Warning: this post is just words. About 2,400 words. No photos, and all opinions. The reader is warned.
One of my favorite movie scenes is from Raising Arizona (LINK) and it’s where the title of this piece comes from. Here’s the relevant part:
Alright ya’ hayseeds, it’s a stick-up. Everybody freeze. Everybody down on the ground.
Old Man in bank:
Well, which is it young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if’n I freeze, I can’t rightly drop. And if’n I drop, I’ma gonna be in motion.
So, why this title? Lemme ‘splain in my usual tedious way.
Against my better judgment — and perhaps too hastily — I commented on a piece I read as I sat in a hotel room a few days ago. If anyone cares to read the piece, it’s at this LINK. If you visit, you can also read my comments, responses from the author, and even a scathing assessment of yours truly by another commenter.
The author — Keith Cronin — links to another piece that I completely agree with (LINK). The point with that article (the point I got and agree with) is that we use our experiences — especially our most difficult experiences — to inform our writing. Call it ‘making it real’ to both ourselves and our readers.
But, this piece, titled ‘To Be Liked, or Not to Be’ while peripherally related, heads in a direction that struck me wrong. Mind you, not all of it. There’s useful advice there, but . . .
NOTE: in my effort to be clear, I often end up muddying the waters. This next section is such an example. If you want the get-to-the-point version, click HERE and you’ll skip a bunch of boring set-ups and it “should” take you to the Simply Put part (you can always come back if you want the more in-depth and possibly confusing narrative). But, this being WP, the link sometimes doesn’t work well (I’m still playing with it). In those cases, just look for the “Simply Put” title.
There’s always a ‘but’ with me, isn’t there? In short, yes.
I have opinions, and while these days I mostly keep them to myself (for reasons I’ve explored before), this article said not to; it encouraged readers to express their opinions no matter how badly some people will react to them and I stupidly fell for it. I say ‘stupidly’ because I assumed I’d be able to express myself using the phone. I also say ‘stupidly’ because I assumed people would attempt to get what I meant, even if they didn’t agree.
I said stupidly also because I should not have responded off-the-cuff and — based on said scathing comment — at one point, flippantly.
Again, I agree with not worrying about what others think, and to use one’s experiences to inform and enrich one’s fiction . . . but then, the article takes a different tack; it drifts into politics and social issues, which, in itself, isn’t a big deal.
No one who’s read what I write can accuse me of NOT expressing my opinion about many challenges faced by humanity if we are to advance and flourish as a species. Challenges steeped in political and social issues.
And by advance and flourish, I refer specifically to improving the human condition across a broad spectrum of metrics, while realizing there will always be compromises because we can’t fix something without affecting other things, sometimes negatively.
Before your eyes roll, let me focus on what I got from the article; what I think the author intended, but who knows if I interpreted it correctly.
Really, you should read the piece, but here’s what I reacted to (being careful about summarizing it without biasing the intent of the article):
Quote: So in my case, if my writing is going to offend people who back a party that historically wins 58% of their presidential elections, I have two words. Well, one word and one contraction – and they rhyme with “duck ‘em.”
Why would I react to this? I mean, it’s an accurate description of my attitude.
It’s not so much that I object to it, it’s that I question the motives and the eventual results.
I question it because it came on the heels of “So maybe there’s an opportunity to make others more aware of those things through your storytelling – knowing that doing so might make them uncomfortable.”
Specifically, I questioned making others aware of “those things”.
If you haven’t read the piece, he’s referring to political machinations, injustices, oppression and marginalization based on race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and so on.
“Disperser, you boob! You’re not being clear! Those are all a part of the conflict necessary for successful and engaging storytelling!”
is the current environment really one where we need to encourage writers of fiction to make people aware of the moral, social, and political corruption we find ourselves in? More so, doing so by tapping into the emotional load of the fictional characters? An emotional load that’s often pushed to extremes (otherwise it’s not captivating) by incorporating and simplifying current events?
I said in one of my (too) lengthy comments:
Most of the topics — racism, misogyny, molestation, and all the related misery they come with — are practically 24-7 present in our lives. Whole movements have spawned by revelations of tragic accounts, deplorable actions, and collective misdeeds (be they intentional or out of arrogant ignorance).
To say they need to be brought “to the light” is to imply they are being kept hidden from us, but one just need watch the news . . . at any hour, on any day. And if not the news, blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, and so on.
From all perspectives and spanning the spectrum of opinions, that’s all we read and hear and see, either directly or peripherally.
I’m not saying writers shouldn’t write gut-wrenching tales of the misery associated with experiences intentionally or unintentionally magnified by bad actors. They will certainly find an audience.
And, I’m all for exposing and castigating everything that fuels unnecessary misery . . . as a way to fix it. But I don’t think that’s the aim here, conscious or unconscious as it may be, because of the lead-up to his conclusion.
It’s the context of the above that gave me pause, you see, and because of it, I also argue the constant immersion is having the opposite effect . . . at best, it numbs people to the problems and, at worse, it shifts people’s efforts from finding lasting solutions to stop-gap measures that may have the opposite effect, aggravating current problems and spawning new ones.
Breathe . . .
So, let me contradict myself; written works have literally directed humanity’s path toward a more enlightened future. I believe in the power of the written word.
Some examples are listed HERE.
I’ve read novels and short stories that have informed my opinion on various issues and contributed to me shaping my understanding of things I could not have possibly experienced but which resonate.
