This has been a difficult post to write, and I don’t usually struggle with words – at least not the written ones.
I’m a writer, for all it’s a statement of the obvious. I’ve been writing for twelve years in one form or another. It’s not an optional extra, an enjoyable past-time; it’s something a whole lot closer to a compulsion, driven and obsessive. If I’m not writing, I’m doing something related to the act of making someone’s words accessible to others, but it’s not even a mere career. It is, in all truth, the mechanism through which I can take the damaged parts of my brain and soul and use them to my advantage – it’s not that through writing I become whole and functional, but rather that my damage is as much a strength for a writer as it is a limitation. Writing is the thing that allows me to become myself, find purpose, feel comfort in the knowledge that this is my stage and there is something I and only I can bring to it.
I’m not special in this; I’m just like everybody else. We’re all damaged. We’re all in search of the one thing that allows us to take that damage and make it transcendent.
People who are not me call my writing ‘dark’ or ‘edgy’. They talk around it, in workshops, saying that I write unusual things, different, strange, shocking. Confronting.
I write stories about pain, self-harm, abuse, misogyny, rape culture, homophobia, gender essentialism, binary-centrism, depression, dysfunctional families, trauma, survival, life. I write stories about what it is to be queer, to have mental illness, to suffer chronic pain, to be non-binary, to have survived abusive situations – the light and the dark sides of each, the Self and the Shadow, the interplay of hues between the two. I’ve been writing about these themes before I knew those words could apply to me, and, now that I know, I do so less to explore my own pain and more to write about the kinds of human experiences that I know so well, yet never make it into the books I read. The thing about being a minority (in a non-specific, generalised way) is that the experiences that shape and influence who we become are the kinds that leave scars on the soul, and while I also believe that each and every scar has been the making of me and my art, it means that we get to walk, hand-in-hand, with society’s projection of the Shadow. We know what the Shadow looks like from the other side. How can that knowledge not influence and shade our creativity?
A minority writer – creative – who takes that paintbox of emotion and splashes it across the page is stripping away the clothes, the skin, the muscle, all the things that make us look like other people, and showing the broken, cracked and healing bones beneath. We are allowing eyes to see us beneath the skin. Showing the bones.
Actually, I lie. The lie is the problem.
I do call my work ‘edgy’, sometimes – when I’m trying to talk about it to others, when I’m feeling the anxious roiling in my stomach, when I’m sitting in the classroom acutely aware that I’m the only out queer (or whichever word is applicable at the time) in the room and I have outed myself with every word I write, when I’m trying to find someone to edit my work, when I feel different and the weight of that difference is terrifying.
It’d be easy to dismiss it as just anxiety – a disorder. But as every minority knows, our anxieties come from every slur, every awkward conversation and explanation, every misunderstanding, every reminder that we are not normal and our dreams shouldn’t be, every suggestion that we are too demanding, every declaration that we are wrong. Does the mind become suspicious and wary so that we struggle to trust even the kind and loving among broader society? Yes, it does. It does because our anxieties are the natural consequence of all the times majority society projected the Shadow onto us. We are anxious because we have been hurt for no reason other than that we are who we are and, for a reason that is irrelevant, our identities were chosen as the ones to victimise. The anxiety is deserved and reasonable. It is not irrational to be terrified of the isolation that comes from difference. To be different is to court danger. What does school teach our children if not this?
We live in a world where it is still shocking to show the bones. It’s not that we don’t want to see them; it’s that we don’t expect to see them, which is far more dangerous. We expect to see the clothes and the skin, the masquerade. We expect everyone to look the same.
Every time I write, every time I read my work out in class, every time I workshop, every time I am part of a group of writers who are not like me, I feel as if I am writing about something unusual and abnormal, the corollary being that I am unusual and abnormal.
Those things that are ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘unusual’ and ‘strange’ are the every-day fragments of my life. They are my normal. They are my bones.
I have to come to terms with showing the bones. (Brene Brown calls it ‘vulnerability’.) I could, theoretically, write words that have the skin left on. They’d be soulless, lifeless, pathetic imitations lacking the strength and passion that comes from drawing on the experiences available to me. They wouldn’t be real in any emotional or spiritual sense of the word. My writing is at its best when I have the courage to peel back the skin and show the world the scars on my bones – when I take my mental illness and my pain, my queerness and my suffering, and use those experiences, those gifts, those strengths, those inspirations, those emotions, to create something rooted in reality the way I (and only I) have come to know it. If I want to create art, if I want to be transcendent, if I want to prove that ‘normality’ encompasses such a vastness of human experience and all of it is suitable for general-audience story, I have to roll up my skin and show those damn bones. The words have to be real.
Art, real art, the kinds of movements and artists that stand the test of time and are taught to students when teachers seek to explain the progression of creativity, is not safe. We don’t remember Radclyffe Hall and Gertrude Stein for their safety. We remember them because they were revolutionary … in a large sea of many people, many writers, many creatives, gone and forgotten.
The trick is that I have to find it in myself to behave as though it is nothing to show the bones in such a way – that it is already the kind of ordinary I seek to make. It’s something rather close to the classic line about treating a man as he should be. If I want to prove that this is normal, I need to treat it as such.
It’s never nothing, though.
Which brings me back to being transcendent. In fact, to be transcendent is simply to be a plainer word – ‘different’. To transcend, one must be different; it is not possible without it. One must change, develop, grow, risk. One must be unique, have a vision, yearn for change, act, stand up and reject the assumptions about what is and isn’t normal. We must be different. We don’t have to be fearless – bravery is not the absence of fear, for all that we have far too much literature and media telling us just that – but we do have to look it in the eyes and decide that we are going to be our true selves – we are going to be different. We are going to transcend, whatever the cost, and there will be a cost, even if it’s just the continuing fight against myself not to diminish my own art by justifying a different normal as ‘edgy’.
Those of us, the minorities, with our damage and our anxieties and our fears and our perceptions, with the hard-earned wisdom that comes from surviving hell and finding someway to keep on breathing in a world that tries so very hard to force us into a mould we refuse to accept as right, relevant and justifiable – we are so close to that transcendence just by virtue of being who we are. It is our gift, our advantage, our strength. We, if we choose, can show the bones – we know we have the bones to show.
That’s what makes us different, at the end of the day. We know our skin isn’t real, and we don’t have to pretend the skin is all there is.
It’ll never be not terrifying to show the bones. Never. Safety is an illusion, not the truth.
If we could stand for sameness, for the comforting illusion of safety, we’d never have taken that first step of acknowledging that how we fit into the world as it is does us a grave misjustice.
Of course, I’ll have to remind myself of this time and time again. I’ll fail. I’ll seek to justify my bones by explaining that they’re edgy or weird or odd because I am all those things, and sometimes the only way I know how to cope with being different is to belittle who I am. I’ll be scared and anxious – signing up for a lifetime of anxiety – and sometimes I’ll just shake my head and say I’d really rather not read aloud my piece about misogyny, penis metaphors, Freud and burning cigars, thanks. That’s okay. Those anxieties are real and rational, and I’ve got a lifetime of conditioning to unravel – I’ve got to let go of the expectation that I should, somehow, be safe. If too many people, all the forgotten names, haven’t managed to achieve it, how hard a task have I set myself?
I know that it is a difficult, frightening thing to speak in a world designed to silence my every word. I know that many brilliant words went unheard not because they lacked transcendence, but because society turned its collective ear.
I will speak, however. I will take my bones and use them to colour my words. I will find some sort of equilibrium with my dreams, my normality, my anxieties.
Anxiety, after all, is our kind of normal.