Guest Blogger: Ien Nivens

Falsetto   ~by Ien Nivens

Play nice with the other toys!

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.

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9 responses

  1. I’m sorry you feel that way, Ien. I’ve cast real-life villains who have done me harm as characters in my books before and I found it amazingly therapeutic, particular when either the heroes prevail against them, or they learn the error of their ways and redeem themselves. There are some people who will never see justice in this life for their wrong-doings, and the bad feelings that they create can linger, no matter how much you want to shake yourself free from them. Fiction has allowed me to inflate the monsters, deface them so that they are not clearly recognizable, and then slay them. It is cathartic and allows for a rejuvenation of spirit. It can also be very empowering in a situation where you otherwise felt completely helpless.

    I’m not expecting you to understand. You may not have ever been in the same position, and it perhaps seems to you as just vindictive and mean-spirited. For me it has been a method of liberation that involves no real harm to anyone. I’ve now purged some very nasty memories from my system and can move on. I won’t apologize for that, and I don’t regret it in any way. I also have every intention of making use of this effective tool again in the future, should the need arise. Call me a coward if you like, but it works for me, so I plan to stick with it.

  2. I think it is more important, not only as a writer, but as a human being, to understand what hurts and why. Moving beyond that, understand why the person who hurt you would do whatever it was they did. People don’t act without motivation. Were their actions motivated by something you did, or some old memory or fear set off that made the person feel a need to be aggressive. By choosing retaliation we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to further understand and communicate character/human motivation and deprive our readers of an increased understanding as well.

    Cynthia Echterling
    http://www.welikehumans.com

  3. At first I thought I was going to disagree with you, but then I realized that (sadly) we do agree. I was going to defend what you call bearing “witness” to the event/emotion. Some of my strongest pieces have been written in white-hot anger, or shame, or despair, or grief at real events from my life. There is no question of characters being as recognizable as effigies, because the characters in my stories are their own people. The emotion is all I borrow, and how would any outside recognize my private emotion? Most of the people I’ve been furious with in my life never even realized I was angry. A few of them never even knew I existed.

    And I have definitely been guilty of using fantasy as a form of righting wrongs I could not right in my real life. My present wip is about a dancer with no magic who is not allowed to dance with the magic warrior-dancers of her tribe. The initial idea for this was inspired by the fiasco of my high-school years, when I was on the cheer squad, but not allowed to perform because I had scoliosis, and the teacher didn’t think a girl in a back brace fit the image of cheerleader. That teacher is never going to read my book, and even if she did, she’d have no idea she was implicated in the genesis of the story. (There is no character representing her.) I didn’t write the story to get revenge, or even because I felt vengeful. I just remembered how it felt to be excluded for a stupid reason by bigoted people, and I wrote from the strength of that memory.

    Hopefully, despite its origins, the story doesn’t come across as merely self-indulgence on the part of the author. My foiled high-school cheerleading was not the ONLY inspiration for the story, after all.

    I guess this intersects with the other old saw, write what you know. If you need anger for a part of your story, or loneliness, or pain, or whatever, it’s not that you have to actually be trapped in a magic cage on top of a mountain attacked by hungry gryphons, but you do have connect to those emotions somehow.

    And I do believe that writing about negative emotions can transform them, not just re-enforce the negativity, but transmute the darkness into beauty. Dark beauty, perhaps, but something more than it was before, something that nourishes the soul rather than diminishes it.

  4. Oh, it probably was not clear I was sad we agreed only because I was hoping to introduce some exciting controversy to the comments section. So feel free to disagree.

  5. Chantal,

    Since I did use some pretty vituperative language around the practice, I want to admit that I have engaged in it myself (on the advice of others who seemed to know what they were talking about) and have found it cathartic in the moment but less than ennobling to me personally. I have certainly been on the receiving end of abusive behavior, and we could probably swap horror stories for quite a while. I’ve also worked with a pretty broad smattering of arguably some of the most evil people on the planet. I mean this quite literally. And you are right. There is no justice to be had for many of them.

    I am all for the kind of empowerment you describe, and the last thing I want to do is insult you, re-victimize or otherwise alienate you for doing it. If I may, though, I would like to suggest that perhaps, when you say you “inflate” your monsters, you are engaging something bigger than what I’m talking about. (Something that, in fact, I hadn’t been thinking of, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.) If a situation triggers within us something archetypal, then I’m with you, and I say all bets are off and off come the gloves, too, because we are then confronting something that is within us and monumental in scale, not just taking revenge on some run-of-the-mill bully who can and needs to be stood up to or otherwise dealt with in real life.

    And in the other class of story that you describe, in which your villains find redemption–well, that isn’t in any way what I’m talking about. That sounds like fully present and compassionate writing, and I endorse it.

    I’m suggesting that rigging a game in my favor on paper to make up for a moral, physical or situational deficit in real life does me no good, does not get me justice or any kind of lasting empowerment. Standing up to my own fear, which I want to think is more the practice that you are describing, is another matter. That’s the kind of internal work that a writer can do to create transformational–by which I mean to say, mythic-literature.

    What I’m saying is that fiction is not a substitute for living fully and well but an expression of it. I hope I’ve clarified my position. And again, thanks for giving me the opportunity to do that by calling me on my oversimplification of the matter.

  6. Thanks for elaborating further. I think we do agree on more than it had seemed at first, but I still take exception to a few things. I’m all for confronting bullies if you can do so safely, or if they are accessible, but sometimes it is not an option, and it is better to find a healthy way to vent than to have that anger eating away at you.

