Friday, January 11, 2013

How to Get Out of Your Head?

Warning: this post is extraordinarily self-indulgent, by which I mean I talk a lot about myself and the problems I face with writing.

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I'd like to quote the indomitable Justine Musk:
...many of us never really identified with girl culture in the first place.

I never did. I grew up thinking I had a strong masculine streak – even though I wasn’t a tomboy, even though I was very comfortable in my girlskin, even though, as I got older, I developed a rich, deep, sensual sense of being female that happened to be steeped in books instead of Barbies, black instead of pink, jeans and boots and leather jackets instead of dresses, writing fiction instead of socializing, ambition instead of caretaking, wanderlust instead of baby hunger (the baby hunger came later), hard dance music instead of sensitive singer-songwriters, thrillers instead of chick flicks.

I learned to take a certain pride in this. I learned to distance myself from anything that smacked of the girly-girl, to speak mockingly of mani-pedis and gossip magazines and Lifetime movies and butterfly tattoos and, yes, pink, because these things were weak. To be disdainful of them was to be not weak.

Only when I woke up to what I was doing – buying into a misogynistic contempt for the feminine that remains at the heart of our culture – did I start to look at things differently.

There are so many different ways to express the feminine; the struggle is to not get locked into the limited range of options with which we’re presented.

-the perils of pink

So yeah. Second paragraph, first sentence and first clause of second sentence: that's me. Books, black, jeans (dresses are uncomfortable), writing fiction, ambition...add to that math, euphonium, cats, physics, green tea, and -

Wait, no, that's not anything about my "sense of being female", that's just my sense of being myself. I happen not to have lived as long nor done as much soul-searching as Musk, particularly not with what it means to be a woman. (Re: common gender issues/girl culture - I'll return to this anon.) After all, I'm sixteen, I'm essentially insular, self-absorbed (and -centered); I know only about being myself, and I can hardly generalize from what I feel to other people because to the kind of sixteen-year-old who thinks she can take over the world, no one is like you.

I know, theoretically, that a lot of people feel the same as I do. But since I live completely in my own head, I run into two big problems when writing:

1. "I can only write people who think exactly like I do."
2. "I can write people who aren't like me...but it won't be real."

You'd think that after having written the Utopia Project, which has a roulette of viewpoint characters, I'd be better at this. I don't know. Maybe I've undergone atrophy (I haven't looked at TUP in a while, letting it rest before diving in for the third draft).

The "write what you know" piece of advice is, I feel, dangerous, because for people like me who really don't have a lot of life experience, it either limits our writing by confining us to certain characters (option 1) or by telling us that it's okay not to spend a lot of effort trying to put ourselves in others' shoes (option 2).

When you have a definite sense of being yourself, being a person who thinks like you do, and when you don't have much sense of being connected to your external attributes (gender and race), you - okay, fine, I have problems where I write characters who look diverse on the surface but who all are, under the skin, variations on me.

I have relatively little trouble, as a straight Asian girl, writing from the perspective of people of different races/sexuality/gender, so long as the character and I have similar personalities. My typical protagonist: introverted, intelligent, cat- and math-loving, violent, dark-haired, occasionally misanthropic. I'll introduce you to my Doppelgangers properly some other time; this list is just to express my problem.

How to get out of your head?

I don't mean "how to write about what it's like to be a female/Asian". (The post about gender is forthcoming; I think I mentioned last week that my race is not a commodity.) I mean, when you have spent so long being yourself and only yourself, and in your daydreams you are only a cooler version of yourself*, how do you think from the point of view of someone who does not think like you?

*Whether I imagine myself as a dragon, a wizard, or a professional rescuer, I am still me.

Another way to phrase the titular question: how to put empathy in writing?

Today I finished reading Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground", and found that while I understand why the narrator wallows in his own moral filth, when I tried to imagine doing as he did (writing a character like him, that is), I couldn't. When I try to imagine being someone who follows different principles from me, my mind offers resistance.

Imagine hating math - can't do it. Imagine truly believing that your parents' wishes overrule yours - can't do it. I'd go on but I get distressed even thinking about it, which I know is a great failing in a writer.

I've raised my own personal problems without offering any solutions thus far; I cannot leave it like this. Here are things I am trying to integrate into my mindset:

1. Most people are interesting if you listen hard enough.
2. Extraverts aren't all bad.
3. You aren't really that special. You're too full of yourself, so get out of your head.

Take a look around. I have faith that it will be interesting.

1 comment:

  1. ah, notes from the underground...i read that in high-school and i remember i commented on it so i went to dig out the post where i commented on it, now i remember how much i hated that guy, and the bitterness, and wow, i just couldn't stand him, at all. So that's what you do: exercise. write someone you can't stand as much as i couldn't stand the guy from notes from the undreground. start creating people the exact opposite from you...just because you don't write them from experience doesn't make them any less real, in fact actually they are real because it's not true that you can't write them from experience, everything that is in your mind is your experience, even if it is fictional. it's just 'mental' experience, maybe more like a mental exercise..but oh, it's real cause your mind made it real! does that make any sense? Anyways, i'm confident you are perfectly capable of creating a diversity of characters plenty different from who you are without making them feel 'unreal'. Give yourself a chance, listen to those people who are so different from you, experience them...it's your research for the characters in your books. Some of them may even be interesting, who knows!
    [just don't agree with point 3, ok maybe getting out of you head isn't that bad every once in a while, but as a fellow introspector i'm telling you there's no other place as cool, no other place more worth knowing and making pretty than that...so what the hell are you supposed to do out of it?]

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