This Time, It’s Personal (But it’s always personal)

Back when my husband (then-boyfriend) was participating in a writers/actors/directors workshop in college, he invited me to the staged reading of all the plays they’d been working on. One of the plays was a sort of dramedy that explored a marriage wherein the husband suffered from narcolepsy. I enjoyed it well enough, though it seemed like it still needed a lot of polishing. And then, during the audience feedback afterwards, a woman spoke up and almost immediately began crying. Apparently she had come to see this play specifically because she was living it as the wife of a narcoleptic. It was powerfully validating for her to see it portrayed like this.

I recall feeling deeply uncomfortable. First of all, because this woman was having a personal, emotional moment and it gave me a sense of eavesdropping on something private. But secondly, I felt like every criticism I’d had was now irrelevant. What did it matter what I, a non-narcoleptic or spouse of a narcoleptic, thought? This wasn’t a metaphor for marriage issues as I had originally been interpreting it; this was a real problem and I couldn’t begin to comprehend it, so my opinions didn’t matter and I’d better just keep my mouth shut. (Ha, like I would have ever opened my mouth, shy and timid mouse that I am. But anyway).

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve grown and learned a great deal in the intervening years about what it means to engage with art on a personal level, both as the creator and as the audience. And I wish I could go back in time and tell my young self this important truth: your opinion is still valid. It’s not more valid than someone else’s, but it’s not less valid either. And you can just throw out the idea of objectively assessing a work of art, because such an assessment is impossible by definition. Every artist will approach their creation with a set of experiences and opinions, and every audience member will engage with that creation with their own entirely separate set of experiences and opinions. And that’s okay; it’s more than okay; it’s what makes the creator-audience relationship so exciting and dynamic.

Sure, you can assess skill to a certain degree of near-objectiveness. Some writing is clearly better crafted than others; great painters have more proficiency than lesser painters; a poorly-edited movie is going to be less coherent than a well-edited one. But those observations can only get you so far. Everything past that point is going to be opinion, and opinions are always, by definition, personal.

I have a son with low-functioning autism. He is non-verbal. This is a specific circumstance of my life that a great many people do not share with me. It informs so much of my day-to-day experience, and of course it affects my perception of stories, particularly ones that portray autism. I’m done feeling apologetic for that fact that I can’t objectively read or watch anything involving autism, judging it by its artistic merits alone. That’s just not going to happen. And my reaction is perfectly valid as long as I’m aware of and acknowledge how my personal life experiences are coloring that reaction. As long as I’m aware, in turn, of how other people’s reactions to my writing or any work of art are going to be colored by their own experiences. The quest for objectivity belongs in the realm of science. When it comes to art, it’s personal.

I saw Rain Man before my son was born and then again after he was diagnosed. It was a vastly different experience. The first time — I enjoyed it, thought it was a heartfelt, well-told story, with nice touches of humor and pathos. The second time — I was in tears almost from the very beginning. What struck me most was the character arc, not of the autistic character, but his brother. At the time the film was made, living in a group home with dedicated caregivers was just about the best they could envision for someone with the degree of disabilities Raymond has. So he doesn’t change much. He has a little adventure, but he’s not going to suddenly become functional or independent. The best possible outcome for him is to return to the group home, with at least the added feature of having a relationship with his brother Charlie. Charlie, on the other hand, undergoes a drastic shift. He begins the film as a very selfish, resentful man. He essentially kidnaps his brother just to try to get the inheritance he feels he deserves from his recently deceased father. Having to take care of Raymond, however, is a transforming experience. He has to think of someone else’s needs almost constantly — if he doesn’t, he could trigger severe public meltdowns or endanger his brother’s life. And gradually he learns to take care of Raymond not just out of necessity, but out of love. It all builds up to the climax, when he must become selfless enough to recognize that Raymond can’t stay with him and that the best thing he can do is let him return with his trained caregivers to the safety of his group home.

