Falsetto ~by Ien Nivens
Every so often, I come across an old piece of advice that writers like to pass on like a bad gene. It usually goes something like this: “Has someone done you dirt? Get even! Use the anger you experience to fuel your writing! Maybe you were rendered speechless at the time, but you thought of the perfect retort an hour later or the next morning. Get it out of your system! Give yourself permission to retaliate in writing by casting the offensive person as the villain who gets his or her comeuppance in a story!” It is this last bit, the idea of disguising the bully-victim of your wrath in fictional clothing, that makes me cringe. The temptation to dehumanize, to humiliate an enemy in effigy because we can’t do it for real is, to my way of thinking, not something to encourage. Not in group therapy. Not in private. Certainly not in writing.
I know. I know. We like getting special indulgences for acting out, for being “bad”. It seems edgy, this kind of advice. It’s not, though. In fact, it only gives a writer permission to act like a coward, to snivel, not to confront an issue and to process it but to whitewash pain with a weaselly form of vindictiveness. If you need to stand up for yourself, why are you sitting at your desk? No, I’m sorry, but it’s just bad advice. Let me say why I else think so.
It is true that retaliation can release some pent-up energy. So can drilling through the sea floor and tapping into a deep reservoir of fossil fuel. The problem with it is two-fold. Not only does it tap a limited supply of energy, but the potential for creating a personal and professional disaster is always going to be with you. There are cleaner, more durable sources of energy that can be easily replenished without picking fights or prospecting for old injuries, figuring out who was to blame for them and working yourself into a lather, or even a fit of impish glee over a clever revenge.
It is OK to experience pain, envy, disdain, hatred, despair, dependency, despondency, anger and any other honest emotion triggered by living in a human body among others in a human society. It is also OK to practice self-defense, to stand up for what you believe in–in or out of writing–including your own right to respectful treatment. What is not OK, in my opinion, is to willfully provoke those emotions, to savor them, to provide occasions for them in your own life by doing unto others under the cover of fiction. It is not OK, I say, to use your art to serve a petty, personal vendetta. I have no respect for back-biting and sucker punching, and even less for ineffectual writing that does nothing whatsoever to heal a wound or to prevent further injury, since the original offender is not likely to recognize himself or herself in your fiction anyway–not if you follow the standard advice and camouflage the stand-in character well enough. If the original offender does see what you’re up to, you lose everywhichway. You can be called out. You can be sued, even. But worse than that, you will have given evidence of your own cowardice.
In any event, you will know.
Instead, tell the truth. Say what happened, if you need to write about it. Play witness, not victim. Name names if you want to (if it’s both safe and legal to do so) or write it as fiction. Change whatever superficial thing you feel like changing, but resist the urge to get even, to turn an inglorious and painful situation into a moment of choreographed triumph. Resist the urge to give your character the perfect, off-the-cuff rebuttal, because readers aren’t stupid; it will only give your roar of righteous indignation a lingering falsetto whine.