The personal and the sensitive

This week I taught people how to sew handmade books, someone else a little on how to make ebooks, edited a ten-thousand-word transcript of a panel-type presentation, realised that I totally know how to style a Word doc for html, and had a friend offer me a job that sounds like fun and money. My harddrive is also dying, so I’m now working off a shitty Windows 8 netbook, and my floral-patterned trolley (it’s so awesome people stop me in the street to tell me how awesome it is) cracked a wheel. But it’s mostly good. It’s actually pretty damn nice to be in a position where people are starting to throw things in my direction so I can use my collection of professional skills to (nearly) pay the rent.

When I finished my BA with an anthropology major and an Honours thesis on genocide as a form of sacrifice, I had no community, no sense of connectedness to academia or the industry. It’s a strange and wondrous thing, this time around, to have friends and connections to the community and PWE staff, to have a tangible skillset that isn’t ‘writing essays’ or ‘able to tell you just why the UN failed in Rwanda’, to have people in my life who know I’m the resident ebook expert. I don’t regret my BA. I loved my sojourn into Shakespeare; I loved everything I learnt in anthropology. My novel is essentially a fantastic form of the themes in my thesis. It did not give me, though, what a less-prestigious TAFE course gave me; I am not the person that began the course two and half years ago in terms of the array of skills I now have, and I am so damn glad of that.

If you are in Australia and you are a literary creative, if you have even the slightest pretensions to a industry career that goes a little beyond just crafting words – Professional Writing and Editing TAFE is the best investment of your time and money, and the Victoria University staff and community are the most amazing people. I know I say it again and again, but I owe so much to this course. They have allowed me to transform myself from K. A. the warehouse flunkie to K. A. the emerging writing and publishing professional.*

(* This phrasing, which is something I wrote without thinking about it, is quite interesting in the sense that it squarely places the agency in my hands. I could have said that they transformed me, and not so long ago I would have. That’s not true, however, and that must be a truth I’m starting to grasp enough that I can phrase it in just that way – that I’m the agent of change in my own life. My teachers and psychologists and friends can support me, encourage me and teach me, but they can’t change me. I can.)

It’s also nice to realise that, well, I actually have a good range of skills. I can design book layouts for print and digital editions. I know how to create an epubcheck-compliant file. I can edit other people’s words. I can write. I know I’m not a journalist or a poet, but everything else is fair game. I can even talk to other people about my skills and educate them, a little. I have answers when people ask me questions, or I know how to look the answers up. (I was that annoying student in Desktop Publishing who’d ask all manner of questions about ebooks the teachers couldn’t answer, so a teacher doesn’t have to know everything.) I can be a novelist/essayist/editor/designer/teacher/self-publisher, I think, who makes hand-made books just for fun. That kind of cross-skilling is required – I’d love to add web design and CSS, as my ambition is to one day code my files from scratch – to be a professional these days, but it means I don’t have to work a nine to six office job. I can write novels and edit and teach ebook creation, and that tangle of things is what will keep me alive. I’ve done the dull job. I can’t go back there.

The truly liberating realisation: I don’t have to.

This is all a prologue, really, but it is an example of my being personal.

This rest of this post comes courtesy one of last week’s Daily Posts about writing sensitive topics (as in, this was something about which people need advice). I also found myself reading another hobby blog where the author commented that she started her blogging journey with the notion of keeping her personal life out of her blog, but found herself envying those authors who had a topical/personal balance. Both of those approaches baffle me somewhat, because, of course, so-called sensitive topics are my bread and butter, and, of course, this blog is all about my personal life. Although this blog is by no means a topical blog (in the sense that it’s about cooking or doll collecting or the wonderful world of crochet) unless ‘personal essays about me, my approach to being human and my psychological journey through life as a queer, non-binary creative’ and ‘promotion of my creative works’ count as a topic, so I dare say that I’ve got more room to be indulgent: how does one write personal essays without getting personal? I certainly thought, when I started this blog, that more of my posts would be more specifically queer – then again, I also thought there’d be more ranting about cishets. As it turns out, though, there’s plenty of people online to to rant about cishets for me, just as there’s plenty of people to write about the nuts and bolts of queerness and creativity, and I’m far more interested in the quasi-philosophical rambling. While I have readers, I’ll assume it’s working for someone (it’s working for me) and continue on my pondering.