Let me tell you, taking care of someone with severe disabilities is beyond exhausting. It’s physically and emotionally draining on so many levels. And there are times when I fear that it’s turning me into the worst possible version of myself. I need stories that tell me there is hope of becoming a better person because of my caregiving.

Which is why reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. Because for me, personally, it presented the exact opposite message. I know this book is a celebrated portrayal of autism; it’s a bestseller; it’s been praised every which way. It might be a deeply sensitive, well-written book, a warm and meaningful experience for countless readers. All of that was irrelevant to me, because the main character’s parents are terrible. They do awful, awful, awful things, and it’s implied that it’s because his condition was so challenging for them to deal with. His autism made them worse. I couldn’t bear it. Oh, I know there’s a lot of realism going on there; marriages are frequently strained or broken by special-needs children. I already mentioned my fears of becoming the worst version of myself. I’m not denying those fears. I just don’t want to read a book where all those fears play out in vivid, vivid detail.

Clearly, this is not a universal experience. As it happens, my husband enjoyed the book. It’s not the parents’ story; their dysfunction is peripheral to the main character’s growth and development, and he liked that character’s story. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t get over the parents’ messed-up lives. Both opinions are valid. I don’t have to like the book just because lots of other people do, including parents of autistic kids. I don’t even have to like it because it’s well-written. It’s not for me.

The Speed of Dark was a very different experience. I came across it in a bookstore shortly after our son had been diagnosed and I was feeling very morose, particularly after perusing the parenting shelves that were full of cheerful guides on how to raise your child to be perfectly well-adjusted. Even the books on autism seemed to focus on high-functioning, verbal kids, and I just felt so alone. I didn’t need advice; I needed a story. And I found it, written by one of my favorite authors. It wasn’t until then that I learned she actually has an adult son with autism. Obviously she drew upon her on personal experiences and viewpoints in the creation of her story, just as I did in my reading of it.

It’s a book with a lot of ambiguity. Set in the near future, it addresses some pretty intense issues. Is it right or wrong to seek a cure for autism — is it wrong to even call it a “cure” when it’s just a different way of seeing the world? I’ve seen reactions to the ending ranging from exuberantly positive to deeply negative, which seems to indicate that Elizabeth Moon struck a peculiar balance between portraying the main character’s choice as either right or wrong depending on your own personal perspective. My daughter read it recently and said it was a sad ending. I think it left me more contemplative and wistful than sad. But it was what I needed at that time in my life. I understand the criticisms I’ve read about it. I understand the frustration that too many books about autism focus on a cure plot-line rather than almost anything else. I wouldn’t object to the wider inclusion of autistic characters in stories, because the more variety we have, the more likely chance of finding one that strikes the right chord with an equally wide variety of individual readers.

The important thing is recognizing that your personal response will rarely, if ever, be universal. And that’s just fine. It’s still no more or less valid than anyone else’s personal, fully subjective reaction. It’s always personal.

Sticks and Stones

Words are powerful.

Of course I believe that. It’s not really possible, as a writer, to believe otherwise. Why else would I choose words as my primary medium? And yet I find it fascinating that sometimes the most powerful words are those that approach, without ever quite arriving at, the inexpressible. Sometimes it is the very ambiguity, the approximate value of language, that does more than precise words ever could.

Let me offer Jane Austen as an example. She has this peculiar habit of avoiding direct dialogue quotation during her most dramatic scenes. Any fan of Pride and Prejudice knows Mr. Darcy’s famous, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” but what does he say after that? There is no precise quote, only a description that allows the reader to fill in the details of how he manages to simultaneously gratify and insult her. Again, after his second proposal, Elizabeth’s reply is described indirectly — “Elizabeth…immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change…” Rather vague, so that readers have interpreted it to mean anything from a blushing, stuttering, “Yes, my feelings have changed,” to a decidedly non-verbal (and non-ladylike for the time period!) passionate kiss.

