Thursday Thoughts: The Stereotypes That Bind

Now, before you roll your eyes or run away, this is not going to be a political post. I promise. While I sometimes discuss politics on this forum, today is not the day. I have been mulling over some thoughts lately about stereotyping as it relates to writing, especially “genre” writing. A post from a great blog I just started following volleyed the idea back to the forefront of my mind. You can (and should) read it here. In it Misha Burnett discusses the origins of different “genres” as well as how they have been manipulated, reversed, and inverted over time. He points out that literature (and arguably any creative venture) is in constant flux, a refreshing contrast to a more widely held thought. A more commonly held idea states that “nothing is unique” or “everything has been done before.” It’s a terribly depressing thought. But there is also the sage advice a professor gave me: “steal from other writers.” Obviously he was not condoning plagiarism, instead he was telling us to borrow, to twist, to bend things that have been done before and to make them our own.

       One of the examples Mr. Burnett uses is horror fiction and particularly vampire fiction. *cue reader eye-roll* Stay with me on this one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was arguably the first “popular fiction” novel on vampires (to my limited knowledge), but obviously it wasn’t the last. That book spawned countless more creative works dealing with vampires, from Anne Rice’s novels to The Series That Shall Not Be Named, to the content on the shelves of the Young Adult section in any bookstore, to my current guilty pleasure, the TV show “Vampire Diaries.” So my question is: What’s wrong with that? People say that vampire fiction, or werewolf fiction, or any of the current “trendy” topics are so cliche and that real writers wouldn’t waste their time with such a topic. Watch out, because Bram Stoker and Anne Rice might come after you with a stake. I agree that there is plenty of  t e r r i b l e  Young Adult (and Adult) fiction that has been spawned by the vampire craze, but take a walk down the Adult Romance aisle and tell me that is all good writing.  I’m using vampire fiction as an example because a) too much Netflix and b) my generation is the generation that raved over Twilight…er…The Series That Shall Not Be Named. I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, seen the movies (even went to a few midnight premieres), and enjoyed them. The Twilight series is entertaining. It’s not high quality, academia writing–but why should it be?

       Harry Potter can easily join the conversation as well. J.K. Rowling is not the first person to write about boarding school, magic, or witches and wizards, but she spun the common subjects her way. If you boil it down to its barest bones, Harry Potter is a coming of age story and, as every high school English class I ever took taught me, bildungsroman has been around since the dawn of time. So why do we look down our noses with disdain when writers choose to write about subjects that are popular or “cliche”? In one sense, the saying that “nothing is new” is encouraging; you have plenty of examples to learn from as you seek to create something that has your personal fingerprints all over it. So to writers: if you want to write about vampires–do it. If you want to write detective novels–do it. But make it your own.

       To readers: read whatever you want to read, reading should be about enjoyment and if you learn something or are inspired or affected along the way, so much the better. Readers have another responsibility, too, and that is to try new things. If you are a fantasy reader (guilty) read some non-fantasy, read some autobiographies, read some classics. This applies to writers as well–read voraciously, whatever you can get your hands on. If you hate a book, never read it again (I suggest getting cheap/used/kindle books just in case). If you love it, read it again until it falls apart, until the pages are stained with tears and crumbs and dirt and memories. But don’t let the stereotypes of genre bind you, cage you in, or prevent you from reading, writing, and experiencing.

A Sunday in Starbucks

There is something about quotes, song lyrics, movie lines, etc that have a way of sticking in my head.  It’s funny how, at the most random of times, these snippets of words will appear and they just fit the moment so perfectly.  It is, to me, one of the greatest things about language—the way something can be stated just so.  The moment when I write a sentence or a line of dialogue that is just right…it’s as euphoric as it is rare.  One such occasion happened as I am sitting in a Starbucks in College Station taking a short break from GRE cramming…er…preparation.  Looking through some of my old writing and flipping between different graduate school applications, a line of dialogue came to mind from one of my favorite and read-to-pieces books, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley: “It is not a comfortable passion.”  The character is referring to his peculiar affection for the strange and unpredictable land in which he finds himself living.  It is a very interesting phrase in general, however, and it begs the question: is there such thing as a comfortable passion?  If there is, I would love for someone to tell me what it is.  I know I have been writing about passion somewhat ad nauseum lately but as doom…I mean graduation…is fast approaching, I have really been forced to evaluate the things in life about which I am passionate.  Obviously the big one is writing.  But I’m passionate about other, smaller things—Aggie football for one.  And, as a longtime fan, I can assure you it is NOT a “comfortable passion.”  But, isn’t that what makes it so exciting?  The heart-stopping moment when a player is breaking tackles or is down on the field unmoving?  Or the times when a player finds a gap and is running all out and you’re screaming your throat raw, just knowing that if you yell louder he will make it to the end zone?

