Self-“insertion”

So that time-dishonored topic of self-insert characters has rolled around on the Birdie App again, and I had Opinions:

“I suspect this scorn for authorial “self-insert” has leached into the water supply from the early psychologists and New Critics, who liked to tout the “objectivity” of high art as against art that draws on personal narrative, i.e., what women were doing at the time.

This got mixed in with the whole "Mary Sue" Disk Horse and cemented "self-insert characters" as a benchmark sign of bad writing.

It's bullshit at the root. As better people than I have pointed out, it's easy to seem "objective" when your POV is already dominant enough to be widely understood.

But the point of creating stories is to speak to some truth. Everyone with a functioning human instrument can do that; it's just that our culture wants to pretend that only some of us are worth hearing stories from.

I once wrote half a million words centering on what I called a "Mary Sue on purpose" — but my so-called "self-insert" character quickly took on a life of her own, which is as it should be.

I’m not writing any overtly self-modelled characters right now, but I reserve the right to if I goddamn want. So there.”

Originally tweeted by L. Inman (@linman) on January 31, 2021.

This is a topic Erica and I revisit occasionally: how we make characters out of our own soul-stuff, how we spin a creation from the ephemera of our minds. All characters are, as I quoted above, made of the author in one way or another — modelled, acted out, mimed, wept out of our own tears. You can’t “insert” anything into a story of your making, even a simulacrum of your own self for metacommentary’s sake.

Yet there are these hidden rules of criticism like bear traps in the path, that the reader is obliged to guess what parts of your story are biographical, and your job is to make the guessing very difficult. But, as it turns out, it’s always pretty easy to guess — wrong.

Oh, certainly, a better-written story is seamless in its elements, and nothing feels manufactured or out of place. But: the rules are a lie. You don’t have to guess the author’s biography, and there are no prizes for guessing right. Cynicism is not the opposite of naivety; the trajectory away from naivety goes in an entirely different direction.

I find it kind of telling that an author like John Scalzi, who is a Notorious Feminist Patsy Ally, is being tagged here for “bad” writing that is associated with the “bad” writing of women. We all know that women can’t come up with fiction that isn’t based on their own meretricious lives, amirite? But it’s different when F. Scott Fitzgerald does it.

Which is not to say that we don’t occasionally run across a story in which the id of the author is painfully obvious. It’s just that I don’t think that kind of discernment is useful as a critical apparatus — or at least, not as a primary driver of criticism. In that sense, the project of the New Critics was a worthwhile project. It’s just that they started out with a lot of begged questions, and that doesn’t do the reading public any favors.

We need a new new criticism, for these factionalist times.

Another chapter down

It’s a thoroughly rainy Saturday: perfect for writing.

To be honest, it hasn’t been one of those dancing-through-meadows-of-daisies kinds of months, at least as far as writing mojo is concerned. Nevertheless, I did complete the chapter I started before the whole “white nationalist attempted coup” thing, sent it to beta, and started storyboarding for the next.

There’s a way in which storyboarding is a glorified means of procrastination for me, but the glorified part is useful: ordinary procrastination is about the paralysis of perfectionism, but storyboarding gives me something to do while I negotiate myself an acceptable level of not-perfect to get started with.

And it often turns out to be useful! In this case, I had some things to figure out to illuminate the immediate path forward. Like whose POV to introduce where and at what vantage point; what’s happening in one location while X is happening in the other; what tempo to start with so that it accelerates in the right place; trajectories for characters I’m just getting to know…

My usual MO is, as I’ve said, pretty analog — index cards and notepad scratches and sticky-notes with quotations and bits of dialogue jotted for later reference. But this week I also made a personal Miro account to keep track of the larger items. I’d been using it for a rolling workflow project at work; while their templates are attractive and (probably) useful, what I like is just having a virtual whiteboard for keeping sticky-notes in color-coded order, and drawing my own lines between text elements. I want to design it myself, dammit — which is the main reason I couldn’t get along with my trial of Scrivener. I will decide how section breaks and chapters are to be designed, thank you very much.

I hear that Scrivener also has a character naming function that you can use for minor characters and extras, which sounds cool when you’ve been faffing about on Behind the Name for an hour or two, but I suspect there’s a similar options funnel, and just, no. Sadly, though, BTN is rather thin on African names (like, hey, it’s a Really Big Continent, right?), so I’ve had to extrapolate somewhat to name a couple of Southern Consortium characters. Coding a more-developed quasi-empire to the Global South should be an interesting endeavor, to say the least. But what’s the fun in setting oneself an easy task?

Today, I’ve put in some satisfying work: finished a scene introducing a character POV, copied in a scene-plug from my greenhouse and cleaned it up, and sketched plans for the transitional material between the two. Not bad for a rainy Saturday.

Now to figure out what I’m going to have for dinner.