Why does Austen do this? It’s clearly a deliberate choice. In other passages she displays a clear talent for writing excellent dialogue, so when she chooses not to, we can assume that she felt a certain amount of ambiguity would serve the narrative better. Sometimes the most powerful thing that words can do is to say, “It was so amazing, I can’t even describe it.” In fact, another of her characters, Mr. Knightley from Emma, says as much during his proposal. “I cannot make speeches, Emma…if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” I find it quite amusing that this line, claiming an inability to compose sweepingly romantic speeches, is frequently cited as one of the most romantic lines in literature.

I’m sure that the inherent ambiguity of language is the primary reason for the warring agony and ecstasy of being a writer. Sometimes the perfect turn of phrase seems so close, almost within my grasp…but I can never quite reach it, having to settle for whatever approximation is sufficient. And yet I love the striving, always trying for perfection, even if by their very nature words will never quite be enough. If not for ambiguity, reading would be dull and workmanlike. The meaning of every phrase and passage would come across without effort or nuance. Useful if you’re reading a how-to guide, but not if you’re trying to delve into the mysteries of the ineffability of existence. Those mysteries are fluid and multifaceted, and a writer must find the language that mirrors such complex fluidity. It may never be a perfect reflection, but we never stop trying.

Place Title Here (Subtitle Optional)

I love coming up with titles. Book titles, chapter titles, even titles of blog posts. Not that I claim to be especially good at it — in fact, I think I enjoy it because it’s so challenging and I know I have plenty of room for improvement. I’ve spent considerable time, far more than necessary, on finding just the right word or sequence of words to pithily encapsulate a story or message. I don’t always find it, but when I do it’s intensely satisfying.

In most cases, it’s easier to be wordy than concise. It requires a special kind of discipline and creativity to pare something down to its most essential elements. I haven’t gotten a Twitter account because I know I’d drive myself crazy trying to contain my thoughts within a particular character limit. Writing a one-page synopsis of a 80,000 word novel? Exhausting. So you can see how coming up with a brief title is an exercise in supreme self-control.

I’m especially fond of one-word titles. There is something so powerful about a single word evoking an entire book, particularly when ambiguity comes into play. Silver is probably my favorite, because it refers to a hair color, a type of woman and a collection of supernatural abilities all in a single word. Of course with just one word there is the higher risk of other books with identical titles, but sometimes it’s worth it. Other times, as with, well, Other, I’m fully aware that it will probably only ever be a placeholder title, because it’s just too generic. Yes, it’s referring doubly to the Other World accessed by magic users and the fact that the Beauty and Beast characters are the other, or opposite, genders from the original, but it’s such a generic word that it simply doesn’t stand out enough. If I ever get it published, I’m sure there will be a new process of selecting a title.

In the world of books, shorter titles are usually better, easier to remember and less unwieldy on a cover. But on the Internet, long headlines are growing more and more popular. I can’t say I have a high opinion of this trend, because it’s related to clickbait. “You’ll never guess what how this inspirational story ended” “This video will restore your faith in humanity” “What happened next will shock you”. Please, no. A headline or title should be a deft tool, offering a glimpse of what the entirety contains and allowing you to decided for yourself whether you want to read it. It shouldn’t be a sledgehammer that cracks you on the head and commands you to click the link.

As artists, we have a fine line to walk between a fostering of emotional responses and plain old manipulation. Of course I want people to read more; of course I want to them to click on my links. But I want them to come honestly, without being tricked. If it’s not something they’d be naturally interested in, that’s too bad, but better for them to know it from the start.

