Delivered at Wiscon 24: Madison, WI, May 16, 2000
I've always been fascinated with the creative impulse, that whole idea of creating something out of nothing, though I suppose, to be truthful, there are raw materials involved. The artist needs graphite and pigments and a ground to work on, the musician a concept of rhythm and melody, the storyteller needs a hoard of words to draw on. And then there's the place from which the ideas first come. They don't burst full-blown from the creator's mind; they grow out of his or her interaction with the world around them, the relationships they have with the rest of humanity, and the vast wealth of art that went before them.
But I didn't think of any of that when I first began writing. I was simply enamoured with the play of words, the way they resonated against each other, and I loved Story. I loved reading stories and I wanted to tell stories.
I'm not surprised that some people like my stories. I don't mean that in a big-headed sense. I like them myself, you see, writing them by the criteria that they have to be something I'd like to read, but hasn't been written yet. I know that I share similar tastes with other readers, so it stands to reason others might like some of these books and stories. But why on earth anyone would want to hear me talk outside of their pages remains a mystery.
However, since I do have your ear…
The more I write, the more I realize that simply telling a story isn't enough. What I write has to work on the simple storytelling level, of course, but to keep my interest, it also has to do something more. I want to learn something I might never have otherwise known from the process of writing and researching it. And I want there to be a dialogue somewhere in the text that touches on issues that are important to me. Mind you, both have to arise naturally from the elements of the story itself, or one might as well go write an essay, but without them, there's something missing.
My friend Andrew Vachss has told me on more than one occasion that he only has one story to write and he's going to keep writing it until it's not necessary any more. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, that story centers around the need for us to cherish our children and protect them from harm--and when I say "our," I mean society's children. All children.
My own themes are pretty basic as well, and like Andrew, I find myself retelling them over and over again. They center around the need for us to treat each other and the world we live in with respect. I also write a lot about the value of loyalty, honour and friendship; the idea of the viability of the family of choice; and the belief I have that there is more to the world than we can see with only a cursory glance.
In a sense, much of what I write centers around what I believe is a poet's job to do: show the familiar in a new light so that we can see it again, as though for the first time, and appreciate its worth, no matter how common it might appear. It's like the difference between weeds and garden flowers. Truth is, I like a lot of weeds better. Those of you familiar with my writing won't be too surprised by that, since the other story I tend to explore is that of the outsider. The one who doesn't fit in, or who can't fit in, or chooses not to fit in.
I think everyone grows up with a sense of being on the outside--it's part of what teenage angst is all about. Depending on what sort of a support group you have in terms of friends and family, you'll either get over that, or carry a sliver of that outsider feeling with you for the rest of your life.
Who are the outsiders? They're the disenfranchised and the homeless. The victims who have to face their terrors on their own. They are the outlaws and the artists. They are the people who are considered to have the wrong skin colour, religion, sexual orientation, or social status. They are the weeds in the garden, and in the animal world, they are the crows and the coyotes.
It's easy to romanticize the outsider, but to do so isn't really fair, because that romance can take away from the very real trials they face. Before you create a romantic portrait of a homeless person, try living that life yourself: no money, no home, no food, and you're invisible to the rest of the world. Or at least the regular, tax-paying citizens try not see you. But if you are going to create a portrait of them, don't concentrate solely on those aspects either. Remember that they are as human as you or I, and while they may not fit into our story, they certainly have stories of their own.
Treat them instead as what they are: individual.
And that, I suppose, is what's at the heart of everything I write, this idea of respect, no matter the differences. And putting forth a sense of hope--that there is a way out of the darkness. Because as William Morris wrote in News from Nowhere, that way out of the darkness can only come about if we ourselves change. It can't be forced upon a person. In other words, we'll only stop hurting each other when we truly believe that it's wrong to do so. Not because someone tells us it's wrong.
I see a lot of dark fiction, and I'd never tell anyone what to write, but it depresses me when that darkness is all we're given. I believe stories should be uplifting; that even in the darkest stories, there should be a sense of hope because, well, to quote one of my own characters, "If there's only supposed to be darkness, then why were we given light?"
The problem with writing issue-oriented stories is that, no matter how well integrated the issues are, or how little one preaches, they're always going to annoy some readers. Here are some of the things I get called on and why I ignore the critics when they raise their voices about them:
I've written about this before, and at length, in a number of places, so to be brief here, I believe that every artist should be allowed to work with a full palette. I can't write endlessly about a man in his late forties, of Dutch, Spanish and Japanese descent, who writes for a living and likes to play music. Working with a limited palette can be instructive, but it soon becomes far too confining.
