Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

The Transformative Power of Writing

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Writing is one of those activities that can transform you, if you let it.

How? Well, it’s simple. You have to throw enough of yourself into your writing to inform each character, at least enough so they’ll feel real. And in so doing, you can make more of your memories, or your abilities, or your hopes/dreams/fears, by working them out to their natural conclusions.

(Or, as I write a lot of fantasy and we all know it, their unnatural conclusions. But I digress.)

Giving yourself the permission to explore sides of yourself you’d rather not — such as when you write villains — helps you to harmlessly bleed off your worst impulses, and transforms that into something more. Something better.

Or at least something different.

Writing, as a transformative ability, is something writers almost take for granted. I can almost hear some of you going, “But Barb, really! Here we are, writing our stories, doing what we need to make our stories sing…why do we need to think about it as a transformative ability, anyway? What’s the point of that?”

Well, you don’t have to think of it as transformative, if you don’t like. But that doesn’t make it any less the case.

Every single thing we do as writers is intended to create something. Or transform something. Or inform something. Or maybe educate you, along with your enjoyment of same…no matter what book or story you might be reading (and no matter how awful it may be in the moment), there’s something you can take out of nearly every piece of writing. (Yes, even the dullest Puritanical “erotica” out there, that was Bowdlerized before Bowdler even came onto the scene.) Even if it’s just what you know you definitely don’t want to do, you learn something from everything you read — whether you realize it or not.

Some folks refuse to throw out anything they’ve ever read, no matter how boring or mundane or stupid or pointless. I’m not necessarily saying you need to go that far, because I think it’s more important you learn whatever it is from stuff you can’t stand as quickly as possible (thus keeping you from having to go back and read it ever again). But whether it’s mores, culture, language, description, dialogue, or all of the above, there’s something in just about everything to appreciate — even if you decidedly don’t like it.

ALTERNATIES, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, is one such book. It’s well-drawn, the different alternate realities stark and compelling, and the characterization is professional. But the protagonists are, to a person, unlikable. There are some things done in this book, such as torturing of sex slaves, that turned my stomach so much that I would never read the book again even though it is very good.

What I took from reading this book at the time was, “Sex sells. And dysfunctional, sadistic sex sells even more.”  But now, with the perspective of an author with three novels and any number of shorter works under my belt, I look at it a little differently. I think what Kube-McDowell was doing was masterful, in its way — but I don’t have to like it, and I don’t.

So, appreciate the craftsmanship, yes. Appreciate the time and effort and hard work, yes. (Respect the hustle, as Jason Cordova would say.) But don’t get lost in the depravity of it all, or the enervating sense of despair…because while that is in its way transformative, that isn’t at all what most people would like to be transformed into, if you get my drift.

And in your own work, look for ways to find hope, if you can. Even the worst situation may have one hint of hope; for example, all those French resistance folks trying hard during the occupation of France (Vichy France) in World War II had to deal with many stark and terrible realities. But they had hope nevertheless; they could believe their hard work would make a difference, no matter what it looked like, and no matter how long it took.

Ultimately, they were right.

So when you write a book with a lot of stuff that’s depressing or enervating or hopeless, try to find at least a few moments of comedy or light to balance it out. When you’re able to do that, that’s when a book really sings.

And if you’re writing something lighter (as I tend to do), finding moments of darkness to set off the light also works. (It’s all in the contrast, ultimately.)

So, how do you feel about the transformative power of writing? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

 

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