Readers don’t like to be tricked. Let them know what they’re getting into! This is where titles can be a useful indicator of genre or tone. If it contains words like “dragon” or “sword” or something fabricated like “Sinhallia,” it’s probably a work of fantasy. “Forbidden”  or “desire” (or both together)? That’s a romance novel. Oh, but then there’s that pesky ambiguity, giving us two “Invisible Man” titles in drastically different genres. (One science fiction, the other a work of realism that examines race relations!) So there’s another fine line between teasing your audience and just confusing them. It’s not easy, but it sure is fun to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

The Long View

Lately I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I feel a disproportionate irritation at the phrase “fan theory.” I think there are a few interrelated reasons for my dislike. First of all, from a pedantic standpoint, theory seems the wrong word to me for this particular usage. Theories are created through scientific analysis in order to provide a working explanation for something not yet fully understood. But you can’t approach a story the same way you approach natural phenomena. Stories aren’t created through some confluence of natural laws. They’re created by people. So any questions or mysteries that exist were either deliberately manufactured by the storyteller, or cropped up in the form of plot holes or inconsistencies. Deliberate mysteries have deliberate answers. Unintentional mysteries have none. Either way, the source is right there in the writer’s brain.

Now, I don’t mean to say that I disapprove of any exploration of a story beyond the author’s conscious intent. Far from it! You can interpret a story any way you please, whether the author agrees with you or not. But that’s creating interpretations, not theories. Every time someone uses the word theory, it seems to imply that they’re analyzing real events that arose from underlying causes other than “someone chose to write it that way” and it makes me twitch.

But my annoyance goes deeper than that, I believe. There are really two different kinds of analysis at play here, and the distinction between them is quite significant. The first type is most common with ongoing stories, particularly the sort wherein the storyteller likes to leave out all sorts of dangling questions to keep the audience guessing. It ensures that they’ll tune in next time, desperate for the answers that the following installment will provide. This sort of questioning takes the form of speculation, often accompanied by a fervid accumulation of spoilers. Who is So-and-So’s long lost family? What is the cryptic hero’s mysterious tragic backstory? How did this random character acquire the coveted object? And almost always, the set-up of the question is paired with the winking promise that the answers are coming, as long as you keep watching the next episode.

You might have gathered that I’m not particularly impressed with this sort of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I have jumped on the spoiler train many a time, caught up in the need to uncover mysteries just the same as everyone else. But I’ve learned from those experiences that the reveal of surprises, while exciting at the time, is not enough to make a story truly engaging. It’s a once-and-done thing, and the excitement fades with every subsequent re-watch. Because the answers are very simple once you learn them. There’s no more room for speculation or nuance. After a while it begins to feel like nothing more than a collection of a cheap gimmicks.

So what kind of analysis do I prefer? The questions that have no definitive answers, the mysteries that go beyond the limited scope of a story’s specific details to encompass the eternal questions of human existence. What is the nature of good and evil? What does it mean to be truly selfless? Is perfect happiness possible in an imperfect world? And so on and so on. What makes these questions so compelling is the myriad of potential interpretations, allowing you to go on thinking about them long after the initial idea was sparked. It’s not clear-cut. And it’s the sort of thinking that rewards multiple re-reads or re-views of a story rather than diminishing once the answer is revealed. The best stories, I’ve always felt, are the ones I want to keep coming back to. And if all the answers have already been given, what’s the point of coming back? As I’ve said before, I like stories that encourage me to think, not stories that tell me how to think.

I understand that my preferred method of engaging with stories is not universal…probably not even close. There’s a reason that cliff-hangers are so effective. And I’m not opposed to the occasional tantalizing question leading to a shocking twist. But a story that’s built upon nothing more than a series of ever-more complex mysteries is probably going to collapse in on itself by the end. For true substance, you need to have deeper questions that are worth considering long after the more straight-forward mysteries have all been revealed.

Make the Thing

Though I’ve explored fan fiction a bit before, I’ve been thinking about it lately thanks to this article, which focuses a great deal on the gendered factions of fan culture as well as the reasoning behind those divisions. It’s stuck in my head partly because I’m not sure I agree with all the reasoning or assumptions.