I can’t help but think, though, that there’s a certain amount of privilege inherent in the notion of deeming a topic ‘sensitive’. For example, my declaration that every person – and please note the lack of gendering, thank you – capable of bearing a child has a basic human right to choose abortion isn’t for me a sensitive topic as much as it is an evident truth, and I’m thoroughly uninterested in any dialogue to the contrary. (I’m fairly sure my domain name scares off those suffering from a chronic lack of so-called open-mindedness when it comes to defending basic human rights.) Perhaps it’s because my life is a bundle of sensitive topics – and, unfortunately, I have seen discussions about queer, gender-non-conforming and trans identities brushed off in certain online communities as too ‘political’ or ‘sensitive’ to risk mentioning for fear of sparking a lengthy internet debate, to the extent where it is not even safe to correct misused terms like ‘transgendered’ – but I’m so used to being unsafe, and receiving less-than-supportive responses to my pronouns, that the idea of worrying about what readers think because I refuse to engage ‘pro-life’ talk seems … well, absurd. This is me speaking as someone diagnosed with GAD, for whom ‘worry’ is a pathological 24/7 occupation!

(‘Transgender’ is an adjective. It modifies words like ‘person’. One cannot be ‘transgendered’ but one can be ‘transgender’ because it functions in the same way as any adjective that describes a person: happy, black, queer, non-binary, white, sad. It’s as absurd a construction as describing someone as ‘whited’ or a ‘queered’, and the world needs to stop doing it.)

I truly can’t think of too many subjects so sensitive I can’t weigh in on them: either they’re things on which I have no right to speak (for example, the lived experiences of people of colour) and therefore don’t; or they impact me in some way and therefore I can’t not speak on them at some point (if I haven’t, yet, I will). There’s not much space for worrying about wading into sensitive subjects with that kind of dichotomy. Now, I assure you, that I will be plenty anxious over everything I write – the depth of anxiety I ascribe to new comments that turn out to be missed spam is beyond ridiculous – but that’s not because I fear to say what I feel. That’s just my crazy.

(I told my psychologist once that I spent six years horse riding despite the fact that I’d been anxious over riding ever since my first fall – which was a blacking-out concussed experience of a horse trying to get me out of the saddle that I never care to repeat – and doubtlessly driving the ponies I rode to new levels of rein-gripping frustration. I’m well accustomed to doing things that scare me just because I enjoy it as much as I am terrified by it.)

That feeling, though, is a sideline to a startling revelation.

I have anxiety and depression. Yet for all that I spoke about how terrified I was at putting myself out there, I have over the past year or so managed to put myself out there in my writing. I’ve managed to create a blog under my own name (with a photo no less) and write about myself in a real, personal way. I have decided not to write under pseudonyms; I have decided to enter the working world as the person I am and the writer I am – mostly because I am only half a person if I separate the two, and because while I once lived like that, it left me unable to have meaningful conversations with anyone about what it is I did and felt. (What do I talk about at my old job if I don’t tell anyone I’m a queer speculative fiction writer? Not that much, it turns out.) I was a ghost, and I’m bound and determined to not be that ghost again.

People in real life – friends, fellow students, teachers – have this blog URL. They can, if they wish, find out all sorts of awkward and not-so-pleasant things about me, as can future employers. They’ll know they’re hiring a crazy genderless queer who suffers chronic pain. Possibly not the best career move! (Except that all of my current jobs involved people ringing or emailing me to ask if I want to work for them, so it seems that sufficient skills, networking and awesomeness, in the right industry, can overcome a great deal.) It’s certainly a strange thing to be doing when most of my old writer friends operate under pseudonyms and internet handles, where their writing is kept separate from their working lives, where they’re careful about the things they reveal online – and people are, more often than not, like this. As a case in point – and one that smacks of appropriation – I have read too many author bios from straight female writers where they mention that of course their employer/parents/grandparents don’t know about their passion for writing about gay cis man romances.* Now, I can get not wanting the world to know that you’re writing explicit erotica if your writing is that, but that’s an entirely different thing (given that we live in a general society of sexual repression, something made abundantly clear by the success of Fifty Shades when erotica has been available to the world long before the internet) to avoiding acknowledgement of works that are either ‘romances’ or ‘cis gay man romances’, and yet the frequency of this inclusion tells me that this is entirely normal. Sectioning off our writing life from our lived lives, for a variety of reasons that are justifiable (it is dangerous to be different, after all, and this world is both homophobic and disdainful for anything ‘feminine’ like the romance genre), is the norm.

