WRITER OR WRITING?
I’ve been inside for a long time and I have no wings and no safety harness, but life’s presented me with a window, just big enough for me to fit through, and I’ve decided to step out. Even if there is nothing to hold me up but the ledge, I know that I’ll see and experience things that playing it safe will never give me. I’d like to say it’s not the first time, but if I’m honest, it really is. I’ve poked my head out, here and there, to look around the place and I’ve stuck my hands out, once or twice, to feel new things, even while still bunkered inside my walled up home base. Yet, I have never taken any real – public – risks, never gone beyond the cozy and largely safe spaces of my own heart and mind, a tribe of close friends and colleagues, and the pseudo-anonymity of niche communities where no one asks you to exit your bunker. Hence, I have never really tried to be a writer.
No, that’s not exactly true by traditional definitions. I’ve written countless things, shared many of them, published some, and dealt with both praise and criticism, though I’d certainly like to do more and better with all of these things. In that sense, I’ve more than tried to be a writer, I am one. For me, though, that’s all about process, not identity. I write, therefore I am? Maybe. What I haven’t tried is being a writer, walking in the world as a writer, saying the word out loud to someone else as a way of referencing who I am and what I do – being, as it were, “out” as a writer. As someone who has never been “straight,” it’s a situation I know entirely too well and don’t like for many good reasons, but unlike the dance I did for years over what to say or not and to whom when the question of relationships came up, I didn’t realize that I was so closeted about my writing until two weeks ago.
There are a few large-scale writing and related opportunities on the horizon for me, so I mentioned them to two separate friends and they each either outright asked why I might want to associate with such projects or presumed that I wouldn’t want to – or shouldn’t want to – be so associated. I felt … irritated, honestly, by the assumption that my writing or identity as a writer is something I do and/or should hide. I do hide it, though.
It’s not like espionage or like someone having an affair, but it’s something for which almost no one outside my writing circles and most trusted confidants has ever seen written evidence, except unknown readers, of course. This is not because I don’t write in public. I write in public all the time. I say “I’m writing,” if asked, and sometimes even answer questions (vaguely) about what I happen to be writing at the time. I do not, however, ever claim to be a writer.
Actually being a writer, and not just writing, comes with questions. I have always been just as worried about the results of my answers to those questions as I was (and sometimes, unfortunately, still am) to relationship questions. Why? I grew up in a very religious family, in a very religious hometown, and while I have similarly strong beliefs of my own, they are, to put it succinctly, “progressive.” I love my family dearly, as I love my hometown, but the truth is that both are very conservative collections of people and the stuff I write? I’m not even sure “progressive” is encompassing enough.
ASSESSING THE RISK
When I was a kid, I remember finding my brother’s old Dungeons & Dragons rule book and playing around with it. My mother told me about how she’d let him play it with friends, but didn’t like it and always kept an eye on them. To her, it seemed like a game on the edge of witchcraft and paganism, likely to confuse children about reality vs imagination and to become insidiously addictive.
When I got into Magic the Gathering, the nerdy card game that probably no one plays anymore, I was actually lectured before being able to bring my decks into my grandmother’s house. My parents made it very clear that I wasn’t supposed to take them out of the plain white box that I kept them in, because they didn’t want my grandmother or anyone else to think they’d let me dabble in something related to the occult. Of course, this Magic was no more connected with the occult than the sort that makes bunnies disappear from top hats or leads to coughed up strings of scarves, but I tried to respect everyone’s concerns about not being “caught out” as someone doing something problematic in public.
When I was going through secondary school, the overwhelming majority of people I knew were “signed out” of the sex ed level of health class by parents “for religious reasons” (myself included), even though the program was abstinence-focused. If they had gone, though, they wouldn’t have learned much, if anything, about issues like HIV/AIDS, because the school district didn’t feature that topic in the curriculum and wouldn’t let speakers into the schools who would talk about it either.
When I came out to my parents, my mom ignored it (still kind of does, bless her), but my dad cried for a long time in what seemed like genuine fright, repeating over and over, like a mantra calling me back from an imagined abyss: “You don’t have to. You don’t have to.” The only person he’d ever known up close who was gay had their car torched for it. He wasn’t really worried about my soul, like some conservative parents might have been, and for that I love him all the more. No, he was worried about my life, because being anything but straight seemed like a very, very dangerous thing to be.
When Fifty Shades of Grey finally found its way into the family, the reaction was not only not positive, one family member spent half an hour on the phone with another all but shouting in total shock at how it was “just porn.” “How could that possibly have become a bestseller? People actually read that garbage? It’s just sick! Our society, our country, is sick!” And so forth. Without commenting on the relative art factor of the book or even its entertainment value, I can safely say that not enough of the series was read to even get to the most “unconventional” parts, which seem especially interesting to E.L. James fans. How anyone around here picked it up at all, I have no idea (B&N’s co-op/feature setup must really work). The fact that such salacious stories could be so popular, though, seemed like a mark of the End Times to my mum. No, I’m not exaggerating.
I’m not telling you this because I want to rally in critique or sympathy for such moments (and if there’s a mocking tone left in comments, it will be deleted). I’m writing it down this way to explain why being a writer … of dark scifi/fantasy, of stories with LGBTQ main characters, of horror, of erotic romance, or really anything that’s not, say, a particular brand of moralistic YA or children’s books, is a daunting thing for me to own or identify with publicly in my everyday context.
I want to, though. Maybe there will be some things I’ll just never talk about, in my family or in my community. I’m not terribly bothered by that. It’s pretty standard operating procedure at this point. What I can’t do, however, is never talk about ANY of my creative work. It just isn’t the case anymore that this is something I do on the side or that I might try a hand at in my spare time or that I’ll focus on one day when I retire. The more I connect with and help develop those writing projects I mentioned so many paragraphs ago (and others), the more I see that my writing is a core part of me. To deny its existence, its worth and meaning, is to deny my own, even if it is unconventional or controversial.
So maybe, despite the way my fears have painted everything, I am not in a room with a window, contemplating a life on the precarious edge of imminent danger. Maybe this tiny room is just a closet and the window is a door. Maybe, maybe, I pray and hope that maybe I have long misunderstood, and when I step through this supposed window, the ledge I’m standing on will really only be another, bigger, better floor.
Do you have writing that feels risky to claim? What makes it feel risky to you?
How have you managed your worries or fears about being know as a writer or as a writer of unconventional/controversial genres or topics?
Do pen names factor into your risk-management process? If so, why and how?