Soul possession

One day, more than a decade ago now, I was on my commute fretting about how a boundary I wanted to establish would make me An Asshole in everyone’s eyes including my own. And as I was driving along, for the first time ever I thought, “Well then, I’ll just be an asshole.” Like Huck Finn saying, “Well, then, I’ll go to hell,” when he committed to help his friend escape slavery, except I didn’t think about that at the time.

I also didn’t expect the curious sensation that followed, as if my soul had been trailing out 10 feet in front of me and was suddenly sucked back in my body. And just as suddenly, I had more power to take care of my daily business, like I’d been trying to do calligraphy with a selfie stick before. The sensation was short-lived; but also, I never forgot it.

Occasionally I’m reminded just how much of the business of living I’ve conducted at this kind of remove from myself. I was reminded again this morning while reading Morning Prayer; on Wednesdays there’s always a section of Psalm 119, and today it was in the morning psalm slot. More often than not I find reading this psalm tedious, though I know it rewards deep study, but this morning I did a thing I often do and read she/her pronouns for the Psalmist. And I read: “How shall a young woman cleanse her way?/ By keeping to your words.”

It gave me a pang on two levels. One was a memory, of cycles and years of weeks in which my friend V and I would pray Psalm 91 at Compline (also on Wednesday, now I think about it) with she/her pronouns for the Psalmist.

“She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ abides under the shadow of the Almighty./ She shall say to the LORD, “You are my refuge and my stronghold,/ my God in whom I put my trust.”…”Because she is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver her;/ I will protect her, because she knows my Name./ She shall call upon me, and I will answer her;/ I am with her in trouble; I will rescue her and bring her to honor.”

I miss Virginia all the more when I remember these things. But the other reason I felt a pang was that I was all the more aware of how much of my worship through the years has been done with my soul trailing out 10 feet in front of me. Like I have to animate a ghost out there who can pretend that any of this is about them. The ghost can feel any feelings required in the moment, can say of male POVs in the Bible, “This is a story of me,” can be included round the fire with Jesus’s disciples, can witness, can tell good news.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from this plague year, it’s that there are things going on back at the ranch. With a few pronouns I reel my soul back in to survey the scene, and there are things going on; there always have been. Not just angry victimy things, but rich things; wondering things; measuring things; delighting things. This is, after all, the place where I write from, where I craft verisimilitude with a loupe and tiny chisel. This is my workshop of making, making life and the image of it.

I can’t say it’s not been useful to me, sending my soul out on regular EVAs to read books that aren’t about me, sing songs that aren’t about me, pray prayers that aren’t about me. The structure of scientific revolutions needs data. Empathy needs data too. Keats dignified this practice and process with the term “negative capability,” which was never a set of words I thought very accurate, but I knew what he meant. I don’t think it’s negative, because when you do it you’re reaching for something, for belonging, for affirmation, for acquaintanceship. And can it be a capability if you have to do it to survive?

Keats came fairly close to having to; he wasn’t rich, he was riddled with tuberculosis, and he was on the wrong side of a few too many mean tweets. He also spoke meditatively in a letter to a friend about the “gordian knot of complications” involved in his own misogyny that he wasn’t sure what to do about. So it just goes to show how useful “negative capability” can be.

(Why the hell am I talking so much about Keats these days? He wasn’t even my favorite Romantic.)

Writers such as Seanan McGuire and N.K. Jemisin have talked more pithily about the backlash that often results when we write from our own POVs, about how truly resentful some people are that they might have to exert some negative capability to read a good book, as if negative capability is a towering virtue and stooping condescension for them and an inherent moral obligation for everyone else. And it’s clear that they perceive the obtrusive POVs of others as such a threat that they are willing to commit sedition, conspiracy, and treason against their own country. I mean, none of this is surprising, though it is shocking and angering. It’s just…really? It’s that hard? It’s that painful? It’s that insulting?

I mean, you’re dealing with people who, if they know anything, know how to project their soul outward to understand things that aren’t about them. If you’d asked for imagination and compassion and fellow-feeling, you’d have got it. But what you want is to be hermetically sealed away from any sign that those other people have souls, like it burns you to know that. And you hope to kill their bodies by not wearing a mask, too. Or by quicker methods, if you’re impatient enough.

It’s an impossible thing for you to have, even if we wanted to give it to you. Which we don’t. You’re an asshole and you haven’t figured out how to choose otherwise.

But negative capability is for everyone. Positive capability is for everyone too.

Here endeth the lesson.

But honestly, uncertainty was worse

Good afternoon!

Gave self another haircut. I’m the Charlize Theron of this joint.

Things to be noted:

  1. Remember when I advised you, dear readers, to BURY THEM in votes? Well, just imagine if we hadn’t!
  2. I have for some reason not added to the 900 words I wrote on TLT last week.
  3. From the people who brought you fifty billion hearings on Benghazi, we are suddenly hearing a newfound devotion to the principle of fireside kum-bah-yah unity.
  4. I have family bunkered down right now with COVID, why? Because when there’s no structural support, it’s impossible for individuals to take enough care to avoid community saturation, even when they do things right.
  5. My world is a 400 sq ft flat at present, so I am dreaming of having a garden.