So, what’s my problem, and why the title of this piece?
may will obviously fail me (as they did when I commented on the piece) because I’m not a professional anything. My one expertise is to be a prodigious eater of snacks. That said, I read a lot . . . and I occasionally stay at a Holiday Inn Express.
While it’s cathartic for people who’ve experienced trauma to explore and talk about their feelings so that they can begin along the path of recovery, it’s best done under the guidance of a professional because there’s a trap there if someone gets caught in an eddy and unable to escape it.
Still, if someone has the chops to offer a path to recovery, or offer solutions, or otherwise meaningfully advance the discussion, go for it.
Let me paraphrase what I understood of the piece (and, I admit I could be wrong in my understanding) when Keith writes:
I am saying you should be willing to let your story accurately represent the things you care about. Things you believe in. Things that bother you. Things you are passionate about wanting to change.
On the one hand, it’s great advice . . . but in the context of the article — there’s that word again — that came across more like advice to “stick it to the other side” and (in my opinion) will inflame, polarize, and aggravate the deep discord we see playing out in both the national stage and our personal lives.
Keith will tell you that doing so is just making the characters more realistic and relevant, but I believe most writers who include such narrative (however subtlety they think they’re doing it) will actually aim for exactly that reaction I fear, and will do so by vilifying the opposition. Meaning, they want to get people pissed off. After all, they’re pissed off themselves (or should be, given the way Keith sets up the argument), and the result is two-fold. People who agree with you will get pissed off at “the other side” and the other side will get pissed off because they will feel misrepresented.
This comes at a time when much (not all) of what I see written appears to be aimed at keeping people in the eddy as opposed to helping them escape it and progressing past common obstacles; meaning not empowering, but limiting.
Again, that’s my opinion. Perhaps encouraging writers to include current affairs in their fiction will galvanize a nation into fixing, or at least ameliorating, some of its ills, but I’m skeptical that will be the results, let alone that’s the aim.
In one of his responses, Keith disingenuously suggests the “other side” can do the same and present “their case”.
Notice the implication: he’s against everything that’s bad, so, presumably, the other side is for all those things.
Aside from that not being true (the major differences — other than at the extremes — boil down to what are doing and should do to correct these problems), he’s conveniently leaving out the tremendous role of the gate-keepers given the tacit assumption (which he himself makes) that the other side is to blame and has nothing to offer.
My point is that I avoid both reading and writing such content; his point is that others (presumably many others) embrace that content and it’s a good thing.
So, which is it?
Should we avoid the drama, anguish, misery of the human experience in our writing? NO!
Should we infuse our personal political, social, and moral opinions into the characters we write about? YES!
. . . but not the way I understood from that article, which seemed to point to specificity.
Rather, as I mentioned in the comments:
I think it’s useless describing human struggles in terms of our differences, and maybe even harmful.
It’s not a very well worded sentiment because it can be (and probably was) misinterpreted due to me leaving out the other part; the part about our commonality.
When I write, I reach for the commonality of human emotions as the means to make readers “feel” and understand what people in different situations, and different from themselves, experience.
Hopefully, they will map those emotions — emotions they understand to their core — onto the real world and applicable to people around them. I don’t think I can do that if I write from a limited perspective.
So, you can probably stop there unless you want to read more of my rambling.
OK. Quick story; I mentioned some of the reviewers when I had my work reviewed at Viable Paradise, reproached me (nicely) for perpetuating certain stereotypes and objectifying the character. In other feedback, I was cautioned about potentially “triggering” people who had different experiences than I had.
This is at what many consider an elite writing workshop. I cover some of that in this post (LINK).
That’s actually based on sound (if sometimes conflicting) research into the human psyche, and why we have warnings about possible triggers for people who suffered traumas.
But, Keith is suggesting I do exactly that . . . provided, of course, that it be done “…with empathy, in the form of a compelling story…” but I can’t get past that darn context.
But beyond that, I’m getting mixed signals. I mean, not that I care, I’ll always write what I want to write the way I want to write it, but it does matter in this ultra-sensitive world we live in (Keith touches on that but rationalizes it by basically saying it’s for the good).
Was I actually trying to get published, there are a lot of minefields I’d have to avoid, and one of them is me trying to express what a gay person, or a woman, or a transgender person, or a person of a different racial or ethnic background than mine, or taller person, or shorter person, might experience as they go through life.
I mean, how dare I? If I’d get published, I’d be literally stealing food (money) from the mouth (wallet) of an actual gay person, or a woman, or a transgender person, or a person of a different racial or ethnic background than mine, or taller person, or shorter person, and depriving them of their opportunity to tell their story.
About the only perspective I’m qualified to write from — and accurately nail — is that of a 68-year-old balding white male born in a country that no longer exists, who had rickets and is thus slightly deformed and probably shorter than he should have been, who never knew his father, who spent most of his young life with a bad stuttering problem that never quite went away, and who grew up feeling like an outcast everywhere he lived (and not caring), who has very few friends but is friendly to hundreds, and who prefers avoiding social contact although he’s comfortable with social interactions. Add to that someone happily married for 45 years, who opted to not procreate, who worked in a cabinet factory, at a gas station, in a vitamin factory, was a dishwasher, mailman (postal carrier), was an engineer, business owner, and is now retired. Someone raised a Catholic but very early opted for atheism (long before he learned what the word meant), who is moderately competent in pretty much everything he cares to try but doesn’t care enough to excel at anything, who is hypercritical of lying, deceiving oneself, religion, authority, politics, and hypocrites (but I repeat myself).
But writing about that wouldn’t resonate with anyone but me, which, in the end, may not be a bad thing.
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