Sunday, June 22, 2008

Assholism (The Writer's Second-Favourite Vice)

(This post is overly-personal and features some very offensive language. My apologies to Julie!)

When I think about the personality traits that serve me best as a writer, empathy tops the list--and I have painful quantities of that one. I was the kid who got hysterical watching "Save The Children" fundraising programs. I'm the woman who really, really doesn't like thinking about where meat comes from. I used to live in an apartment that had mice, and I cried every bloody time my plucky mousetrap bagged another victim.

Being overly-sensitive has its downside, but it's extremely valuable to a writer. Empathy for others is the only thing that allows us to create a spectrum of characters. Because I believe there are few truly evil people in the world--that most villains are really misguided, confused, or simply (and sadly) stupid--I try to make my antagonists human and sympathetic. Because I understand that everyone struggles with weaknesses and fears, I always make my heros flawed. It enriches the story.

But there's another facet of my personality that enriches my stories, and I've been noticing this trait's existence with increasing trepidation the past few years.

Grad school was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I got into a bad head-space because of it. I wound up stressed, depressed and at times extremely angry, and that state lasted for four years. I'm mostly over it now, but the anger didn't exactly go away. It changed form.

Meet "Goblin", my inner bitch. She's the part of me that can give blistering critiques without guilt--and usually without forethought. She's the half of me that enjoys grading students' work when they've done poorly. Goblin relishes participating in an online mocking community, because she gets to act like a sarcastic cunt there.

I'm ashamed of this facet of my personality. I'm a life-long pacifist, and I work as a teacher--a profession where I believe patience is the most enabling and helpful tactic we can adopt. I believe in kindness as a way of life. Nothing makes me angrier than seeing people being mean or thoughtless to one another.

And yet, here's Goblin, who is extremely mean. I know the seed of her existed in me long before grad school, but she's well-defined and fully realized now, and she doesn't want to go away.

The question is, does Goblin have a valid place in my existence? Is she a good demon to have lurking in the back of my writer's brain?

One of the mantras of writing is "conflict on every page". I structure a lot of my dialogue as arguments (of varying civility) between characters. There's always tension, and there's usually snark. Goblin does that well. Sensitive character studies have their place in literature, but so does glorious, fangs-out bitchery. See Jane Austen.

I can make the argument that this darker aspect of my personality is harmless if I give it valid outlets, such as my writing or the mocking community (which attempts to ensure those mocked never find out about it). If I let Goblin have her fun, then I can, the rest of the time, be a positive and supportive person in everything that matters.

The problem is, it doesn't work that way. If I let Goblin out regularly, she starts sneaking out when she's not welcome. For example, I said something sharp to a student the other day, and that is not acceptable. I feel badly about it, and I'm annoyed at myself. This student happens to be a dick, but that's beside the point--how you treat people has nothing to do with who they are; it has to do with who you are. And I don't like who I was that day.

I haven't got a tidy conclusion or lesson to pull out of this post; this is something I'm struggling with. How deeply do you explore negativity? Do you have to occasionally kick your darker stories (and impulses) back into their corner to keep them from infecting your whole life? And if you do, does that weaken your writing? Are you strangling your career to protect your mental well-being? (If you are, it's the right choice, but I'm not really persuaded that writing nasty stories is bad for you.)

For now, I'm letting Goblin out on a short leash, and watching her closely, because I'm learning things. They're not fun lessons, however. I had to apologize to someone recently for a thoughtless comment, and I've lost a blogging buddy over something I still feel justified in saying, even if I regret the consequences. On the mocking community, I've found situations where it stops feeling like happy snarking and starts feeling like spite. There's a line between having a strong opinion and being a jerk, and Goblin--disturbing as she is--is teaching me exactly where that is.


What's your advice and opinion regarding this issue? Where do you, personally, draw the line between what you're willing to think about, and what you're not, in order to create a strong story? Have you ever abandoned a work because you didn't like what it was doing to your state of mind?

Or do you find getting those disturbing stories on the page actually lightens your mood, purges you of negative emotions? Is it a positive thing, for you, when you explore the darkest corners of your own mind? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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