“This above all: to thine own self be true.” –William Shakespeare
I suffered through the typical teenage years. I was pretty insecure about who I was, and was eager to be accepted into “the inner circle.” And so I was constantly trying to reinvent myself. One week I would go for the cool surfer look (I grew up in California). This was a challenge for me, because at that time surfers had straight hair that hung down in front of their face. Mine wasn’t straight, and I remembered washing my hair, then combing it the opposite direction. When it would flip up, as it always did, I would then comb it back the right way. It would stay down for a few hours, sometimes even a day before it found its natural inclination toward curly.
Other days I would try to be a jock, or a scholar, or a poet. But never did I consider being myself. No, I was too boring.
Last week’s episode of “Glee” introduced Sarah Jessica Parker as a designer at Vogue.com who found herself a victim of her own success. She had gone from being a designer to being a manager. Trouble was, she could never say no to those around her with ideas, regardless of whether they were good or not so good. When Kurt Hummel comes on board as an intern with fresh, new ideas, she finds herself wishing she could “reinvent herself.”
One of the joys–and dangers–of teaching writing on the university level is being surrounded by creative new minds with lots of energy and fresh ideas. I’ve had my share of mediocre students over the years, but I’ve also been energized by those who I can see a great promise in. And when you’re an old dog like me, occasionally there’s a temptation to fall back on that mindset from high school days of “reinventing yourself.” The great thing about writing is that novelty doesn’t last long. What does is authenticity.
Very often students come into my classes wanting to write fantasy–replete with elves or vampires, or even elvish vampires. They don’t see anything interesting in their own lives, and so they find comfort in writing stuff that’s far from real, far from their own insecurities and daily challenges. But I tell them that every story has to be rooted in reality–especially fantasy. The most fantastic the characters, the most realistic the situation, and vice versa. To encourage readers to care about your characters and your story, they have to have some semblance of relatable experiences to identify with. If you have elves, make them elves with dandruff problems, or acne, or marital difficulties, or just plain insecurity. Bringing in realistic foibles makes readers care what happens to them.
Fantasy actually calls for the writer to establish some pretty harsh rules about the universe they are describing. The writer is entering into a social contract with the reader. The first chapter establishes what kind of world their story happens in, whether it be a woody setting, underwater or deep in space. But once the setting, the characters and the rest of it is introduced, and the reader has bought into the where and what of the story, the writer has to be faithful to that environment and situation. If the writer suddenly decides to change the rules, they are betraying their readers, and their credibility is lost.
One of the writing exercises that we do on occasion that I’ve had the greatest amount of success with is to challenge my students to write about their greatest fears. One variation of this is to talk about “skeletons in the closet,” parts of our psyche that we don’t share with anyone. It’s painful to write about, but refreshing when it is revealed, and very often results in the best writing that student has comes up with to date. The exercise not only provides an emotional drive for the writer, but it strikes the reader as authentic.
Many of us read for escape, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I know that I value writing that smacks of authenticity, even if it is fiction. Authenticity comes from experience, and despite what my student writers say, we all have them. It’s just sometimes a challenge to dip into that well of experience that may be filled with pain as well.
But that’s where the good stuff is. Trust me. Try it and you will see.