On Misfits & Writing
A semi-regular monthly-ish mini-column dedicated to art and literature and misfits and all things weird.
One of my favorite quotes does not come from a craft book, a novel, a short story, or poem. Rather, these words—which have helped me so much as a writer to develop character, craft scenes, dig into the deeper meanings and themes imbedded in the work that I read or produce—comes from a biography about a scientist named Barbara McClintock, who won both a Nobel Prize and MacArthur Foundation grant and numerous other awards for her work in genetics:
The word ‘understanding,’ and the particular meaning she attributed to it, is the cornerstone of Barbara McClintock’s entire approach to science. For her, the smallest details provided the keys to the larger whole. It was her conviction that the closer her focus, the greater her attention to individual detail, to the unique characteristics of a single plant, of a single kernel, of a single chromosome, the more she could learn about the general principles by which the maize plant as a whole was organized, the better her ‘feeling for the organism.’
~Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock
I love to study the ways my characters move in the world. Like McClintock, I believe that expression of the minutest details (through scents, gestures, faces, tastes, textures) can give an observer a ‘feeling for the organism.’ For an artist, I feel that exploring the minute gestures is such an effective way to express meaning and desire in intimate and non-didactic ways.
Interestingly, in contrast to McClintock’s reasons for her approach, I write into minute details without the intention of learning the Why or How. I do so because I believe that, unless a character is a trained psychologist, that they will not know why they do most of the things they do, they will not have the types of analytical, organized checklists in their head that help to explain their thoughts and feelings and decisions. Rather, my characters will Do based off of instinct, fear, hunger, thirst. They will Do because they can, because they need, want, desire. Ultimately, by allowing my characters to first Do (or react), before (or without ever) understanding or dissecting why they do what they do, I feel that this allows for a story to move forward in unexpected and surprising ways.
In early drafts, I try to generate as much work as I can before revising. I try not to spend hours analyzing the Why or How for my characters. I feel that by focusing my attention on the movements and expressions of my characters, I can more effectively disguise the story’s ‘seams’ (i.e. the places in a narrative where the author’s research/story-boarding is more evident). I love to imagine a reader sinking deeply into narrative, into the characters’ minds, into the action and texture and layers of the story.
If you are interested in experimenting with locating ‘a feeling for the organism” in your own work, for disguising the seams, or just exploring the minute details in your fictional worlds, here are a few questions to get you started: What does sadness taste like? What does morning smell like? What temperature does anger carry? What light does your character prefer to read in—do they prefer a pink evening sunset, the glare of an LED clip light, the yellow of an incandescent lamp, the glare of a streetlamp streaming in through the living room window? What is the tiniest thing in the room that your character notices just before they fall asleep?
As an artist, and as a misfit, an introvert with depression and a serious case of social awkwardness, my journey into sharing my work with the world has been an uneven and complicated one. There is this simultaneous pull to feel seen, heard, to feel connected to community, to reshape my history into tolerable memories, to create something and imagine it in the hands of my readers, touching their lives. And then there’s the linked desire to flee the moment others begin to speak, when they start to share how my work impacted them. There is the knowledge of my privilege to have a platform, a collective and supportive and loving space to share and make art with my closest friends, colleagues and peers. And there is, what my wonderful editor once described as the double-edged sword for introverts when it comes to public attention; in particular, there is the complex world of social media and digital life that intersects with life as an introvert-and-artist—which has meant that I’ve forgotten how to nurture my internal sense of self-worth without the external markers defined by thumbs-ups/hashtags/hearts/tags.
My publishing life is paired with deep dives into self-doubt, self-loathing, depression, and imposter syndrome. And, in these sinking moments, there is also community, friendships, mentorship, family (chosen and blood) who visit me in the deep. They give me breath, they give me words to describe my pain, they help carry the burden so that I/we can rise back up, together.
The pain I feel right now in my publishing life is very raw, vivid. I feel embarrassed and selfish for even feeling this way, for allowing my sense of failure to swallow my air, sink me deeper, to keep me from appreciating all that I do have. I feel especially disappointed in myself for feeling so self-conscious, for not sharing in my peers’ celebration for their wonderful work, for allowing the deficit mentality to diminish the power of community, collaboration, friendship. And for forgetting what my greatest teachers taught me: that in Art, there is no scarcity.
I will keep this post short and end by thanking my closest and greatest friends, who right here I will call Ash Better and my love-bug Batt Clover, who teach me every single day through their lionheartedness and through their brilliant Art and writing and science, that Love and Learning and Laughter can coexist with moments and feelings of failure, disappointment, self-loathing, pain, and grief. I am not my failures. My failures are not defined by what others think of me or my art.
While I’m here in the deep, I will try to remember why I started writing: I wouldn’t have survived high school or the years following my parents’ deaths without Art. I would not be alive today if it weren’t for my love-bug Batt Clover, my teachers and friends, mentors and chosen family, opening their doors, sharing their breath, nurturing healing spaces for me to make art.
If you, too, have felt lost or weighted down by depression or self-loathing or disappointment, I hope that in reading this column, you’ll feel a little less alone. I hope that, in some small way, these words will find and lift you, and remind you that your pain is real, valid, necessary—just as you and your art and your dreams are.
I hope that you—new and old Friends, will take good, gentle care of yourselves, that you will reach out to friends and family if you don’t yet have the strength or breath to, and that you keep moving forward in your own unique, weird, misfit way. And I will try to do the same.