Silence isn’t always golden…
For me, writing fiction wasn’t taught, it’s something I’m learning. It’s an ongoing process of revision, trial and error – in fact, too many errors. While I’m sure there are other paths out there, in my experience, the best thing any teacher ever did for my writing was get out of the way, and let me stumble along to the finish line.
The American educational system, such as it is, doesn’t excel at teaching new writers. They may be good at the mechanical aspects of grammar, they are even good at curating good books to read, but building worlds populated by original characters is beyond the scope of any class I ever sat through, including creative writing classes.
I’m sure there are many fine MFA programs out there that could have made a difference in my development. That was not my path, and I can’t speak to that. What I can say as one of the, botched and bungled” writers without that background is that I have learned to write without it. The torture I endured on my path was all self-inflicted, and it left marks I still carry in my prose.
Writing what’s on my mind, even when it’s unpopular.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with writing what’s on my mind. Not my imagination, but my personal opinion. The characters I breathe life into are a reflection of me, but they seldom share my opinions to any great degree. Even the most noble or heroic thoughts in my stories are lofty ideals that I’d hope to embrace if the situation arose.
But that isn’t what I’m getting at. An outlook on life is one thing, choices in the heat of the moment are another, but cherished opinions unchallenged by time and circumstance are where most humans live. How I feel about race, sex, and creed are vital parts of who I am. I don’t write about any of them.
Or at least, I don’t go out of my way to share that. I should though, even if my opinions aren’t especially controversial. Not that every story needs every bit of who I am in it, but someone who reads one of my stories should have a good idea of where I stand. Up until now, I’ve used the iceberg method to imply my opinions. Avoiding expressing my opinions to avoid offense is itself offensive. I have to stand for what I believe in, and it should show on the page.
A lesson from Huckleberry Finn
When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, I’d recently moved from North Carolina to Iowa. Scenes and subjects in the story felt markedly different to me than the other kids in my class. That didn’t stop me from pointing out those differences, and I hope everyone around me benefitted in some way from hearing a different perspective.
Writing now, in light of memories like Huck Finn, has taken on a more urgent meaning. The subjects I want to tackle in my work are more complex, and those nuances weren’t something I felt confident I had the skill to articulate. But I can’t wait forever to write uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, writing them out helps me untangle my emotions and express my opinions more accurately. No matter what those opinions may be.
Words can make a difference!
On smaller US Navy ships, commissioned officers eat their meals in a wardroom, senior enlisted officers eat in the Chief’s mess, while everyone else eats in a common messdeck. The last ship I served on, the USS Connolly, was no different. But one day, a few sailors decided to carve out a section of seating in the messdecks that only paygrade E-6 could sit at. They called it the First Class mess, and wouldn’t let anyone else sit there.
This didn’t go over well with me. So, I wrote a satirical story about the grumpy old men who wanted to sit alone. One of my friends thought the story was better than I did, and passed out a few copies, one of which went under the Captain’s door. He also didn’t think much of the arrangements and summarily canceled the First Class mess citing my story while he made the announcement to the crew.
I should have kept that grumpy lesson in mind.
Since I got serious about writing I’ve concentrated on world building, memorable characters, and craft (too often leaving craft for last). Along the way, while developing my unique voice, I decided on more than one occasion to avoid topics that were controversial. Limiting any need to address ideas that might alienate my fledgling audience. That sounds foolish even as I write it out. That voice on the page isn’t authentic if I avoid controversy for fear of offending people.
Not writing what I believe drained some of the life from my writing. Learning to include my opinion, even if it’s unpopular, only aids my clarity and composition. I’m the only voice like mine in the wilderness, stifling it hurts me and my tribe as they search for a voice that resonates with them. It’s easy to forget others will read my work and be inspired (or revolted) by what they read. Both are legitimate responses and writing to limit the one is a detriment to the other.
I’m doing my best to write my truth, but it might be messy, just like life.