Baring your soul on paper can be very intimidating. If there's one thing to make us feel vulnerable, it's writing from the heart - that special place we offer only to our loved ones and people we trust. Quite a small market.
Yet, if you're a writer, you probably want your work to travel far and wide, landing on the laps of people in different countries, different time zones, and scanned by the eyes of people who, you hope, will adore you and your gift. This creates a rather oxymoronic environment, which is counterproductive for any writer.
So, how can we be braver? How can writers express themselves openly, without feeling too exposed? Writing, like any art form, is like lathering the soul's honey all over your body - the sweetest, most nourishing yield that we can produce from our hearts - and then going out to lie naked in a field of bees. Those bees are vicious - they are literary agents, publishing houses, jealous colleagues, educated readers, ignorant readers, newspaper reviewers, family, friends, and - most destructively - the voices inside our own head. They tell us our honey is too sweet, or too fragrant, or too synthetic. They tell us they prefer autumn flora when we write in spring, and spring flora when we write in autumn. And so, we believe our honey must be terrible.
No matter how competent we are at our craft, there will always be someone who will try to taint the batch. To be human is to be imperfect, which we must understand works in the favour of both writer and reader. But there are ways we can protect ourselves. We can vaccinate ourselves from the disease of self-doubt, allowing us to walk out into the world with confidence in our quasi-immunity. We can shield ourselves with a pen-name, allowing us total freedom to express ourselves, effectively throwing grenades from the depths of the trenches and never allowing our heads to surface. It isn't cowardly - it's just strategy. And if strategy brings out the best in our writing, then keep your head low and battle on bravely.
A stance that I practice in debate is a similar separation tactic. Some will argue senselessly, determined to save their own face, even when their heart is no longer behind the ideology they uphold. But, a speedier, more effective resolution to an argument, is to claim no ownership of your ideals. Lay out your position on the table and step back. Watch it become molded by contradicting ideas. See it grow under the light of supporting viewpoints. Feel confident in its conclusion, and don't hold it too close to your heart until you are certain. As writers, we must be as equally wary of our pride as anyone else. It may be scary to sacrifice our pride, but the fruits of our genuine search for pure expression are much sweeter than a bold facade cast in front of a bad idea.
Similarly, write as your character - not as an author. A good writer will make his reader believe that the words they are reading are under the ownership of the characters themselves, not the author. The author's pen is only the vehicle for the characters' words, and if we can make our characters real enough, we can get away with anything. Sure, your character may be an asshole. They may say and do the most horrendous things, but the author should absolve themselves of all crimes. Remember, Dr. Hannibal Lecter was the cannibal - not Thomas Harris. So, if your character feels it appropriate to say something controversial, or offensive, or truly despicable in the eyes of the reader, let them say it. Let them say it in the most honest, brutal, uncensored way necessary. Let them shock and let them cause a riot. You, the author, are not at fault. If anything, your observational skills to recognise the power of these words is to your credit, and I will applaud you!
With that in mind, write what you know. Yes, you have probably heard this a lot. But it makes it no less true. Whether it is knowing the strength of your character's words and how they will impact the real world, or whether it is truly living the dark experiences we share with our characters, be sure that you know what you are doing first. If you haven't lived the experience personally, that's fine. But you better do your research first! Read up, speak to people who know more, ask them questions, but respectfully. Remember, you can be their champion here and you can say the words they may not feel brave enough to express, themselves. You can be their nom de plume. You may even make a difference in their lives. Share your work with willing and qualified beta readers, or members of the community your characters are representing. Would they be comfortable with these words going to print? Do they think your writing can make a difference to their experience?
As authors, we have the tendency to think mainstream. Mainstream is the biggest killer of controversial thought, but mainstream sells and publishing houses need to sell books. That is why many writers choose to self-publish, even with the knowledge that they will find a smaller audience and a smaller budget. But sometimes, controversial subjects need to be told. Can you imagine a publishing house taking on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice today? Can you imagine the story of a man and his sexual pursuit of a fourteen-year-old boy making it past the first round of editors? But thank God it did, because even though we may feel disgust at the open expression of pedophilia in print, it becomes the perfect vehicle for a primary theme in this novella - the destructive power of obsessive love. How else can Thomas Mann make us loathe the obsession than to assign it to the defenseless, un-consenting, pure form of a child? Of course, we must also consider that it was written in a different time and this certainly makes a difference when we decide whether to shun the art or the artist. It is the reason why we can enjoy a Wagnerian opera, despite the knowledge that Wagner was an essayist spouting gross antisemitism to a wider public. It is the reason why we can enjoy Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, knowing that they would probably have been homophobic, due to the society and times they lived in.
So don your armor and write bravely. Let your characters live their truths and express your most vulnerable self freely. Only writing can save the writer, in the same way that only the lance that struck Amfortas can heal his wounds. And if you can re-read your words and say that you have worked to the best of your ability to make your words honest, then you have done all you can do. And, if in doubt, revisit the works of Gore Vidal, Djuna Barnes, Truman Capote, or Carson McCullers. They are shining lights that will show you the way. - JX
Julius Eks is the author of Le Berceau, an erotic gay romance published by Bold Strokes Books
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