On critically, creatively writing

I am, for the first time in some years, working on a giant creative piece — editing and revising and rewriting the novel I wrote in November for NaNoWriMo — and at the same time I’ve been having a lot of interesting conversations with friends lately about popular media, representation, and criticism.

I spent my time at school primarily learning to be a critic, by which I mean I learned to analyze, critique, and dissect texts. (“Texts” being a term that here means all kinds of media, not just written work; TV shows, movies, comic books, paintings, etc all count as “texts.”) One of my particular areas of interest was how the content we create and consume both reflects and shapes the cultures we live in. What did Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar say about the England he was living and writing in? What do the Marvel movies say about the America/global community we live in now? How do the ways we represent underprivileged groups — women, ethnic minorities, queer people — affect the way those groups are perceived in everyday life? And now that I’m out of school, I still love discussing those kinds of issues. Watching Battlestar Galactica with my roommates, we speculate about how the show is commenting on the Iraq war and laud its diverse cast; rereading or rewatching J.R.R. Tolkien, we bemoan and analyze the lack of female characters and characters who aren’t white and ponder on how The Hobbit‘s new adaptation parallels The Lord of the Rings.

That’s all me thinking with my academic hat on. When I sit down to write, I’m putting on my writer’s hat — but I find, more and more, that the academic hat never entirely goes away. Which sometimes makes creative writing a rather more complicated endeavor.

The last big creative piece that I actually finished was Bad Hamlet, a play co-written with the wonderfully talented Lillian DeRitter. That play was explicitly — and perhaps overly — academic in tone. (Just now, discussing it with some friends who have read the script, we noted that while it didn’t exactly have a plot, it did have an order, in the same way that an academic paper has an order. You have to present ideas A and B to prove ideas C and D and reach conclusion X.) We set out to tackle head-on issues of feminism, sexuality, and representation with that play, and I like to think we succeeded at least once or twice. (Although if I were rewriting that play now, I would take one friend’s suggestion and have a character stand up in the audience and demand “Why aren’t there no black Hamlets!” What could have been . . .)

What I’m working on now is a novel involving Sherlock Holmes, Alice of Alice in Wonderland, with a sprinkling of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tentacular horrors from the cthonic world to keep things interesting. That’s three source materials that are notably short on positive depictions of underprivileged groups: Conan Doyle’s works are dominated by white men; Wonderland and Looking Glass land has markedly few women in spite of the main character being a little girl; and Lovecraft’s views on race are . . . uh . . . gross.

So I find myself trying to write a compelling, interesting, action-packed story with compelling characters and a consistent universe and all the stuff that a good book should have — which is hard enough to begin with — and simultaneously find myself peering over my own shoulder. “Why aren’t more of your characters female?” Academic Me asks Writer Me. “Why are they all going to be played by white actors when the movie adaptation comes around? Isn’t that representation of mental illness rather problematic? Where are the trans* characters, the gay characters, the disabled characters?”

“Academic Me,” replies Writer Me, “I have two whole chapters where nothing happens that I need to rewrite so my characters can get from point A to point B without losing the readers’ interest! I think that’s a little more pressing than your inclusion. And how am I supposed to include all those people without falling into tokenism?”

“You’re the creative one,” says Academic Me with a shrug. “I’m just here to make sure The Mary Sue likes your stuff.”

Can it be done? Can a single novel with two main characters be inclusive of all these different groups, or is it better to focus on making this book just a solid, compelling story and worry about writing a diverse, inclusive cast when I write a hit TV series that can have an ensemble cast? 

6 thoughts on “On critically, creatively writing

  1. This is a conversation I recognize! Only I tend to come at things from the opposite angle: I have a hard time disengaging my writer brain for other necessary brains, and it isn’t natural for me to think about so-called academic considerations before or more than story considerations. I’m one of those people for whom human truth is more accessible and meaningful in story format, with all the chewing and deconstructing that comes with that; I could never deal with philosophy, for instance, because what I learned from Plato’s Republic is that kings fear philosophers but philosophers fear artists.

    So I do remember when I was trying to rewrite a NaNo novel of my own, and realizing that I wasn’t explicitly painting a picture that looked like the world really does and could. And I was paralyzed at the time. I began trying so hard to represent experiences not my own that I lost sight of my story. That was a failure on my part. I had to learn from it, but it happened.

    My improv training tells me that story needs to be guided by emotions and relationships. It also tells me that layering, whether in world-building or character development, is basically about learning to juggle with and keep track of more and more balls. I think the only answer is to stay simple, experiment and rewrite until your eyes bleed. (I think it’s also important to remember that not every character has to be a statement, and I’m not sure that should be why we make them diverse; for my part, I get SO EXCITED — still! — when I see a character who’s Jewish but isn’t only Jewish, or only there to be Jewish, though it informs their experiences and interactions with other characters, and can be important to the story.)

    And to conclude, I think my answer is yes, it can be done. It might not happen to your satisfaction on the first or second pass, but books can need passes in the double digits before they’re ready to go out in the world. That’s a lot of time for learning and figuring out that balance, especially if we remember that being true to the world as it exists will make the story richer and more true. The goals aren’t mutually exclusive; it seems to me they’re the same.

  2. I wish I had an easy answer but I don’t know. Its something I think about, how I tend to play male characters and I try and broaden my reading but my writing could use more work.

    I think that first you write the story and then you rewrite and rewrite more and keep thinking and maybe the next story works better for being more inclusive. I know that you can find a way to do it since you’re brilliant with looking at issues of gender and class and all those issues.

  3. i tend to give myself a pass on the demographics of characters i am sourcing from material not my own, because changing that can be an undertaking that makes their entire story fundamentally different, and sometimes that’s just not what you want to be doing. setting also matters. trans or queer characters are not going to be as visible in victorian england, and that is plain fact. and the size of your cast (small) means that you are going to be leaving some people out no matter what you do, so it is okay to accept that.

    my favourite dodge here is creating my own universes. but for small casts, that isn’t always enough. i have two main characters in my novel-in-glacial-progress; one of them is a boy, the other one is an elf (elf is also a sex and a gender). where are the female characters? well, in the sequel, they’re going to have a daughter…

  4. Hmm. Maybe it’s a cop-out, but since the old chestnut is “write what you know”, perhaps the best way to get inclusive small-cast stories is to encourage minority groups to _write_, and to work on getting work written by minorities read and produced. The depictions will be more authentic that way anyhow.

    Not that your ensemble cast shouldn’t be wildly diverse. Of course it should. And not that you shouldn’t feel free to turn convention on its head once or twice, or a bunch of times. But I don’t think you should beat yourself up about it if you find yourself more drawn to characters who remind you of yourself.

  5. I have the same worries, even though I come from a background in which the academic criticism of your generation was something that barely registered as a blip on mine. In the late ’80s and ’90s, it was still exciting to have well thought out and represented (white) female characters and maybe a gay character here and there who wasn’t a complete stereotype. So for me with writing, I have to put on my Teacher Hat and think about the children’s books I read to class, which are honestly often excellent representations of no fuss diversity. But then I freeze up with characters like AU Trixi and Missouri Mosely from SPN, who are African-American, because omg what if I am being unintentionally offensive??? (I love Trixi and her New Orleans family history to stop writing her, though. I shall just RESEARCH as best I can.)

    Hahahaha, and in some plots, I’ve had to say “RIGHT we need this thread next because we are failing the Bechdel test like whoa”.

    I don’t know, it’s all still a puzzle of murky doom for me. But these things are good to think about.

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