Things to be done:

  1. That part is done, thankfully. Now to get the abuser out of our house.
  2. I’m gathering so much useful material for TLT right now. But to be honest, I’d rather be using my imagination…
  3. Newsflash, unity is already happening over here. If you’re not in sympathy with cupcake coupsters and well-heeled fascists, get with the program. Otherwise, get stuffed.
  4. If there were something I could do about this, I fucking would.
  5. Something to look into when we get some distance on this pandemic. Meanwhile, am practicing hospitality toward myself by making my morning tea in a cat-shaped pot and cooking breakfast.

And finally: matrifututores delendi sunt.

Getting (re)started, plus music

So we are well away into the New Year, and I have sat down with The Lantern Tower again, determined to make the most of my favorite season for writing in. As usual I had bogged down right about the point where I’d be starting to build connective tissue between the first section and the second — fascia rather than plot; I know what happens at the end of Chapter Six, that part’s not a mystery. I’ll go back and fill that in much like I did the last couple chapters of Act One in Ryswyck.

So here I’m starting again at the beginning of the second section, writing scenes I know, planting out scene plugs I’ve got socked away in Google docs (gardening metaphors are rising to mind just now; I’ve been watching a lot of Monty Don specials and really wish I had some unshaded gardening space).

Besides the propagated sceneage, also already there are fascinating decisions to make. Like in what manner I should alternate locations for the action in Bernhelm and at Ryswyck Academy. If this were a film by Greta Gerwig I might dare to interleave by scene or section, without keying first to the objective chronology: but a book is not a film, so if I want a similar effect I will want to use tools of the written art. But which ones? That is a fun mystery, running one’s mental fingers over rows of smooth-worn tool handles.

Too, I have discovered a tension that is the mirror reverse to a tension I had to manage in the first book. In that book, though I consider Speir and Douglas to be co-equal protagonists, there was a point at which the action, the momentum and moral thrust of the story belonged to Douglas. I concerned myself intensely with the art of putting Speir on a sideline without sidelining her. Here, the opposite tension is in effect; and in this case I’m wrangling not only the balance of Speir as emerging primary agent with Douglas as subordinate agent, but also the residual sexism of fearing that as a wrongness. Once I identified the tension, however, I felt a small sense of relief: oh, I see, it isn’t wrong.

So that’s the state of things in the word trenches greenhouse at the moment.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten to add a music post to my blog hiatus list, partly because I’ll run across music, think “oh, that would be good to add to my collection of Ryswyckian atmospherics,” and then promptly lose track of it because I haven’t done anything practical like make a playlist or something that neurotypicals are likely to do as a matter of course. Anyway, here are two shots of Ryswyckian atmosphere for your Monday: one a tune by Penguin Caf√© called “Protection” (I listened to several versions and preferred the most acoustic possible one, so you get the Tiny Desk Concert here); and a traditional waulking song from Mary Jane Lomond. It would be great to get some French/Alsace-based country songs to build atmosphere for the Bernhelm sequences in TLT; will have to keep my eye out, but if you know of any, link me!

Times and Seasons

Welcome, 2021!

I went to bed last night at 11, being very droopy; but found myself awake at midnight after all, as the city finally let good and loose all the artillery they’d been saving up for the moment. But soon after midnight the storm came in, and I woke much later to the sound of freezing rain against the windows. I may have written ice storms as a meteorological hero for convenience’s sake, but am not a lover of broken tree limbs and downed power lines in real life. However, it soon changed to snow, and it has been snowing steadily all day since.

Some years ago I encountered a passage of Evelyn Underhill meditating on the story of the disciples in the boat in the storm, in which she made the arresting assertion: “The universe is safe for souls.” This was more or less the opposite of what I believed, on a practical level. What I believed, pretty much, was that reality had it in for me. But if I believed this assertion, I thought, what would I do differently? It became a long-term experiment.

The universe is clearly not safe for our bodies, as we have daily proof on multiple levels. But our souls — our selves as a whole, expressed coterminously with the body, mediated through the mind — are affirmative things, as rightful as the universe of which they are part. It’s one of the truest things I can think of, and also one of the hardest to believe.

Last year started hard, and got harder. And the harder it got, the harder I got: in February I woke up one morning so angry I burst into tears; by the time the long course of the pandemic set in — another day, another loss, another day, another injustice — I clung to stoicism like a vine to granite.

2021 is not going to be easy. If there were any illusions to be had about that, they’re like curling sticky-notes, all but fallen already. But I think I need to be soft again. No, I think I need to be like a sword — hard enough to keep an edge, tender enough to spring like steel.

After all, I’m a soul, and I’m here: and that’s an affirmative thing.

May you be supple, strong, and true this year.