Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Book I *Could* Have Written But Didn't

Way back in 2008, I was an aspiring writer with quick fingers, recklessly typing out story after story after story. Six books, in fact, came out of me in 2008. From zombies to dragons to elves and even a girl who could talk to plants...yeah.

But, for all my recklessness, there was one book I decided not to write.

It was about a girl living on the Blackfoot Reservation. There was gonna be spirit animals and shamans and cliches galore. I was excited about it! As with all my other stories, I began to do some research into the region and culture and people and history. And the more I read, the more I got...a weird feeling. Basically, it said:

I don't know if I'm the right person to tell this story.

My feelings weren't that articulated at the time. I can boil that feeling down to this one sentence after a good eight years of thinking about why this particular story pushed back at me.

You see, I've kinda naturally included diversity in my writing since the beginning. I've been thinking about it before it was something people talked about every day online. I've been trying—and often times failing—to sell books with diverse MCs. My very first sub to editors, in fact, was a diverse MC...and I learned very quickly the realities of publishing in that respect.

So why this story? Why this Native American girl? What was it that made me step back?

Most importantly, I felt out of my depth. And I think this is key—the more I researched...the LESS confident I got. Usually as a writer, researching and learning and trying to embody that character becomes easier. This time? NOPE. It got harder, more confusing. I realized a lot of my ideas wouldn't work. And not in a "rework" sense but in a straight up "your ideas were wrong from the beginning sense."

But people like to say "challenge yourself." And "if you're afraid of a story it's the one you should tell." Which, I suppose, is true in some sense but can be taken way too far in another sense.

Finally, I decided I needed to get an answer from someone who knew much better than I. Because I happened to work at the Multicultural Office at my university (I'm a white-passing Maori, so I ended up being able to get this job that changed my life and perspective in so many ways), I happened to have a diverse group of friends and acquaintances though I live in an extremely white state.

So I emailed one of my Native friends. She is Navajo, grew up in that world. She isn't a writer or anything, but she is the girl I pictured as I was planning this story though she wasn't Blackfoot. I love and respect her, and so of course my white-passing self burdened her with speaking for all the Native Tribes and Nations.

But you know what? I'm glad I asked.

Because the email she sent back basically went like this, "I mean, I guess you're allowed to write whatever you want, but your story sounds cliche and I think Natives would be offended by it. Other people write dumb stuff about us all the time, and it's frustrating, and mostly I just wish that my own people could publish their own writing about their own culture and lives."

There was a little knee-jerk reaction in me that said "Aw, but I wanna write this because I love it. Pout pout pout. Wah wah wah. Freedom of speech and stuff."

But then there was a bigger reaction, one I'm eternally glad I listened to: "You know what? She's right. I have felt out of my depth on this from the beginning, and now she's telling me I AM. I should listen to her. I have more stories to tell—this one deserves to be told by someone who won't mess it up as much as I will."

And so I didn't write it. I have no regrets. In fact, I'm proud of myself.

That isn't to say I stopped writing diversely. I've written quite a variety of diverse characters in my small repertoire (many of which aren't published). That also isn't to say I haven't messed up a few things even in the stories I did choose to pursue and publish. I have! I've grown and learned by writing diversely, and yeah of course there are things I would have done differently. But the key in the stories I DID write: Research made me more confident, helped me resolve my own ignorance, and pushed me forward to make it better, unlike this story where it made me less confident I could do it justice.

There's been a lot of talk about who "should" be writing which stories. And there will always be that natural push back of "But I can write whatever I want it's fiction and not real!"

I'm not gonna say you're wrong if you think that, but I will ask you to pause a moment and think a bit deeper. Because I do wonder: Can we not do better than that?

The call for better representation isn't about hitting baseline decency. It's about raising the bar. It's about providing more beautiful voices from more beautiful human experiences. It's about asking the hard questions, and even more, doing the hard things that will give everyone a chance to not only see themselves in books, but to BE the one writing them.

This story of mine happened in 2008. Eight whole years ago. I wish I could say to my sweet, amazing Navajo friend that publishing hasn't continued to fail her people and other Native Americans but it has. I still hope for that to change—and I know now that my voice isn't the one to be heard but HERS and that is the beginning of it all.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Magic Of Writing With No Expectations

I've written under many circumstances. When I was aspiring to be published traditionally, I would write in hopes that I could fit a certain market and that shaped how I wrote books. When I finally sold I wrote in hopes that I could STAY in said market. When I realized I wouldn't ever really fit...I began rebelliously writing whatever the hell I wanted. Sometimes people would sell books like that, I was told. It hasn't happened to me yet. I'm still "outside" as much as ever.

And long ago, I used to write with truly zero expectations on me, imposed by myself or others. This, I think, is a magical thing. Truly magical. If you write you know what I'm talking about.

When I was a teen, I would go down to my quiet computer room in the basement. My dad had gifted me the old Apple MacIntosh. I had it ALL to myself! It didn't have much on it, but it did have a word processor and that's all I needed. Turning on my boom box, I would sit down there and melt into the worlds in my head. I would spend hours down there, dreaming up stories and feeling like everything I came up with was amazing. It was the best.

It didn't last.

A little criticism fueled my self-doubt and soon I stopped writing stories. The MacIntosh died. I lost everything I hadn't printed—which is a bit of a relief since there was A LOT of bad poetry on there.

I didn't feel that magic again for about five years. I finished high school and went to college, having tucked my dream of authorhood deep down where I hoped it wouldn't bother me. But, despite my fears and determination to have a rational career, it came back. And I started writing, and the magic was waiting there for me as I let myself explore and be imaginative.

For two years I played, not daring to attempt or think of publication. Mostly I was afraid of failure, but I think part of me also knew that things would change when I decided to try for traditional publication. Things wouldn't be quite the same.

I was right. It's hard to hold on to that magic once you make the decision to publish. Some writers are better at it than others. But slowly, it began to slip away from me. With each attempt to publish and then STAY published...that magic, that creativity, that all began to slip away.

I lost it a few times. Without that magic, I wanted to give up. Writing wasn't worth it without that joy. Every now and then, as I tired to make new stories I would feel that fleeting spec of magic still in me, but by then I was too afraid to let more in. Because magic can be painful, too. You can love things so much that the impending disappointment aches before it has even happened. And it does happen.

Perhaps I'm rambling, but I suppose I want to say: Hold on to the magic of writing.

It's not silly. It's not superfluous. It's essential.

Right now, I happen to be in an interesting new and yet familiar place—I have zero expectations on me as a writer. It's liberating and strange. It feels like both a failure and a mercy. Because I am finding magic again. And I am exploring worlds in my head that are just for me. I am writing what I want with no mind for what other people like. I'm letting this world and these characters surround me, instead of pushing them back in fear that I won't be able to share them. I'm opening up again—opening up to myself—after years of being scared of how all my books would fail.

The magic is here. In this place where I've ended up. And I missed it so very much.