(* I read one such bio recently where the author waxed lyrical on her passion for writing ‘manlove’, and that’s hardly the first such bio I’ve seen. I do know that MLR Press exists. I still suffer acute second-hand embarrassment for any author that refers to the M/M – cis gay male romance – genre in such a fashion, and I do take it as a warning sign that there’s not even a chance of decent representation to be found within – although, thankfully, it is a form of ethical creativity in the sense that I know exactly where the author stands! I’m not going to talk about my complicated feelings on the preponderance of straight folk writing queer stories, but if queer folk are actively laughing and cringing at you, you’re doing something wrong. ‘F/F/F Gangbang Romance’ on a cover might be kind of absurd and carry unfortunate implications about consent, but at least it doesn’t feel the need to invent cutesy words to describe the genre – especially not a term that smacks of ‘manwhore’ and ‘manbag’ and everything else that needs ‘man’ prefixed so that the world knows that those things are totally masculine, damn it.)

I’ve written about how I have to be out of the closet to do what I do. That’s still true. I’ve lost the way back to Narnia at this point, and that’s rather a good thing. The steps on the road away from the closet don’t actually get easier – every queer knows we come out a hundred thousand times – but at some point there’s no chance of turning around and bolting for the safety of the snowed-in Lantern Waste (this is an apt metaphor, because there’s struggle and terror in being closeted; it is a difficult thing to be that’s only made easier by comparison to the heroic road through the transphobic hell asked of us) and I think I’ve hit that point. I’m queer and crazy and geeky and weird. I’m just going to have to find an employer who revels in my creative genius because of those things, and I think there’s a little more room in the creative life to be all of those things. Believe it or not, plenty of people in real life do think I’m awesome. Some think I’m weird in ways that aren’t flattering, many are utterly indifferent to me, and some just wish I’d shut the fuck up. That makes me pretty damn normal.

The only difference between me and some others is that I’m trying to wear my heart on my sleeve.

The interesting thing, I think, is the lengths to which people go to allow themselves to be creative – which means, as I said, revealing one’s self in the words to a shockingly intimate degree – and still live in the closet, which is the safety blanket of similarity. It is normal to have a sharp division between one’s real life and one’s creative life. A pseudonym and an internet handle on the one side, where one can write the works that excite and move one as a creative; a real name and a working job, where those creative impulses are never mentioned on the other*. I’m not belittling or mocking the people who do this: it is not a bad thing to choose to be safe. The world is a scary place. I know I spent the best part of ten years living this way because of my fears and anxieties and misgivings about the world and the people in it, and I was not wrong. Western society is not a welcoming place for those who are vulnerable, authentic, different, exceptional. I don’t want people to read this post and feel bad about their own lives: we are encouraged to live in this split fashion. We are encouraged to live without full communion between the pieces of who we are, and that’s a sad and terrible thing, but it is not our fault if we don’t see this sadness for what it is: we are trained to see this sadness as right.

(* Now, I’m deeply uncomfortable with erotica and romance as the dominant mode of expression for queer genre fiction. So uncomfortable. I’m just as uncomfortable with the idea that erotica and romance aren’t legitimate modes of expression such that they need to be kept secret. The fact that they are the dominant modes of expression for queer genre fiction says an awful lot about society’s attitudes to queerness, something in desperate want of literary and sociological analysis if it hasn’t been done already! Western society’s sexual repression is at play here, but so is misogyny – the female-creator-and-reader-centric genres of romance and erotica – and it has created a school of thought where certain kinds of creative expression on the part of the creative and the client are fine as long as we don’t admit them. Female – or non-cishet-masculine – sexuality needs must be paired with a false name – divorced from real life authorial presence – to be in any way acceptable. That’s horrific.)

I don’t have an easy answer for this quandary. I think living in an authentic fashion is something we are either pushed to or not, and if we find it we find it in our own time, on our own road, in our own way. I do think there are things we can do, as ethical creatives, if we can with a reasonable amount of safety, to try and create a world where it is easier to own our creative identities and impulses (to come out), but this is difficult, unsafe and (deservedly) terrifying. You all know I’m pretty damn scared of the creative life, in no small part because the universe blessed or cursed me with the inability to create ‘safe’ works or be content with the division between the safe ‘real life’ me and the honest ‘creative’ me – and I am in a position where I’m as safe as I’ve ever been to be me!

