.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.