I certainly agree that a lot of the criticism of fanworks tends to be heavier against females, particularly teenage girls. It’s peculiar and quite sad when a group of people who have experienced ostracism, because of their interest in a niche topic like comic books or sci-fi or whatever, will turn around and ostracize a smaller group for not being “true fans” and other such hurtful gatekeeping. Stepping on people beneath you, so to speak, isn’t going to prevent those above you from stepping on you. Stop spreading the poison!

But in any case, why is it that female fans are overwhelmingly more likely to write fan fiction? Lots of theories have been thrown around. That article leans toward the assumption that females, and other under-represented groups, are more inclined to see a need for transforming their fandom’s stories into some more inclusive. I understand that inclination, but it can’t be a universal motivation — it doesn’t really reflect my own engagement with fanworks, for one thing. My fan fiction is less likely to focus on alternative scenarios or original characters and more likely to portray missing moments (what happened in between scenes, as it were) or the same events as experienced by a different point-of-view character.

In other words, with a few rare exceptions I tend to hew pretty close to the original canon, rather than transforming it dramatically. Am I in the minority? Maybe so. You’d have to take a pretty tremendous survey of fan fiction to collect sufficient data, and I’m not about to embark on a study that vast or labyrinthine. I think, mostly, I want to point out that there are probably as many reasons for creating fanworks as there are fanwork-producing fans. We all approach our fandoms in a different way. While there are obviously trends, hence the dramatic preponderance of women writing fan fiction, each individual will have their own varied reasons. For me, it doesn’t feel as much a feature of my womanhood as the simple fact that I’m a writer, and writing is how I engage with almost everything.

There is also something that appeals to me in the inherent challenge of creating something new within an existing framework of parameters. Yes, I really believe that in some ways fan fiction — at least well-written fan fiction — is more challenging to create than original fiction. I’m not even talking about pleasing the audience (although a fandom audience, however eager, will possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the story’s details and will pounce on you if your fic doesn’t match up). No, I’m talking about my own personal determination to keep my work canon-compliant. It’s a sort of exercise in finding solutions that are consistent with established boundaries. In the world of Harry Potter, you can’t resolve a problem by having your characters fly off in a spaceship. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the worldbuilding. However, it’s quite reasonable in a Star Wars fan fic. If you were crafting a Harry Potter/Star Wars crossover, of course, we’d have to revisit that, but let’s talk instead about an entirely different sort of crossover that I embarked on last year.

The idea of tackling a challenge was probably the primary motivation behind one of my most expansive fanworks — setting the story of the Star Wars saga to the tune of songs from Les Miserables. It was a massive undertaking, and utterly useless from any practical standpoint. So why did I do it? It started out, of course, from a mutual love of Star Wars and Les Mis, and the realization that a song like “Stars” could be easily modified to portray Vader’s search for Luke. But why did I continue writing songs until I had covered pretty much the entire six episodes? Why did I go on and create videos with still clips from the films and recordings of my shaky voice singing every single part? These were not short videos. And it was never an easy project. I had only just learned how to use iMovie, and my amateur skills led to a lot of frustration.

And yet I had so much fun, overall, that I find myself wistfully recalling those hours and hours of work and wishing I had a similar project to throw myself into now. Overcoming the challenges was part of the joy. I wanted to find a song for every single significant plot point or emotional beat. I wanted the song choices to be consistent with the individual moments as well as mirroring similar moments at other points in the saga, just like the motifs that recur in the original movies and in the original musical. I put a lot of thought into writing every lyric. I studied the libretto of Les Mis and used a rhyming dictionary. Then I selected literally hundreds of screencaps from Star Wars to correspond to the songs.

Why? Because, simply, I enjoyed doing it. Yes, I would like it if hordes of people complimented me on my songwriting/video-making skills and listened with rapt attention as I explained every one of my choices with the music and the rewritten lyrics (I’m still too nervous about trolls to post the videos on anything but the unlisted setting) but just making the thing was a source of joy.