The big thing here is to approach the unfamiliar culture with respect--there's that word again. Do your research and, more importantly, support the artistic efforts of those within that culture. I don't just mean lip service, either. Buy their books. Read them. Recommend them.
Writing from a female perspective
Happily, I seem to get this right more often than not. What's the secret? There's no secret. It's simply a matter of paying attention, of researching and listening and treating the characters as individuals.
The reason I often write from that perspective is simply because that female viewpoint is what the story requires. But I also like to write from that perspective because it challenges me and makes me pay attention.
Gay characters (too many, not enough)
Again, outsiders. It's interesting how extreme the reactions can be to these sorts of characters and they don't even play a huge role in my fiction. While I've occasionally explored the origins of their sexual orientation, mostly I like to treat them as I do any of my characters, as individuals, and not make a huge issue of it. It's the same reason I'll throw in female doctors and mechanics, or male nurses. It's not for the issue, it's simply to portray the world as a place where more is possible than we're often told there is. We need to forget about our expectations and get on with the business of life.
Domestic, sexual and child abuse
Who hasn't heard the complaint, "If I read one more story about someone with a horrible childhood…" But I'm with Andrew on this one. I won't stop telling those stories until they don't need to be told anymore. Probably the most dangerous element of an issue such as this is when it becomes a popular fad. For awhile, everybody's talking about it. Then everybody's sick of talking about it and wants to go on to something different.
Meanwhile, there are still women being raped, children being abused, wives trapped in suffocating relationships.
Maybe everybody's sick of talking about it, but the pain and the isolation doesn't go away.
Families of choice
They say all families are dysfunctional, but I think it's really difficult for those coming from a good and caring family background to understand that blood may be thicker than water, but that doesn't mean you need to care about or honour the people to whom you happen to be connected simply through genetics.
Everybody needs a family unit of some sort, because we're not naturally solitary creatures, but that unit needs to be made up of people we care about and can count on. Sadly, that's not always the case with relatives.
Writing about death, or depression
They're part of life. Deal with them. Nothing bothers me more in fiction than the casual attitude characters can have to death or violence. When either touches you, you're changed, changed forever, whether you want to be or not.
And real depression isn't something you just get over. It affects every aspect of your life and of those around you.
There are big stories there, and very human ones. To ignore them is to ignore a large part of what it is that makes us human. Depression, like joy, is a natural part of the human condition.
How's it ever going to go away if we just ignore it? First we have to see the homeless as people, as individuals, not or statistics, or some annoying smelly person, drunk, or begging for spare change, or both. Once you see a person as real, how can you not want to help them?
Characters being too artistic, too thin, too whatever
Writers tend to gravitate to certain kinds of characters, not necessarily because they're easier to write, but because that's the kind of character they're interested in. I like people with a creative bent. People who don't have it, or at least don't pursue it, aren't worth any less in my mind, I would just usually prefer to write about those that do.
As for what they look like…well, the casts that people my stories tend to look the way they do because that's what my circle of friends looked like in my formative years. The impression's just stayed with me over the years and, until it started being brought to my attention, I didn't even realize I was doing it.
On one of the de Lint Internet lists, the subscribers took a poll for their favourite and their least favourite character. I'm delighted to tell you that the same character topped each list. Who? Jilly Coppercorn. Why am I delighted? Because strong reactions to a character mean the character is working. We're none of us the same. We have different friends, different interests. Why should we feel the same about a character?
I don't let any of this concern me when I'm writing. All the comments I've spoken about so far simply don't enter into my consideration when the story's at hand. I won't say that the characters or stories are writing themselves, but they certainly feel real.
I always feel let down after finishing a novel. Here I've spent anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half in the company of these people, visiting with them every day, and then suddenly they're all cut out of my life. It's like ending a job and going to a new workplace. You'll still see the odd person from the old job, but mostly they're gone from your life as you contend with a whole new cast of people who, one hopes, will become as dear to you as were the others.
So I do what I do and the truth is, from the letters I get, and the comments at readings and other events, I've been given the impression that I'm doing something right. I can pull letters from my files that say things like:
"You've saved me more than once."
"You've motivated me…" to change my life, pursue an interest, do more charitable work.
"Thanks for helping me see the magic in everyday life."
"I thought I was alone with this…" issue/problem.
"Your books have opened a dialogue between…" parents and their children, teachers and their students, social workers and their clients, ministers and their congregation.
None of this is specifically on my agenda, but they certainly make for a moving side benefit. Any one of those letters would make all of the writing worthwhile. Because in the end, what we're really here to do is to help each other.
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