Sorry, Past Me

I grew up to write stories that were the opposite of what I wanted as a kid.

As a kid, I often found myself feeling frustrated by ambiguities in the stories I read. It probably didn’t help that I was reading books well above my grade level–here’s a hint, parents and guardians, your nine-year-old might not be emotionally ready for the graphic scenes in Timothy Findlay’s Not Wanted on the Voyage–but shock aside, I remember being irritated when I didn’t understand why characters were making the choices they did, or when I couldn’t tell if a character was a good guy or a baddie, or when a character I wanted to hate did a nice thing.

I want to write stories where everything is spelled out clearly. I’m not going to imply things that leave the reader guessing. I’m going to make sure my readers have the security of knowing exactly why characters make the choices they do and how they should feel about those choices. I’m going to write good guys who are perfect role models for everyone to imitate and bad guys who are always horrible.

I’m going to write stories that don’t have the same problems as my real life.

If I’d grown up to write the kind of stories I wanted as a kid, I doubt anyone would want to publish them. As an adult, I roll my eyes at the insertion of authorial voice telling me what I’m supposed to think about the characters–as though I can’t decide for myself who I sympathize with. But then again, maybe I don’t always sympathize with the so-called protagonists.

So what changed? Part of it was an understanding that came with maturity, that different people have different values. That different backgrounds and life experiences can cause two people to perceive the same event in strikingly different ways. That my own experiences weren’t “better” or “worse,” “more valid” or “less valid.”

And I began to develop an interest in fiction that showed me how other people thought.

If I’d had different life experiences, how would those have shaped my point of view? If I’d been born in another time, another culture, with a certain medical condition–without a certain medical condition–how would my life have changed? What did the world look like through the eyes of my family, my friends…my enemies?

Fiction was a way for me to explore and come to understand how different people thought. How someone didn’t necessarily have to be “wrong” or “a baddie” for two people to disagree. How very few people are consistently “good guys” or “bad guys” all the time, in everything they do. Even though fiction is make-believe, I learned a lot about empathy for other people by coming to understand how their thought processes worked and why they weren’t “bad” just for being different from me.

I also developed an appreciation for implication or suggestion. Open-ended questions left me thinking, pondering possibilities, looking for clues to support or deny my initial suspicions. And sometimes much of life is about learning to cope with the unknown and uncertain.

So now I write stories that give me the opportunity to look through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes aspects of these characters are much like aspects of my own personality; sometimes less so. I like the challenge of learning to understand the motivations, behaviour, and choices of people whose lives are very different from my own. I like to write stories in which both my protagonists and antagonists are following courses of action that make sense to them from where they stand.

Sorry, past me. I couldn’t write stories that were clearer than, more logical than, and “better than” real life. I had to write the stories that would help me understand and empathize in real life instead.

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