Our Novels Ourselves

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Writing is therapeutic. Sometimes I like writing about mermaids. Therefore, I have invented the Mermaid Self-Help genre, an exciting development in literature and mental health.

We all know that writers put observations about themselves and their world in their work. The challenge then becomes how to create authentic characters without sliding from forgivable Author Avatar to indigestible Mary Sue. Tangent: the best explanation I’ve ever read about why the Mary Sue template “works” is The Oatmeal’s take on Twilight. Good writing invites readers to connect with the authenticity of a character’s experience rather than the optics of the reader’s mirror image. The main pitfalls are confusing archetypes with default relatability and being oblivious to how much of your work is effortlessly you.

I’ll explain.

Mary Sue characters are directly connected to one of the fallacies against diversity in books. Able bodied readers who don’t kill people will connect with your down on her luck quadriplegic assassin (I have to write that now, tucking it into the idea file) just fine if you promise them a really good story and deliver. Sure it’s possible to give an Every Hero archetype a single feature that makes him so unique he is both familiar and totally novel from the outset, but considering the breadth of fiction ever printed it’s not plausible. Guy transforms into a robot dragon in space has probably been done already. Try harder, do better. I doubt J.K. Rowling consciously set out to make a Diverse Book, by creating Cormorant Strike, a veteran with a prosthetic limb, it was merely a side effect of expert character creation.

Taking my own advice, the Cryptid Coterie series was an act of therapy from the outset. When I started writing it, I was stuck in Seattle. The move I desperately wanted was not in my cards at the time, and it was my outlet for working through it. Toni Morrison said write the book you want to read, so I did.  Characterization is one of my strengths as a writer so while Tabitha is without a doubt my Author Avatar (but then so was her antagonist Irene) there are significant things that separate Tabitha from being a Mary Sue copy of me. Flaws were an integral part of Tabitha’s build. I didn’t want to write about the perfect, gold-hearted elemental that triumphed over the mean two-dimensional people. I wanted to create a living, breathing person and that meant obnoxious personality traits. Tabitha is a fair parody of myself at her age, in a wardrobe of self-awareness as well as wish fulfillment. Likewise Irene was Neutral Evil but also an exploration of aspects of myself. Dividing the chapters between them allowed for an antagonist with her own demented humanity that readers could identify with. The Villains we love to hate are successful because on some level, we understand them. We applaud them even.

When it came to being vulnerable in writing, I discovered that I was infusing my work with vulnerability without even trying. Every word comes from some nook deep inside the writer, how could it not be revealing? Blame shifting is difficult when it’s your name under the title. My magic happens when I can take the Reader to that same place inside themselves.

Go forth, and trope responsibly.

W

Dr. Maya Angelou’s Glory, 1928 – Infinty & Beyond

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Dr. Maya Angelou's Glory, 1928 - Infinty and Beyond I once dreamt, when I was going through a different but also rocky time in my life, that I was in a therapy session with the dear and now departed Dr. Maya Angelou. For my troubled sub-conscious, there was no better healer or guide available. She sat in a comfortable chair and I reclined on a sofa in the traditional therapy poses, but we were on a platform of a flatbed truck that drove around a city, as I talked through what worried me, what I hoped for, and what I wanted to be. It was like a literary feminist music video. I have no idea what she told me, but I woke up feeling whole. I remember thinking, yes, of course Maya Angelou fixed my life. Reflecting on her life’s work now that she’s gone, I remember how giddy I felt when I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at the thought of a life that generated volumes of autobiography. The woman sang for Billie Holliday and cooked for M.F.K. Fisher. She did. She was. I can. Her life and her work have always made me feel that way, that I can.

Weekend Glory by Maya Angelou

Some clichty folks don’t know the facts, posin’ and preenin’ and puttin’ on acts, stretchin’ their backs. They move into condos up over the ranks, pawn their souls to the local banks. Buying big cars they can’t afford, ridin’ around town actin’ bored. If they want to learn how to live life right they ought to study me on Saturday night. My job at the plant ain’t the biggest bet, but I pay my bills and stay out of debt. I get my hair done for my own self’s sake, so I don’t have to pick and I don’t have to rake. Take the church money out and head cross town to my friend girl’s house where we plan our round. We meet our men and go to a joint where the music is blue and to the point. Folks write about me. They just can’t see how I work all week at the factory. Then get spruced up and laugh and dance And turn away from worry with sassy glance. They accuse me of livin’ from day to day, but who are they kiddin’? So are they. My life ain’t heaven but it sure ain’t hell. I’m not on top but I call it swell if I’m able to work and get paid right and have the luck to be Black on a Saturday night.