So — make the thing. Don’t worry what anyone else assumes about your motives or your relative geek status or any of that nonsense. If the process of creation brings you joy — and as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or impede your general functionality as a human being — go ahead and make the thing.

Anatomy of a Romance

My current work in progress (the second part of a planned trilogy) has no love story, almost no romantic elements at all. Neither does the first part, and nor will the third. This was a deliberate choice. My protagonist is fully occupied with such matters as infiltrating forbidden districts of the city, plotting rebellions and then navigating an uneasy peace with her people’s former oppressors. She has no emotional energy remaining to even develop a crush on anyone, let alone fall in love. I wanted to explore all the different relationships and personal journeys a person could undergo outside of romance, because romantic love is not the solitary pinnacle of existence. I feel like it’s particularly important for a female character, as they are so often side-lined as “nothing more than a love interest.”

Having said that, it’s been a challenge. Not because I’ve to restrain myself from pushing Issa into the arms of a ravishingly handsome young man. Within my story, the choice feels right, natural and uncontrived. It’s just a significant departure for me. Every novel I’ve written previously has contained at least a few romantic elements. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t write much in the official genre of romance, but I really do enjoy writing love stories in the context of a wider genre like fantasy or sci-fi. And right now I’m missing it.

I realized this because I’ve been suddenly finding myself fan-girling pretty intensely about Beauty and the Beast, in a number of different variants. It seems this is my unconscious way of satisfying the inclinations that my current novel isn’t fulfilling. I’d like to explore this, because I think it says a lot about me in terms of my view on romance and how I approach it when I do write it.

It’s always been my favorite fairy tale, and right now it seems just the thing to satisfy my romantic predilections. While wandering around Youtube looking for something in German to brush up my rusty language skills, I found a rendition of Die Schöne und das Biest that was quite charming. And it just happened that the elementary school in the district where my husband teaches was borrowing the high school auditorium to put on an performance of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Jr.), and offered him complimentary tickets. It was also charming, in a watch-these-little-kids-barely-remember-their-lines-and-cues kind of way. And wouldn’t you know, even hearing a fifth-grader sing “Beauty and the Beast” made me tear up a little. Still my favorite Disney movie. I’ve been playing all the songs on the piano pretty much constantly the last few days.

Then I went ahead and re-read my own Beauty and the Beast story, Other. Still the only book I’ve written whose main plot is a love story, a true romance like none of my other novels. It’s about seven years old, and I know it could use a lot of polishing, but I still love it. I liked playing with the tropes in a fresh way by reversing the genders. I liked creating the character of the creature, who is flawed in so many ways but still not really monstrous. From Alain, my male version of Beauty, she starts to learn the meaning of true strength – not being solitary or all-powerful, but being forgiving, gracious, allowing others into her life and forming bonds with others.

Why do I love this fairy tale so much? I don’t like every rendition of it. I don’t like versions that lessen the severity of the Beast’s hideous appearance. I don’t like it when they lean more towards his character being beastly – the proverbial “bad boy” – and imply that he’s all the more attractive for having a dark, mysterious side. Blech. And I certainly recognize that it has the potential to glamorize an extremely unhealthy, abusive, Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship. That’s the wrong way to do it.

Here’s what I like about it, when it’s done right. It fully abolishes the notion of love at first sight. I don’t like that trope; I don’t think it’s real, and I think narratively speaking it’s a cheap short-cut in lieu of actual relationship development. It’s fine to have a character meet someone and notice that they’re attractive, maybe even get those butterflies in the stomach and fantasize about something romantic. But that’s not love; that’s just attraction.

I don’t think you can meet the person you’re “fated to be with” and recognize them at once. In fact, I don’t think there’s any single person you are absolutely destined to be with at the expense of all other potential partners; I like free will and active choice way more than being a slave to the whims of fate, and I think choosing someone is insanely more romantic than being smooshed together by destiny.

