I’m in a really exciting funk. Work has finally settled down into a monetarily sustainable and rewarding routine, I’m all moved into an amazing apartment and a neighborhood so beautiful and exciting that my freshman year self would’ve pointed to it on a map and filed it under “goals,” I have a new laptop that runs everything beautifully and smoothly, my main relationships are strong and flourishing and my parents are off my back —
and yet, here it is again, a gnawing feeling that begins in the gut and climbs up and between my ribs like a snake on a caduceus, that same unsettling shifting calling that rings in my ears, crescendos over the sound of cars ripping down Fountain Ave. at 2 in the morning. I look at the blank screen and I freeze. I look at the blank page and I freeze. But the desire is there and it becomes clearer to me each day that by god, I have to make this work, I have to figure out how this is going to work and then I will make it my work.
Apparently, The New Yorker is going to be putting up a pay wall soon, but Slate helpfully put together a list of long read highlights. One of the featured articles is a musing by renowned wtf-is-going-on-in-his-mind writer Haruki Murakami, entitled “The Running Novelist.”
The man is a celebrated literary figure with a distinct style, who also once ran jazz clubs and currently runs marathons. But he didn’t start running, or writing seriously, until well into his 30’s. His personal writing is as casual, detail-oriented, and haphazard as his novels, but there’s a drive underneath it all that you wouldn’t expect from him — though then again, it’s always strange to realize that people who are successful now weren’t always successful and that they worked to get where they are. No really! Say it ain’t so, because that means that all of those writing projects and projected projects bubbling around in my head won’t just magically materialize out of my fingertips one day.
Did I actually think I’d be able to extract a novel from my hands? No, but man, to wish, perchance to dream. I bought a notebook at The Last Bookstore in the hope that I’d be able to write more. It started off okay, an entry a day, but then the novelty wore off and it became an entry every two, every three, once a week, petering off into erratic scribbling and nonsense doodles. The last thing I wrote in it was a frenzied muttering that’d crawled its way into my mouth as I scaled the hill on Sweetzer Ave., convinced that every passing car had its crosshair fixed upon me. “If I keep waiting for the bullet, it will hit me.” Very inspiring stuff.
But, on the page right before, is the outline of… something. I don’t know what, and I don’t know where to begin from it, but I’m finally pinning together an idea that has been brewing in my head for years now, and which is now taking primordial shape. It’s a story about family beyond blood ties, blood shed in the family, forbidden romance without reason and forbidden romance within reason, magic and myth and the big ? of everything.
And as I’m stitching these first scraps together, I’m also reading, more than I have in a very long time. Yes, part of this reading is from the creatively but simply constructed Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (which isn’t a ding — I’m obsessed with those books, those characters, and Riordan’s inventive reworkings of Greek and Roman mythology), but a lot of this reading is from long form articles, both from the New Yorker shortlist and from Narratively and Twitter. I’ve been reading a lot about race. I’ve been reading a lot about sex and gender. From these groups, nothing I’ve read has been hopeless, but nothing I’ve read has been heartening either.
It’s given me pause. I used to be of the mind that characters just have to be characters! that rely on their own intuitive narrative arcs! and if the story is compelling enough, that alone should ensure its importance, the characters’ importance, and thus the author’s credibility as a storyteller! But then I find myself looking through story summaries and they follow the same pasty, balls-grabbing POV as the majority of the rest of everything, and I want to scream “Who cares?” because certainly, the answer is not me.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t inherent meaning in these stories, in these characters, in the goings-ons of the white, of the male, of the two together. There is depth within the shell; and it doesn’t follow that any story outside of those margins is immediately superior either, something I find when reading art and culture criticism. “The other” is not always better, but can sometimes be construed as such because it’s working in a much shallower playing field. Odysseus has lived numberless lives in fiction. POC women, in the same treatment, have not.
Now, as I begin, finally, the tedious, tenuous steps of character- and world- building, I have to consider these things carefully, thoughtfully. It would be great to assign these things as I go, or as one would throw darts at a board, but I don’t just want my characters to be certain things — I want them to live them, to move from space to space and through time carrying the same realizations about themselves that I and my friends and vast swaths of the human race do in the now. It seems to me unlikely that any society that bears resemblance to the one humanity has constructed throughout the world’s history would be without its same ills. It’s so easy to carry a story in the arms of an open-ended protagonist, impervious to reality as we know it. Who cares about misogyny when characters are fighting dragons, or casting spells, or walking amongst the lightless shadows of the dead? What is race in a world where we’ve conquered space travel, transcended our corporeal bodies, oozed back into the ocean as evolution ran a complete loop? For that matter, what does any -ism have to do with the fantasy of it all, of something that inherently isn’t real?
But it does matter. It has to matter, otherwise we’re saying that these worries and fears, which have erupted in gunfire and tear gas and a landscape of bruises, are blemishes on some inherently pristine aesthetic palate. When studios engage in whitewashing casting, when our most celebrated technicians and artists consider themselves above these “fraught” conversations or never allude to them at all, when summer wanes and instead of high-waisted shorts, pearl-clutchers now start fretting about girls in leggings, it hurts the human in me, but I lack the ability to articulate these frustrations in a more organized form.
What I can do is write. What I can do, is create a world in which the untouchable is inescapable, and fill it with characters who consciously move within it and seek to change it as I do.
Writing is a mirror and I must reflect what is real. All fiction doesn’t need to confront its time and place, but goddammit, I want to do this right, by me and everyone who’s ever felt marginalized in culture and by culture. I need to do this right.