Should passion ever be comfortable?  I don’t think it should.  Comfort is great when it refers to shoes or clothes or squishy armchairs—but passion?  Passion is supposed to prickle the hairs on the back of your neck and give you that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach that is often called “butterflies.”  It should awaken the mind and the senses and keep you up at night; it should bring you joy and it will most likely bring you pain in some form as well.  Comfort implies stability but it also can mean a life that is static, unmoving, never progressing.  As someone who dreaded change for the longest time—and still dreads it in certain aspects of my life—I have had to realize that life is rarely “comfortable.”  Does change necessitate unhappiness or stress?  No, not always, but anyone who thinks that true happiness in life is floating along on a cloud that insulates you from the world is deluding themselves.  As cozy as that may sound, doesn’t it also seem ridiculous?  How long would it take for boredom to set in if the white picket fence never gets dirty, the roses are always in perfect bloom, and the green lawn never needs cutting?  No one wants to read stories about people living perfect lives where nothing changes and nothing ever happens.  Even bedtime stories have to have something happen—that is living.  No one wants to live perfect lives.  We may tell ourselves that is what we strive for but, if so, we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness.  Perfection is unattainable, but happiness and contentment are not.

There is another quote that seems so simple and obvious but is one that has great meaning if you stop to think about it.  Oscar Wilde said: “To live is the rarest thing in the world; most people exist, that is all.”  That is what passion means, to me at least.  To live, truly live, means facing life—including the fear and the pain and the disappointment as well as the joys and the excitement and the celebrations.  You cannot have one without the other—it is the prickly, sharp things in life that make the wonderful things apparent.

On Reading as a Writer

Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most talked about, most discussed books lately. It is the fastest selling paperback of all time and surpassed even Harry Potter. The series that has outsold Harry Potter was written as Twilight erotica, online FanFiction.  You read that right. Now, I’ve read the Twilight series. I’ve seen the movies, I even went to a few midnight premiers. So this is not a post about bashing Twilight or even Fifty Shades, especially since I refuse to read the latter. Everyone has a right to read whatever they want to read, be it smut or otherwise. That said, I read that e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook have made reading books like Fifty Shades more accessible, since you can read them in anonymity. I find that fascinating. If you are so ashamed to be seen reading something, how can you fully enjoy reading it?

I have always been a self proclaimed nerd as far as books are concerned. I love the fantasy genre and I grew up reading books about talking animals and dragons. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t the “cool” thing to do. Especially since I was reading on a 12th grade level when I was only ten. I’ve read other genres as I’ve gotten older, from romance to crime to mystery to classic literature. But I always come back to my first love: fantasy. You could definitely qualify Twilight as fantasy, although I personally would not. It’s Young Adult Literature and Romance that just has some mythical creatures thrown in. Re-reading the books this summer made me compare them to another series I’ve been hooked on this year: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin, possibly better known as the Game of Thrones books.

My older sister got me into these books, as she often has in the past. She would read fantasy books, realize they were inappropriate for me, and then refuse to let me read them until she deemed me old enough to not be permanently damaged by the content. I actually watched the first season of the show on HBO before I read any of the books and that was it. I couldn’t wait to read the book and to buy myself the box set. I read the whole series and then immediately went back to the beginning and read them again. I re-read books all the time, half of my books are falling apart or expanded to twice their size. Usually, I wait a few months. But I absolutely could not  put these down. I actually have to make myself read other things because I want to go back and read them again.

What is it about these books? Yes, there are dragons. There are knights, princesses, and a gigantic war for a single throne. There are also weird mythical demon creatures threatening to take over the land and some very funny weather patterns. So, what sets this series apart? I have never read or watched such vivid characters before in my life. After finishing the first book, I wanted to immediately get my computer and begin what would, of course, be my best written work to date, a story full of complexity and life. I also wanted to delete everything I’ve ever written, curl up in a ball and cry, and then find a new dream career path. If you are not a writer, perhaps you cannot understand the mixture of awe and utter despair that a truly great book brings. But I think this can be applied to almost any aspect of life: you see something that is both inspiring and crippling all at once. Whether you’re a runner and you watch someone win the IronMan or even  watching a collegue succeed in the business world .