Now, I do think you can meet someone, have instant sparks, develop a relationship and then remember that first meeting, endowing it with a happy, hazy nostalgia of how you just knew from that moment that it was the One. But it wasn’t. Not then, at the instant of your meeting. It was the start of a possible One. And now that you’ve had the chance to spend time together, get to know each other, create memories and work through those initial bumps and jolts of two different people coming together, that person can become the one. I feel that way about my husband. If there’s any such thing as soulmates, it’s people who make an active choice to become so, and continue to work at it. Happily ever after isn’t something you receive; it’s something you work at anew every single day. So if meeting someone gives you butterflies, that’s all very nice, but it’s probably just superficial attractiveness. Is there any foundation beyond that? Maybe, maybe not.

Not so with the pair in Beauty and the Beast. The beast is so hideous that you know it can’t be a superficial attraction. If she falls in love with him, she has to fall in love with his soul and nothing else. It’s a love story that takes time. And it’s so, so satisfying when Beauty makes her declaration and breaks the spell.

I like the Disney version because the Beast, at his worst, is basically like a spoiled kid who doesn’t know what to do when he doesn’t get his way. That doesn’t make his behavior acceptable, and in fact when Belle comes face to face with one his temper tantrums she doesn’t put up with it. She walks (runs) straight out the door. The Beast doesn’t force her to come back. Instead he ends up saving her life in the woods. Belle returns the favor, and they begin, bit by bit, to compromise and see different sides of each other. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s definitely a far more developed, convincing love story than most of the Disney fairy-tale adaptations.

When I got the idea to write a version with the roles reversed, I knew there were a few other details I wanted to tweak besides the genders. I felt for my creature it was important that she had no idea how to break the curse, so she doesn’t keep Alain there with the desperate but calculated purpose of getting him to love her.She’s spent years trying to turn herself human again before finally giving up and being resigned and miserable in her solitude. She doesn’t want him there at all. She was careless in one of her spells and it results in him being trapped there.  Alain doesn’t want anything to do with her at first, but once he becomes aware of the magic of the Other World, he is keen to learn more. Their teacher-student partnership is the first relationship they form after being nothing but enemies. Then they arrive at an uncertain friendship. Then she realizes she’s fallen in love with him, but this is of course horrifying for her. Not only is she certain that he considers her repulsive and hateful, she’s also leery of the very idea of romantic relationships, believing them weakness, a ceding of power. It’s only when she lets go of that notion and is willing to completely sacrifice her needs for someone else’s that the climax is set in motion.

I wrote the novel entirely from Alain’s point of view right up until the end, when she tells him her story. I’m not entirely sure if this was the right choice. I wanted to maintain the mystery and give a nice big bunch of revelations after the climax of the transformation….but maybe that means the creature’s character is too cryptic, maybe even unlikable. It would be a pretty sizable rewrite to change that. Or….hah, if I somehow managed to get Other published and it become wildly successful, I could churn out a companion novel from her viewpoint. That’s all the rage nowadays, isn’t it? But I did enjoy writing Alain. In a lot of ways he’s like me – uncomfortable at the very idea of conflict, quiet and thoughtful but passionate when it really counts. I loved writing his journey to realizing he’s in love with the creature, because it’s really quite confusing for him. I did my best to avoid the notion that the creature’s transformation into a beautiful woman is a reward for his goodness – I don’t describe her as beautiful when he first sees her, just “an unfamiliar woman.” He only starts to think of her as beautiful when he realizes she was the creature.

