They teach me too

I’m up to 20,000 words on ♥My Book♥ as of this moment, and I’m loving it still. I’m not sure what the exact next scene is, but we’re rolling right along. 

I’m coming up against two issues I hadn’t anticipated. The first regards one of the main characters. He’s a general all-around nice guy, somewhat prone to being taken advantage of, friendly but a little too reserved sometimes, and witty but quiet about it. If you were on the forum when I asked for help naming him (because he’d named himself after my brother and I wanted it changed) then you might remember we eventually settled on the name Josh. But there’s one thing I didn’t tell you about Josh.

He stutters.

Now, I’m aware that having a stuttering character in a humorous story is a minefield, and my objective out of the gate is that never, under any circumstances, is Josh to be laughed at because of the stutter. Period. But it was important for his character, and the more I researched stuttering the more I understood the things I’d only half-grasped about him before.

As I wrote him, something dawned on me: just how difficult it must be to have reams of thoughts in your head, only be struggling to say them. The banter you want to join in, the joke that pops into your mind but won’t come out your mouth. It’s like speaking a foreign language in your native country. This is a character who can IM and text witty rejoinders within seconds, but has trouble ordering a hamburger.

I realized as I wrote just how frustrating it must be, and as that came into my head, it broke over me like the dawn exactly why Josh’s character was all those things I’d understood before I’d truly understood him.

So right now, I’m lurking at a stuttering-support forum to learn as much as I can and make his experience as genuine as possible.

The second thing I’m realizing is what Betsy Lerner meant in The Forest For the Trees when she talked about how writers become suspicious characters within their own circle.

She mentioned an author who wrote about a protagonist who carries on an affair with his daughter-in-law. And how, she asks, did family holidays go afterward, with him in the living room with his daughters-in-law? Did family scrutinize him, the way he interacted with them, wonder what he thought of them?

My protagonist is going to have a problematic relationship with her parents. It is not in any way based on my relationship with my parents. Quite the opposite. But I know that within an hour of reading it, my mother will ask me if I really feel that way, and I don’t. But I wonder whether I’d be so blase about it if my daughter wrote her protagonist’s mother as a screaming harpy, or if my husband wrote a novel about a very patient man dealing with a woman who lives largely in her own head.

I find myself hesitating before writing the story the way it demands to be written, even though I know it’s just a story. Because in the end, I’m not just an author. I’m also a daughter, a wife, a mother, a sister, a Christian, and a friend, and I don’t want to jeopardize any of those relationships in pursuit of the other.


  1. Jason Block

    The question is though? Would you rather be true to yourself as a writer…or censor yourself for the sake of the bigger picture?

    Because, as a writer myself, I do have an editor and I do censor myself as not to make my point by being mean spirited.

    But I think if your story needs to be told a certain way, it should no?

  2. philangelus

    It probably should, but I don’t want anyone I love to feel uncomfortable reading it. Characters are characters, and people are people.

  3. Promise

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this! I so needed to read that right now! I was having a problem with my mom being very disapproving and disappointed with what I am currently working on and it was causing me to be stuck. After reading this, I feel like I can write the novel that’s in my head the way it’s supposed to be written, even if my mother doesn’t like me writing about things that aren’t all sunshine and roses. Thank you again!

  4. philangelus

    Promise, I’m glad to have helped. But here’s a thought (since I have no idea how old you are):

    There’s a difference between “my mother is upset that I’m planning on a tragic ending” and “my mother is upset because I’ve written 57 pages of dismemberment, weeping, mourning, cheating, and drug use.”

    Back when I was in grad school, we had a few students who regularly came in with mayhem-stories and said, “The story demands to be written this way,” and I usually thought, “That’s because if you remove the blood, guts and torture, it’d be about 200 words long.”

    There’s a paid writer (whom several readers of this blog would recognize and cross the street to blow a raspberry in his face) who defended his story once by saying, “Of course they tortured a cat! They’re EVIL!” when there were many better ways (literarily) to establish their evil…and in fact, it had already been established. The vivisection of the cat was gratuitous. He said, “You’re trying to limit me!” No, we just didn’t see the point.

    So your question should be, “Why is my mother disapproving of my story?” If it’s because you’re writing about a woman in poverty and your mother has issues with money….write it. If, on the other hand, it’s because the story would get an R to NC-17 rating, maybe there are other ways to do it. But it’s tricky to know the whys and the whens.

