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?