Jennifer Brozek: Revealing Personal Details Through Your Writing
Editor and author Jennifer Brozek has a new book out today! Never Let Me Die is the third book in her Melissa Allen series. She’s also edited more than fifteen anthologies, written for numerous role-playing companies, won a number of awards including the Origins, Scribe, ENnie, and Australian Shadows. In her free time, she’s a Director at Large for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. And she’s just a generally nice person. You can find her on Twitter at @JenniferBrozek.
She’s talking today about the things authors reveal in our writing — both unintentionally and deliberately…
Writing is a private, intimate affair. It’s the writer and their work. It’s easy to see why we pull from personal experiences to enhance the story on the page. For me, this is a terrifying fact in retrospect. Sometimes, many times, we authors reveal more about ourselves and our experiences in our writing than we intended. Then again, sometimes, we do it on purpose.
The Melissa Allen series (Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, Never Let Me Die) is the first novel series that I wrote based on things in my own life. Things that I wanted to see on the page for others to experience.
I wrote a mentally ill heroine because I never had the opportunity to read about one growing up… and neither did the young woman I wrote the book for. I knew from the get-go that I would be questioned on this aspect of my protagonist. I knew that I would need to reveal my own autism (high functioning aspergers), my dyslexia, my stutter, my bouts of anxiety.
I knew I would be opening the door to that mostly hidden part of my life. However, it is this hidden aspect that needed to be shown, because I have many coping mechanisms. Enough that most people are surprised to find out I suffer from any of it. This is something I wanted to point out. Many people suffer from mental illness, and you never know because we don’t advertise. We cope. We medicate. We hide. We try to get through the day.
In Never Let Me Leave, I introduce a secondary protagonist, Carrie, who has a congenital defect. She is missing the top two sections of her fingers on her left hand. Why did I do this? Because this is something my mom has. I was sixteen before someone was brave enough to ask, “What happened to your mom’s hand?”
I was surprised at the question. At first, I thought she had hurt herself and I hadn’t noticed. But, no, they wanted to know what happened to her fingers.
Nothing “happened.” There was no story there. She was born that way.
I talked to my mom about adding this detail to one of my characters. I wanted to make sure it would be okay to do so. I knew I would be asked about it. Why would I want to “limit” and “deform” one of my characters like that? Because… tens of thousands of people deal with the same thing every day.
I wanted to show that even with such a facet to her character, Carrie is strong, smart, fast, and resourceful. Like my mom, she is a fast one-handed typist. Like my mom, she is good with computers. Like my mom… she exists. I wanted to include a heroine like my mom for her and every other person like her out there. They deserve to read about characters like them
Both of these facets (my autism, my mom’s hand) are big details that I meant to reveal. There are others that just sort of happened while I was writing because they were details I remembered and used — like an intellectual magpie. Little things: the experience of wearing pink in a military hospital, phrases told to me over and over as I was growing up, Also big things: like personal thoughts on social issues happening today.
I didn’t want to write about Ferguson, but one of the characters in Never Let Me Die is a black teenager, Adam. He grew up sheltered, but he still had access to the internet. He is very aware how many people view black teenagers. He knows the words and images the news gives to young black men. It influences him as a character.
In specific, he distrusts the police in the small town they moved to because he doesn’t know they won’t mistake a bag of skittles in his pocket for a gun. This means he is reluctant to deal with firearms in a public setting. This informs the reader that I’ve been thinking about the difficulties and the crap many young men and women, who aren’t white, face. This wasn’t something I had specifically set out to reveal. It was something I realized after the fact.
I could go on. There are so many things writers reveal through their writing. I think it’s because of the adage “write what you know” and the corollary “write what you can extrapolate from what you’ve experienced.” The more I write, the more I learn about why I write and what I want to write about.
I started out writing because I had stories to tell. I continue to write because I have messages to give: intentional and otherwise.
December 8, 2015 @ 12:28 pm
I’m not a Real Writer(tm), but I do write stories, a few of which I’ve dared to post on a story site and have sometimes gotten positive comments. But really, I mostly write for myself, not to send any message to the world. So what I’m about to write may not be anything like what you do.
For the most part, I just start out writing something I would want to read, and the pieces are whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. But when I read and reread what I’ve written (for me, an essential part of the writing process), I find I’ve revealed something about myself, often something I hadn’t realized or hadn’t taken seriously. It seems I unconsciously use writing as a way of coming to terms with things about myself and my past.
For instance, one of the things I’m grappling with is the realization, after 60+ years, that I’m transgendered. As I’m finding out, the “I’m trans” realization is only the beginning of the journey down the rabbit hole, and my journey is unlike anyone else’s, because every trans person is trans in their own way.
But that’s not all I am, and I’m coming to realize that you can’t separate out your various issues. I can’t talk about being trans without talking about being apparently sub-clinically ASD in a not all that neurotypical family, or about growing up “different” in a place and time where any sort of deviance was universally regarded as a shameful defect meriting punishment and ostracism, or being a techie, or living through the Vietnam War era. Or any of a number of other things I won’t bore you with. Everything is connected to everything else.
So my stories end up being very personal, to the point that the ones I’ve put the most into I won’t post because they’re just too personal. I’ve heard “write what you know,” so I figure a lot of stories, even by Real Writers(tm), start off kind of personal. I’m in awe of those who can take those personal stories and turn them into something that a wide audience can relate to — and then have the courage to put them out there where everyone can see (and criticize.) But IMHO, those make the best stories.
Jim C. Hines
December 10, 2015 @ 11:09 am
“I’m not a Real Writer(tm), but I do write stories…”
For what it’s worth, I think the second part of this statement contradicts the first.
Best of luck with your journey, and with your writing.