(This post is a continuation of this and this and this.) (Also: sorry it’s taken me forever to put this up. It’s been a really rough week on the writing front, as other problems have brought themselves to my attention. But as I always say – and as my friend Arwen had to remind me that I always say – writing is never wasted.)
I have a head full of humans.
I feel I’ve known some of them forever. In rewriting Seraphina so many times over the course of eight years, it’s like I’m a director who’s been fortunate enough to keep working with the same actors. I know them all very well. I know what they’re capable of, and I know when they haven’t bothered showing up for work (looking at YOU in that section I just ripped out, Lucian Kiggs!).
They aren’t real people, of course. I understand that. But I think there is more to each of them than I’ve consciously put there. I think each one acts as a conduit for something my subconscious is working on – not always, but often, especially when I’m just getting to know them.
The subconscious is a slippery subject. I’m not a psychologist; I have no training in this area. All I have is my own experience and observations of my mind at work. I think of my subconscious as a deep-sea diver, plumbing my cold, unknowable unconscious and bringing up grotesque treasures in a bucket. The diver can’t talk, and the imagery she brings back doesn’t always make sense at first (although sometimes it makes shockingly clear sense). She’s always working, quietly and unseen. This is where strange connections and leaps of intuition happen. This is the part of my brain I’m talking about when I say, “Sometimes my brain is smarter than I am.”
It’s a hard-working part of my brain, but it doesn’t have much access to language in the usual sense. It has to make do with symbols. I make a study of my own symbols and try to work out what I mean. It sounds ridiculous, but I find it really fun.
So whenever one of these humans in my head starts acting up, I can usually be sure there’s something my non-verbal brain is trying to get across. This was the case with Abdo, who was mad at me for most of October.
Abdo has a small but significant part in Seraphina. Without giving too much away, I think I can safely tell you he’s a 12-year-old Porphyrian boy (Porphyry being a nearby nation-state of dark-skinned people, hence all my reading and soul-searching about race recently). He’s a dancer, and he connects with Seraphina on an artistic level. He’s also mute; I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than that without spoiling.
I wanted him to have a bigger role in Book 2 (tentatively titled Argh, I Hate Thinking Up Titles!). I wrote up the outline, thought it all looked fine, started working on the book, and blam! He was completely furious. All the time.
I wasn’t used to this from him. He’d been such a sweet kid before. What was going on?
It was when articles about race and cultural appropriation started flinging themselves into my line of sight that I realized there was something here I needed to sort out, even if I wasn’t sure what it was yet. I mentioned at the end of that last blog post that I had decided to ask this book some questions, beginning with Who gets to be boring?
I asked a lot of similar questions along those lines. Who gets to be/has to be:
Interesting. Dead. Friendly. Nosy. Smart. Lucky. Hurt. Feeble. Wise. Familiar. Erudite. Ugly.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Any time the answer was “only one person” or “only one kind of person” I made myself look hard at what I was doing and rethink. Some things I left the way they were; some, I said “OH CRAP” and changed; some, I’m sure I missed altogether, because we are all of us unaware of the extent of our unawareness.
Then it was time to have a talk with young Abdo. I invited him into my mental office; he laughed at me. We took a walk instead.
“So what is it?” I said. “Why are you so mad? You’re not mad about something I did back in the first book, I hope? Because that’s out in the world, and I can’t change it now.”
“First book was okay,” he said. “I was a little deferential in a few scenes, but I’m willing to chalk it up to an attempt at politeness. Phina recognized me as her fellow artist, and that was important and worth a lot.”
“But that’s part of the problem now, isn’t it,” I said, studying his expression. “You’re not getting to be an artist in this second book.”
He snorted. “It’s worse than that. You’ve made me a woobie. I hate that.”
“B-but you’re, uh, cute?”
“I get hurt,” he said. “I know, I know, people get hurt sometimes. I can take it, if I believe there’s a point beyond ‘making the villain look mean’. But I’ve read your outline, and I know what kind of crap you have in store for me.”
He nodded. “I’m going to sacrifice myself for the good of our heroine, crawl off into the wilderness on my own, and lay there suffering until she comes and rescues me at the end.”
“Um, okay, see, the thing is, I couldn’t figure out what else to do with you,” I said limply. “And I mean you’re NOT the main character of this book, after all, not everybody gets a happy ending, and, erm…”
He glared at me, and I realized it was time to stop making excuses and start listening.
“What do you want?” I said.
“I want to WIN,” he said.
“And what does ‘win’ mean in this context?”
He told me, and I wish I could tell you, but there are spoilers and there are giant spoilers, and this is kind of the latter. My knee-jerk reaction was that he was asking for the impossible, but my second thought was I am the author. I have the power to be fair, the power to come up with better ideas, and the power to decide. I can make it possible.
And so I said to Abdo: “Yes.”
There is no “writing the other” because there is no “other” in the kind of work I do. Everything I write comes from the depths of myself. But there are times when I’m lazy and skate upon the surface of things, times when I don’t bother writing humans and let them be symbols instead. Keep digging, keep thinking, keep trying. This kind of work is never wasted.