    (Of course, sometimes there are stories we write only for ourselves, just to get them out of our heads, and never show others. But that’s not the focus here.)

  5. Promise

    Good point. (I’m almost 31 BTW).

    The story takes place in the mid-5th century during the “barbarian invasions” and is my attempt to take several well-known fairy tales in their original form (the original Grimm Brothers stories are, well, rather grim) and combine them with their source material (many of the fairy tales we are familiar with today were in part inspired by older stories, Germanic and Nordic sagas) and combine those stores with their source material (those sagas were in turn inspired by historical events of the 5th century).

    Pretty much ALL of the violence comes directly from the source material (either documented history, the sagas, or the fairy tales in their original form–some of the violence is marked directly in all 3, which is one of the ways the source-stories can be traced).

    I’m trying to write something, that while it contains fantastical elements, is grounded in the historical reality of the time. Which is one of the reasons I’ve been doing so much research and haven’t actually started writing it yet. This is definitely a book for adults and I’m okay with that.

    I tried to explain all this to my mother, but she has her own version of what she wants me to write in her head. I think my mom has a problem seeing past the “fairy tale” aspect, which in her mind is the Disneyfied version only. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I love the Disney movies, but that’s just not what I’m going for here. I’m trying to do something new, not rehash the same stuff that’s been done ad infinitum. I think she also just has a problem with her child writing anything that isn’t pleasant. I just need to get over needing her approval. Ya know?

  6. philangelus

    Gotcha. I was afraid I’d just goaded a 13 year old into writing slashfic about Draco Malfoy and Hedwig. 😉

    What you’re talking about sounds like it pushes the reader slightly out of the comfort zone. The Disneyfication of fairytales was a huge point of contention in my childhood lit classes in grad school.

    And it’s tough to get past that “Is it good? Do you like it?” phase, definitely. Shocking because it’s the way to make a point is a different category than shocking for the sake of shocking someone.

    Happy writing! (Well, not happy, but productive and bountiful writing…) 🙂

  7. Promise

    No worries! I figured I’d better describe in more detail what I was writing, if for nothing else to ease your mind! (Draco-Hedwig slash, LOL!)

    I have always tended to be a bit provocative* in my writing. Beach fare just isn’t my style.

    I’m very impressed that you’re almost a third of the way through your first draft BTW. 🙂

    *As in thought-provoking.

  8. philangelus

    I’m impressed by that too, actually. Or rather, surprised. I blame the progress bar because I feel the need to “feed” the word count every day. My own personal NaNoWriMo. 🙂

    Provocative writing is good for the soul. I was told in college that great literature asks great questions, and if you’re engaging tough questions in order to proffer an array of answers and decipher which is the best, then more power to you. (And the open-endedness might be a part of your mother’s discomfort, if she’s used to closed-ended fiction.)

  9. Daniele Rossi

    Im very happy to read your thoughts on what it must feel like to stutter. It’s a hard thing for us stutterers to live with since stuttering is deeply misunderstood and mysterious. You can’t see the struggles a stutterer goes through like you can with a disabled person. I can’t wait to read your book 🙂

  10. Cricket

    I would expect that, as you write a variety of characters, your relatives would get used to seeing relatives of your protagonists who aren’t like them, or are slightly like them, or whatever. Anything you actually draw from them would be spread around over several books, and mixed with other things. On the other hand, relatives are humans, so I can see them wondering why you chose to make the relative evil, or gave it that problem they hoped they hid from you, or whatever.

    Grimms? Great plagiarists. (Like Mozart.) They also shoved a lot of Christianity into their versions. Maybe not by name, but many of the concepts. (On the other hand, some, but not all, of the examples could have made the same point for First Nations rather than Christianity.) And, having spouted what one presenter said, I looked on the internet for confirmation, and found the opposite. I wonder what the brothers would have said?

    Your comment about “take out the gore and there’s only 200 words left” reminds me of recent films. “It’s a great party, with adults.” “They’re in love.” “It’s an epic battle.” Except many of those could happily cut most of the scenes in question, and still have enough for a decent move. But, no, they have to make long movies.