I’m pretty damn lucky, in fact. It’s not easy to be me. It’s not safe to be me. But it’s safe enough that sometimes my anxiety is more monstrous than the society I now occupy, and while that anxiety was in no small part created by society, that’s still a privileged position to hold. That’s safety enough that I think living the change I want to see in the world – which for me is the core of what I think about as ethical creativity – is something I need to work on accomplishing.

I suppose ‘ethical creativity’ is something that more properly defines the content of what we create, but living the creative life as an honest and authentic creator goes further than just creating content that is socially responsible. Due to the nature of socialisation and consequent internalised ‘isms’ it’s pretty damn difficult for all of us, minorities included, to create works that are wholly socially responsible – not that we shouldn’t try, but the likelihood of getting there isn’t realistic. We’ll fuck up because we’re growing and learning human beings who haven’t yet questioned everything in the world, myself included; we’ll fuck up because we’re working with other people in different stages of that questioning. Something we do have control over, though, is our own honesty and authenticity: ethical creativity, I think, frames how we go about creating and acknowledging the kind of person that is involved in the creating. A cis female M/M author who uses a gender-neutral name and avoids gendered pronouns while not claiming a trans or non-binary identity isn’t honest or ethical. I say that most of the characters in my book are people of colour, which is true, but that means nothing unless I say that I’m white Australian of recent Dutch heritage. I’m writing those characters because I live in a suburb where most people aren’t white and the whole idea of having a white cast is absurd, but I am so fucking white I glow in the fucking dark. My readers deserve to know that. This, I think, is the other side of being an integrated creative: those who engage with our creative selves deserve to know what kind of authority we bring to what we create. In my book I have some authority about depression and suicide, DFAB trans and non-binary identities, all things related to horses, sensory processing issues, chronic pain and queerness; I write about things, like every other author, I don’t have authority over. If I am open and honest about all the things I live and am, if I am a person to my fullest extent in all my pursuits, I’m not painting myself as an authority over things to which I claim no right.

It’s not just that this is a liberating process for the author, to be freely one’s self in all the worlds we inhabit and to work to create a world that is safe for those who come after us to be so free. It’s a vital part of creating the kinds of works and pieces that have true social currency, and that currency has far more meaning if our words go beyond something we say and become part of something we live.

As a personal decision, if I write books about characters who are defined in most part by their mental illness status, I need to be open about mine – and as I am a fellow crazy opining in my writing that being open about my crazy is a change we need in society, I need to be open about my crazy.

I don’t know why we need to worry so much about writing sensitive subjects. I do think that we need to be worried about our own honesty – what we know, what we don’t know, how our experience led up to our opinion, who we are to say such things. This won’t make us correct, necessarily, but it will, I think, make us ethical – and to tie the two together, to write about sensitive subjects in a way that has meaning, we need to get personal. We need to be honest, authentic and real, and we need to show that we live what we say, and we are not that if we are not personal. I’m not saying that everyone is safe to do this; an awful lot of people are not safe. This said, not being open and personal impacts on our ability to get our message out into the world. Chances are, if a gender-neutral-named author of queer fiction who avoids pronouns doesn’t specify their trans or non-binary gender identity, I will assume they’re a cis person trying to appear of the appropriate gender in a bid to avoid looking like one of the many bloody straights who write in that genre … and then, likely, buy someone else’s book. That’s the sad consequence of the separation of the creative and real-life selves, especially in genres and art forms where meaning and message is given less weight by said separation. (A doll blog, on the other hand, might not need to mention much about the author at all … but it might look like the many doll blogs that already exist, so I dare say there is always a loss that comes with that separation.) Is the danger of honesty worth the benefits of authenticity?

Creativity, the kind of creativity with weight and meaning, isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

The interesting thing about all this, if you’ll allow me to be rather egocentric, is that while I’m utterly terrified of my own creativity (can I emphasise how awful that is to write?), I have nevertheless, in the space of only three years, transformed from someone whose writing belonged to the digital world and a handle that in no way resembled my real life to someone with very little separation between those lives. In a society that actively suggests we don’t do this, this is an accomplishment – why else do writers and psychologists spend so much time telling other writers and clients to write as though our parents are dead? Why is this separation something we have to overcome to be successful, out-of-the-closet creatives? I am, however, managing to write blog posts and attach my name to things, however not easy that is, until I am here, doing it easily enough that I’m scratching my head over the notion of revealing my personal life or writing about ‘sensitive’ subjects. I’m not comfortable with it yet, but I’m doing it, and that’s an achievement.

One day I might be better at living this authentic life, but I do know, right now, the kind of creative I mean to be.