Back to why I switched the genders. The world is unkind to anyone who doesn’t fit within a narrow standard of beauty, but so much more for women than for men. So many stories, particularly YA fiction, have a female protagonist with a rather low opinion of her looks, and a dreamy guy who tells her how gorgeous she is even if no one else recognizes that beauty. I understand the fantasy of that. But wouldn’t it be better, far more empowering, if her looks aren’t the point of interest at all, if he falls deeply and wildly in love with her soul and then everything about her becomes beautiful? Not every girl is lucky enough to look like a model. But every girl deserves someone who loves her, deeply, wildly, far beyond surface attraction. That’s part of why I wrote Other. Sure, it’s not going to single-handedly change the world (especially not if it never gets beyond my own hard-drive) but it was a story I needed to explore, needed to tell if only to myself.

Now back to my romance-free novel….

Pure Imagination

My daughter is going through what my family would jokingly call “that awkward stage.” (Because the fact is, every stage of life is awkward in one way or another. I personally feel like I was born in an awkward stage and have subsequently lived my entire life in one or another sort of awkwardness.) This particular awkwardness, in any case, has to do with that gray space in between childhood and adolescence. As a fifth-grader, she finds that most of her classmates would prefer to spend recess playing sports rather than engaging in elaborate make-believe play. She hates this. For her, it is infinitely more fun to create vast, fantastic worlds to explore rather than kicking a soccer ball around.

Now, to be clear, I have nothing against kids playing sports. Clearly, many have great fun doing it. What I do find repellent is the notion that continuing to play make believe past the age of, say, six or seven, is babyish. That many children who would secretly prefer to spend a little more time in their fantasy world feel compelled to leave it behind for fear of being ridiculed or not growing up as fast as everyone else.

I would like to utterly eradicate this notion. Make-believe is not babyish, or childish. Make believe is not the realm of children. We think of it that way because a child’s make believe takes a particular form that we’ve come to associate with make believe at large. But every healthy adult engages in make believe as well. It’s just usually in a more passive, subtle form than childen’s play. Consider this. Every time you watch a movie or TV show, you are allowing yourself to enter a fictitious world and believe, for just an hour or two, in at least some part of your mind, that it’s real. If you don’t, then the story is meaningless, the main character’s plight unimportant. Even more so when you read a book, which requires significant work on the part of your imagination to visualize what’s being represented by the words. Not really into fiction? You still need to make believe to be an empathetic human. How can you care about someone other than yourself if you aren’t capable of imagining yourself in their place, even in the slightest regard? Or how do you come up with solutions to problems if you aren’t willing to visualize an alternate version of reality? How can you understand metaphor if you’ve never learned to think beyond the literal – to look at a cardboard box and see instead a car, a spaceship, a trap for monsters?

Learning to play make believe is in fact a crucial developmental skill. I am acutely aware of this because my autistic son has had very little make believe play in his childhood. He used to pick up objects and say “Eo?” as if they were telephones, and it was adorable, but that faded away rather than expanding into the sort of creative, unique play that I’ve seen with his younger sister and brother. Now he sees almost everything as a potential spinning object, nothing more. That could mean he has a brilliant engineering mind; who knows? He funnels all his creative thought into one channel and he excels at it. I’m sure his mind has vast stores of creative thought, but something has kept him from expressing and developing them. The symbolist structures of language, the specific rituals of social interactions, the ability to express his inner life – all those things are impeded, and they are all connected in one way or another with a healthy imagination.

Make believe is not childish. It is not an embarrassing phase of life to be discarded and forgotten as quick as possible. It is the wellspring of a hundred vibrant abilities and skills. It is not delusion, the inability to distinguish fiction from reality. On the contrary, visiting dream worlds gives us the resources to confront the challenges of the real world. As G. K. Chesterson said: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Of course your imagination can evolve and mature and take new shapes as you transition from childhood to adulthood, but whatever new forms it takes, don’t be ashamed of what it was. And don’t be swayed by the voices that tell you to let it go. To be practical, to be realistic. It’s not the either/or they think it is. There is nothing about dreaming that prevents you from being practical. It will probably even help you manage the practicalities of life.

You are never, ever too old for make believe.