  11. philangelus

    Danielle, I really want to get Josh “right” so what he goes through is authentic. One of the other characters says to Josh that his stuttering isn’t apparent until he talks, and other people’s jerkiness *also* isn’t obvious until Josh talks either (said after someone makes fun of him when he has trouble ordering the above-mentioned hamburger.)

    It wasn’t until I had the protagonist talking about how she and Josh exchanged five-page letters throughout high school that I realized how much he had to say, and how difficult it must be to be unable to say it all, and how much Americans tend to judge one another based on the way we speak. This guy is brilliant and warm-hearted, and it must hurt to be treated as inconsequential just because it takes more work to get out his words.

    Cricket, I think in a lot of cases, people who know the author have some degree of difficulty distancing the author from the narrator’s voice. If the protagonist hates his grandmother, does that mean the author hates hers? Hates all women? Etc.

    In a way that’s a compliment, if the author is able to pull it off convincingly enough that the character’s feelings seem utterly believable. But in other ways, it’s off-putting. I want to be able to write, for example, a woman who dislikes her husband without people saying, “Her marriage must be in trouble.” (Patient Husband, you know I love you.)

  12. Promise

    Got a page and a quarter written (typed). That’s a good start, right? Well, it’s A start, anyway. 🙂

  13. karen ^.,.^

    very interesting post as my 14 year old daughter continues to write more and more fiction every day. i struggle as i read it to determine which is truly fiction (as her main female character brutually slashes her wrists and writes on her bedroom walls with the blood) and which is the drama of her age and current culture themes (the female character, then on the doorway of death, is rescued and transformed into a vampire by a gorgeous mysterious male who also gives her a new and exciting life .. ) she doesn’t quite understand that i invision her on the bed in her room crying and cutting at her wrists, wishing to escape her miserable teenage life. and she writes it well, despite the cliches’. so i try to encourage her to keep writing even when there are some things she writes that i just can’t (comfortably) read. 🙂

  14. philangelus

    Karen, that’s something I hadn’t thought of. I bet my mom was more than a little disturbed by some of the things I was writing at that age. Lots of hurt/comfort, isolation, murder, war, death, deities at war with one another, etc.

  15. cathrl

    Karen, I never showed my mum what I was writing at 14! I suspect that if your daughter is comfortable sharing her writing with you, things are good. Apart from that, I presume she’s either read, watched, or discussed at great length with her friends, “Twilight”.

    And you can add me to the list of people who were writing hurt/comfort at that age too. I think it’s standard.

    Jane, I’m presuming when you say “Josh is never ever to be laughed at because of the stutter” that you mean by the _reader_? Because those people making fun of him are going to be laughing. It just won’t be funny. (I’m the mum of a 9 year old stutterer, btw.)

  16. philangelus

    Josh’s stutter is never to be a source of laughter to the reader, right. There’s only one human being in the book who tries to mock him, and it doesn’t go very well for that person…

    Josh himself is allowed to joke about it.

    I didn’t realize one of your children stuttered. I’m learning so much about it — I never thought of it as a disability as much as a characteristic, but there’s so much more to it.

  17. karen ^.,.^

    cathrl – yes, she and her friends are ardent “twilight” fans. i recognize the feelings she writes from as normal for this crazy, up and down age (and i wrote tons of that at her age, too) – but it’s been a disconcerting experience to be on the other side of the page. i never realized i’d see myself in her every “mean mother” and her in every suicidal, angst ridden teen girl. it’s brought a new awareness of responsibility to writing that i hadn’t thought of before. but so much the better that she pour out her emotions on paper, whether they’re as intense as her characters portray or not, than to have her find comfort in drugs, alcohol or sex. ((sigh)) if only i knew if i were doing this mothering thing right, ya know?? 🙂

  18. Cricket

    All good things in moderation. I found writing too much angst became, not an outlet, but a supply. Strong negative emotions breed faster than happy ones. It left the page and affected my real life. I couldn’t wait till writing time to indulge. I suspect mine was an extreme reaction. I didn’t go through a strong angsty phase as a teenager, so when I did it as an adult, I didn’t have the coping skills. As long as she’s able to set it aside and enjoy life, I wouldn’t worry.

    Also, her writing about bad mothers might be a way of exploring “What if my mother were bad? and “I need to experience having a bad mother.”

    As I said, all good things in moderation (otherwise you’ll never fit them all in).

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