I told my wife once that one of the things which has held me back from sharing my writing for so long is that I’m afraid that friends and family will judge me, as a person, based on the fictions I create. I’ve spent the last decade or so sharing my work with a hermetic little internet community and have grown fairly comfortable with that in large part, I think, because they didn’t start out as people I know.
They weren’t people whose opinions mattered. That’s not to say they weren’t valuable, just that nothing I shared with AWR was ever going to come back to bite me at a job interview or over Thanksgiving dinner. Putting my work up on the internet and pursuing publishing are situations where what I create become available to a wider audience. Admittedly, the vast majority will remain strangers whom I’ve no concerns about, but a select few will inevitable be people who I know. People whom I occasionally have to look in the eye, and that’s a little disconcerting.
There’s an old adage for writers which goes, “Write what you know.” It’s not a difficult concept to grasp at its surface; if you know about fishing, write about fishing. You’ll do better and be more believable and be better able to draw your audience in because you know what you’re talking about and can paint a more vivid picture. But it goes deeper than that; into emotions, and metaphysics and epistemology… all those big weird words.
If you’re going to write about a character experiencing joy, or sadness, or exhilaration, or pain; that same adage “Write what you know” still applies. What this means is that in order to make it believable, in order to take the reader there, in order or it to be any good, you have to be able to not just find those things inside yourself but you have to be willing to share them. This is fine when it comes to your more positive, sympathetic, life affirming characters. Just dig around in the ol’ brain-bank for good vibrations and put it on the page.
It’s dangerous, though, when dealing with your less life-affirming characters. Let’s say you’re writing a dialogue between two characters and one of them is just super racist. You’re not going to communicate that properly without writing down some really racist things. But, of course, you want to keep your character interesting. You don’t want to just fart out some old timey racist platitudes you saw on TV, because even though this character is a terrible human being, they still need to be three-dimensional. That racism still has to have their personal touch.
Now, I’m a firm believer that everyone has this little voice in their head, a terrible little voice, that just spends its time dreaming up deplorable shit. I call it The Creeper; it lives in that dark corner where all the residual anger, and angst, and frustration and self-loathing left over from high school are stored. 99.99999999% of the time, we ignore The Creeper and these thoughts aren’t even lightly considered.
You know the voice; the one that makes you want to just gun it through the crosswalk rather than wait for that old dude to finish his crossing, possibly injuring him but definitely denting your car. These are the things which most often come to you in the form of a joke, and you laugh to yourself and go, “Oh, man, that’s bad. No way can I say that in the presence of humans.” They’re just combinations of words which come together every so often and make you cringe inwardly for having even thought of them. It’s the place that really messed up dream you had that one time came from… You know the one.
Every once in a while, under stress or chemical influence, The Creeper might slip one through in the form of a-thing-you-say-and-immediately-regret and you spend the next half an hour back-pedaling but only making it worse. For the most part, though, we all keep The Creeper on lockdown for the good of society as a whole. But, as a writer, sometimes you have to go back into the dark corners where The Creeper lurks and have a chat with it. You have to listen to it, and worse, you have to commit what it says to paper.
If I’ve written that paragraph correctly, you’re all now having a discussion with your own Creeper trying to figure out what terrible things specifically I’m talking about and your brain is conjuring up a swarm of terrible shit for you to sort through. Try it out in the comments section if you want; write down what you think I’m thinking.
Now, let’s say you do that. You’ve let the Creeper control the keyboard for the last twenty minutes and you’ve written some shamefully good terrible things. You dialed it up to 11. Now, everyone who reads it, though they obviously know it’s fiction, is wondering how you came up with all these horrible things to say. When was it that you got so angry? Why are you so hateful? Nobody even realized you hated “X” minority so much, but good lord are you ever terrible.
I legitimately worry that there will always be that part of the reader who cannot divorce what I’ve written from what I actually believe when the Creeper is properly contained. No one ever wonders if I actually believe in dragons or magic just because I’ve written about them. That’s easily accepted fiction, but you start writing down terrible, evil, thing n suddenly people start to wonder. I know this will happen because I’ve done it to myself. I’ve toed that line between, “Man, this character is messed up” and “This can’t be normal, I might have a problem.”
It’s one of the reasons I think GRRiM is the bravest human on the planet. I have no idea how he sleeps at night with some of the things he’s written. I would worry myself sick thinking about what my friends and family must think of me for having written the whole Song of Ice and Fire series. I suppose the big piles of money make it easier, but he didn’t always have that pillow to rest his worried head on.
Or how did he show it to his wife for the first time? When he was just getting started. The first chapter of the first book has an incestuous coupling between twins (brother and sister) and culminates in them throwing a seven-year old boy out a fourth story window. I just can’t imagine handing something like that to my wife and having her go, “Oh yeah, this is good. Keep doing this for another half a million words.” Even now we watch the show on TV and we both wonder when the people who write this are going to start spending their money on counselling sessions.
And I know better! I’ve met the Creeper!
So, that’s my question to any writers who might be reading. How do you reconcile the Creeper?