Last week I wrote an article about the types of writing criticisms I have found to be unhelpful and even destructive; I wrote a list of seven criticisms I ignore, so that I can focus on the criticisms that really do help and write honestly without a paralyzing fear of offending.
One item on my list was “Attacks from the Political Correctness Brigade” and I deliberately used an example I knew might be controversial: critics who want all women in fiction to be represented as “strong.”
It might seem strange that I used that example. I am a woman, and the first article I ever published was in a feminist magazine called Herizons about under-representation of women in video games.
However, the inherent “goodness” of a political cause does not mean writers should allow its proponents to dictate what can or cannot go into their writing. Readers have every right to go to the Amazon website and express their disgust at fiction that counters their world view, but the writer also has every right to ignore them.
As a writer, I am like a kindergartener who throws a tantrum if an adult tries to “correct” her drawings; “See? This is the right way to draw a tree. Green. Not purple. See?”
However, after I had published my blog, an outspoken feminist told me she was uncomfortable with my list. She was afraid that it would shield socially irresponsible writers from listening to reason or cause them to “stick their heads in the sand.” She hated the idea that my list could make writers tune out her complaints.
She gave a couple of examples in fiction that she found particularly offensive. One was a scene in Twilight where Edward restrains Bella against her will to “protect” her. Another was the fictional trope of a male being “mean” to a girl because he likes her.
I understand – but for what it is worth, both scenarios are plausible. In a dangerous situation, a male character in real life might actually restrain a girl with the intention of protecting her. For that matter, a woman might restrain a man to protect him, although, granted, I have never seen it happen in fiction, especially the kind where the male has a blood-based diet, skin that “sparkles like diamonds,” and superhuman strength.
There is no denying that gender discrimination exists, but having a character do something in fiction is not the same as saying he or she should have done it. Fiction is driven by flawed characters who, like real people, make flawed decisions. Characters do good things and they do bad things, and sometimes they do things that are kind of both. A novel is a reflection of how a writer sees the world, not an instruction manual for how to live.
The idea of a boy picking on a girl because he likes her is plausible. The idea of a girl picking on a boy because she likes him: also plausible. I did it once. I was eight. Humans are weird.
However, the feminist who complained about my post called these examples “no-no’s.” The idea of writing having “no-no’s” did not sit well with me, partly because in general, published fiction writers are not five-year-olds, and any reader who thinks he or she is entitled to verbally spank me for committing a “no-no” is going to meet spirited resistance.
The complaint from my feminist critic is only one example of political correctness applied to writing. Once, I wrote a blog post telling about the first manifestation of my bipolar disorder. At one point I used the non-clinical term “nervous breakdown” and a lady told me that I should not have used that term because it was vague and “unhelpful.” The criticism chafed. My experience had felt like a nervous breakdown. Besides, it was my article. It was my trauma; I would call it whatever I pleased.
To write at all, I must own my writing. Those of you who have read my book A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom know why: I once fell prey to a severe case of block in which I thought my writing days were over forever. My block lasted for over three years. I tried writing through agonizing fears of criticism. Then, on one of the most painful writing days I have ever had, on the verge of giving up for good, I realized that I had lost something priceless.
I remembered that the time I had loved writing most had been my childhood; during that time no one, including myself, had ever forced me to write. I had not been terrified of offending anyone. Creating had been fun. I had felt free to make mistakes. No one had told me what I should say or not say, when I should begin, or how long I should write. My revelation was a turning point for me. It led to the resolution: I am going to write whatever and however I want the way I did when I was ten; no one has to read my writing, but I am going to write stories that make me happy.
My simple resolution changed everything. I got over my block. I finished my second novel, The Ghosts of Chimera. I wrote and self-published A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom, chronicling how I had recovered my creativity. I published a book of short stories, over 150 blog posts, and many more short stories. I also finished a third novel, Paw.
Finally, I got a book deal for The Ghosts of Chimera. Everything I have done creatively during the last ten years went back to one simple idea: I own my writing. I will share it with the reader, but it is mine first. I decide what does and does not go into it. I decide how and when I will write it. I choose my characters. I choose my plots. I choose my themes. Anyone who disapproves of my work may stop reading it or go write their own books, but they are not allowed to write mine for me.
I stand by my rule that criticisms from the “political correctness brigade” are best ignored. Amazon reviews that bully writers for telling stories that tug against a particular political agenda are unlikely to change real bigots, but they are quite effective in reducing well-meaning writers to stuttering as they struggle not to offend imaginary guardians of the politically sacred. Right or wrong, writers must be willing to offend, because offending is an inevitable consequence of being honest.
This is true in both nonfiction and fiction. While incendiary nonfiction attracts plenty of critics, made-up stories take some of the hardest hits. Many people seem to view popular fiction as the subconscious of a culture. Since stories can reflect and influence how individuals think, individual fiction writers sometimes become lightning rods for popular grievances.
This is unlikely to ever change. Art is meant to elicit strong reactions. However, individual writers must find ways to cope with the pressure, and my way of coping is to stubbornly write what I like – although afterward I do allow myself to hope that someone else in the world will like it too. To reinforce my artistic sanity, I made my “criticisms to ignore” list, which is already proving to be useful to me. It is also an excellent reminder of why I do, and do not, write fiction – or anything else.
Fiction is a waking dream. No one will get very far with me by telling me what I can and cannot dream. I will not allow anyone to insert things into my writing for the purpose of supporting any agenda other than my own, no matter how “high-minded” that agenda might be.
If my writing ever becomes about avoiding, “no-no’s,” it will mean artistic death. It will be the same as saying good-bye to creative freedom and returning to a state of fearful paralysis, which will put an end to doing what I love and live to do. In my worst nightmares, I will never take that soul-crushing, devastating path.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “The Ghosts of Chimera” will soon be published by the folks over at Rooster and Pig Publishing.