That brief moment of “I want to do this! I want to create something that makes other people feel like I do!” is followed hard on the heels by “I can’t.” Teddy Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Simple words, but they carry so much weight. I think, perhaps, that this quote can be too simplified. Comparison, if it drives us to excel, if it gives us ambition can be good—but we must recognize that there will always be someone better, stronger, faster, richer, etc. Perhaps, in that case, comparison should be “inspiration.” Inspiration is that moment of awe and comparison is what creates that black hole of despair that sucks us in when we tell ourselves we can’t.

If we could just manage to catch inspiration in our hands, to hold it gently so as to not crush its fragile wings and let the flutter-flutter of creativity breathe, then we would not be so overwhelmed by the desire to be on top. If you truly love what you do, that crushing disappointment, the overwhelming pressure will ease. It must, because even if you throw out every story you’ve written, trash every idea you’ve begun, the next day you will find yourself scribbling on post it notes, or taking notes on your phone. A stranger in the airport will become a character dying to star in your next story, something someone says will become a line of dialogue that you will jot down and save for a time when it just fits.

There is something, as a writer or an artist, that you to which you simply must become reconciled. There is nothing truly new. There isn’t. Everything is based on something, inspired by something. So don’t be afraid to borrow, to imitate, to adjust and to tweak. Storylines will follow certain formulas, no matter how many twists you throw into them. Characters will be inspired and derived from other characters, or from real people. No one ever said that was wrong. So be inspired, but don’t let yourself be crushed. Maybe I will never be able to write anything like George R.R. Martin, but maybe I can learn from the things I like in his work and from the things I don’t. I read another blog where a writer mentioned starting a reader’s journal. As she read things, she would jot down descriptions or dialogue or details that she liked, themes, settings, anything that caught her attention.

Most writers have heard that the best way to become better writers is to read, and I believe that is true. But we have to be careful not to get so lost in the reading that we lose any desire to write because we cannot measure up to the impossible standards we have set for ourselves. Besides the complexity of Martin’s books, the thing that pulls me in every time is the depth of the characters and especially, how utterly flawed every single one is. There are no heroes in this book—the noble, selfless people are the first to die. It may be fantasy, but it is full of such reality and such truth. That is what makes good writing. Even if it takes place in outerspace or in Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros, if the people are real and the problems are real—that is the making of a great story. So read what you want to read and write what you want to write, but don’t let comparison kill your joy, and don’t let it smother that spark of inspiration that really great books can bring.

On Language and the Love of Language

really felt about his wife’s cooking.



Stop Reading?!

I was reading a blog post today about how reading can actually get in the way of your writing. At first I thought: that’s cray (crazy in 20 something’s speech). Then, as I continued to read, I realized the author was hitting home.

It took me a long time to like reading because I wanted to immediately skip from “Sam can run, Sam has fun!” to REAL books–that is books with chapters. But once it clicked, I was hooked. If I could read in the shower or while I drive, I would. Don’t say they make audiobooks for that, it’s not quite the same.

As I read the post and examined how much time I spend reading, which I convince myself is a better AND more creatively stimulating use of my time than watching tv, I realized I could be using this time to write or think about writing. It seems like when I’m in class or at work my fingers itch to work on whatever writing is in my head at the moment, but as soon as I get home all I want to do is curl up and read or watch a movie. Or spend an embarrassing amount of time on Pinterest. (Where is the Pinners Anonymous support group?? )

These things are all enjoyable and none of them are “wrong” but they’re all an escape of some sort. Don’t get me wrong, writing is an escape for me. I’ll write a paragraph and when I take a breath I have to reorient myself to my surroundings. But, it’s a more productive escape. I’m creating something rather than just escaping from the world that I should be observing and experiencing as a writer, even just as a human being.

Things like books, tv, and, for me especially, Pinterest show us all these things to do and make, these places to go, but we sit there and click “repin” instead of planning a trip, or doing that work out, or even just making those fancy cupcakes. Sitting at a computer pushing a button is not the same as standing on a beach in Greece looking out over the blue water and feeling the breeze. Trust me, I’ve done both. Pinning a picture of Santorini can never replicate or fully represent the smell of the sun on the stones and the way that peculiar shade of Mediterranean blue on the doors and roofs looks in the setting sun.

Even if you don’t write–or read for that matter–what I’m saying (to myself as well) is turn off the tv, step away from the computer, and put down your cell phone.

Go out and live.

If you can’t go to Greece just take a road trip. If you can’t create a Pinterest-perfect work of art, have fun trying and failing. You learn more from failure than you do from success.

So stop reading this. Get up from your computer. There’s a whole world out there just begging to be explored and experienced.