    Writing to me is primarily a means of expressing myself as I often have difficulty doing so by other means. For some I know that art, in any format, is a way of lifting themselves or ennobling themselves, as you suggested. Perhaps I have not reached that maturity level in my artistry, nor will I necessarily ever come to that point. I’m not going to feel guilty for resorting to making use of my creativity for “lower” purposes, because that’s just who I am, take it or leave it.

    Lastly, I have lived life fully in the past, but circumstances don’t always allow us to do so. Fate sometimes chooses to place limitations on how we live, and sometimes we are forced to make substitutions. I don’t have the option of being as athletic as I would like to be, because of medical reasons, and my social life has been severely hampered by my obligations to my special needs child. Turning to fiction to replace that fullness of life has helped me preserve my sanity and to not resent my circumstances. Better that than the alternative.

  7. Sorry Ien, but the monsters I write–human villains–were already monsters in life. My heroine’s father is a composite of a drunk/druggie who beat his step-daughter to death and the other is a pedophile I testified against. As both are in society’s eyes already monsters and the first is sitting on Death Row for the first crime I felt that the men in question would never know. Since they have no human conscience, I cast them in that life and the daughter/heroine was able to beat back her father and escape.

    Otherwise, to use a living human being for kicks and because your mad at them is wrong. But Manson’s psychotic nature is a reference for another character. Again, Manson is already consider by society to be an immoral and monstrous man. Just a difference in my opinion, although; there are several men and women from the Terry Brooks forum I could run down, but why should I? It would make me no better than them. Just my two cents.

  8. I am in complete agreement with you, Ien. I believe that the creation of any form of artwork should be constructive for the artist, a way of challenging oneself without creating enmity. It really is petty and illogical to lash out at people in your work. It ends up turning into a soapbox for your feelings instead of something that grabs the reader’s attention, moving the plot along and revealing a little bit more about your characters.

    Nice thoughts.

  9. Here’s the “About Me” part of guest-blogging that I have, until now, studiously avoided writing. I’m not presenting this information as credentials of any kind, just a set of circumstances that have informed my opinion on this particular subject. It probably bleeds into most of my opinions on most subjects.

    I spent 20 years as a correctional officer, 15 of them dealing with criminally insane men. I’ve known a lot of men like the ones Francine describes, and I think she and I are actually on the same page here. I’ve known three little kids, once neighbors of mine, who were forced to watch their mother suffocate to death with a plastic bag tied over her head. I’ve known HIV-positive men who raped their own children, a young man with the same virus who raped his mother, a teenager who killed his grandmother for a gold chain. That’s just off the top of my head. More pedophiles, rapists, murderers and combinations of those charming personality traits than you can imagine. There are stories I can’t tell and there are stories I don’t want to tell, but I’m no stranger to human misery nor to human villainy. I draw on all of that when I need to in my writing, but I don’t know how to make any of it come out right or better than what it is, even in fiction, even in fantasy.

    But what I can tell you about monsters–about the human variety–is that they are ordinary, plain, sometimes but not always pathetic, occasionally out of their gourds, but most often unremarkable people in every way. The simple, statistical fact is that 20% of the male population (I don’t have statistics on females) can kill with psychological impunity–that is to say, without suffering post traumatic stress as a result of their own behavior. Some of these men are soldiers, some are cops (which is NOT the same thing as saying that all soldiers and cops fall into that 20%; most do not, but those who do often make very good soldiers and very effective law enforcement personnel), some are hit men, others are just plain murderers, while most of them don’t know that they are part of that 20% and will never have occasion to find out.

    If you inflate them, as Chantal suggests, if you turn them into something else, bigger than themselves, then you are dealing with something on another dimension than the purely human. And there is a place for that in fiction. I don’t criticize that, I celebrate it. It is the basis of so much of the literature that I love best.

    I’ve been pretty clear, I think, about the kind of pettiness I object to in stories, and the exception that’s been taken here so far, while I take heed of it, I think misses the point (by which, of course, I mean my own point, not some other). I wouldn’t use a phrase like “done you dirt” to make light of murder, rape, beatings, incest and the like. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest that such things ought not to be written about. Nothing is off-limits, including writing about acts of revenge. It’s all part of the human story. What I’m talking about is writing as the act of revenge itself. I’m talking about hiding behind a work of fiction the way a certain kind of correction officer, for example, might hide behind a badge. You have to get really small to do it, but it happens, and it is sometimes flippantly encouraged. What gets lost in the shrinkage is a measure of one’s humanity.

    I do suggest that there is more to be done, both in and out of fiction, with the larger kinds of material that Chantal and Francine are talking about than merely seeking the revisionist retribution that I talk about in my post. The reason I discourage that is that I think it short-circuits the essential processing that powerful story-telling has the capacity to do. I’d probably stop short of saying that art is healing and healing is art, but if there is any deep mending in one’s process, then it has probably engaged something bigger than merely “getting even”.

    Another statistical reality is that most (I’m guessing they are that other 80%) of the surviving family members of the victims of capital crimes who witness the execution of the perpetrator do not find peace in retribution; rather, they are re-traumatized by witnessing another killing. Their burden is doubled, not lifted. If that’s the case in real life, then to suggest otherwise in fiction is wrong. Popular, but wrong.

    I want to be clear, too, that fending off or even killing an attacker (as Francine’s character does) is not an act of retribution but one of self-defense. It’s different from what I’m talking about. My wife and I watched The Prince of Tides last night (Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand), an example of fiction that deals with that kind of violence, with that kind of fending off (and killing), and also with the ramifications of surviving a situation of utter powerlessness. Great movie. Netflix has it.

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