Know Me for a Little: The Heroic Protagonist

I’ve been trying to articulate, for a friend, the problem I’m finding in the depiction of a protagonist who does not appear, some sixty thousand words in, to be on the path of personal change.

This is a vague accusation to be levelling. I’d be heartbroken, though, if someone told me that, after sixty thousand words, my characters still read as the same people they were at the beginning of the story. (Heartbroken, and then looking at what I can do to fix that, but heartbroken nonetheless.) How can I not be, when I spent so much time with these fictional people, when they are different facets of me, when I breathed life into the words that comprise them?

I’ve heard, many times, that a good heroic protagonist doesn’t end the story the way they began it.

What does that even mean, though? Why is it important?

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A Dialogue in Good Faith

I haven’t said it here, yet – there are a great many things I’m yet to speak about here on the matter of finding my way back to myself – but I started freelance work this year designing event flyers and administrating the Twilight School website.

The Twilight School, run by Bruno Lettieri (of Rotunda fame, one of the most amazing and generous people that ever lived) is the community outreach project of the Salesian College Sunbury. The Salesian College sponsors something quite unique: an after-hours education service providing classes, guest speakers and other community events, at low-cost, for the Sunbury community. Most of these conversations involve literary personages and community health workers, and the classes run from cooking to writing and gardening to photography. The Twilight School also sponsors the Good Man Project, which is about fostering and developing healthy and open emotional dialogue with, between and among men. Barn Owl Journal is another of Bruno’s pet projects for getting creative writing out into the community, and you can read the current issue here.

(For an event example, you can go and see actor, comedian and writer John Clarke this month for $10 plus drinks, and all you need to do is bring a plate of food for the communal table. We’re talking an evening with a seriously famous, at least in Australia and New Zealand, seriously clever satirist for $10 and however much it costs you to bring a plate of sandwiches or cake. If you’re in Melbourne and this interests you, book now, because places are filling up. If I were living anywhere reasonably close to Sunbury at the moment, I’d go.)

I can’t overstate how important this sort of thing is. The Twilight School is offering and allowing real connection, expression and education in a world where the privileged have an infinite number of avenues in which to communicate yet we are still discouraged from being honest and vulnerable in the company of others.

(When your feminist goddess of a friend is telling you that she’s not sure she should have written about her experiences with depression and anorexia because it’s not appropriate to tell that kind of intimate story, on her own damn website no less, we have a problem with communication.)

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The many skins of writing escapism

I’m writing another post about depression, self-hate and the expression of self-hate via the tyranny of list-making. It’s a post that is just about killing me to write; yesterday it took me until 2 AM (so, technically, today) to wind down from the crying jags provoked by a mere nine hundred words. I will finish it. I have to finish it, because there needs must be a dialogue about the lack of love inherent in the concept of the list of things left undone, especially if our (my) nature is such to tick off the last item accomplished without so much as a breath of celebration, but writing this has much the same effect of an emotional backhand to the face. I don’t want to touch it. I’m cringing and tearing up just thinking about adding another sentence or paragraph. My stomach knots, my feet cramp, my head spins. No, my body tells me. No. Not yet. I’ve been doing therapy for too long to miss the significance of this pain or the way it touches me with such physicality, but I think this post will be written in short doses interspersed with words that don’t hurt: I need those spaces to survive a pain for which any possible anesthesia is worse than the agony itself.

There’s a reason therapy is a process that happens over a period of time as opposed to ten sessions in a fortnight. I can’t survive all that pain all at once. Nobody can survive all that pain all at once. No living being is hero enough for that, no matter the lies books and films and video games tell us about heroes. I will survive this hurt, because I am a hero, but with time, patience and time, and I’m allowed to listen when my body and heart tell me that, today, that pain just might break me.

Tomorrow, though? I can’t speak for tomorrow, but a tomorrow will come when I can pick up those words and survive them.

(Warning: long post ahead!)

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The ghost of a girl

I say it a lot, I think, but I am not the person I used to be.

I live in fear, in fact, of becoming the person I was: that I am still not enough different, that the miserable person I was is still who I am despite my efforts otherwise, that this newness is a fragile shell, thin candy coating over weaker chocolate that melts in the sun. My thoughts and feelings are a trifle suspect at the moment – I am in fact writing this because my new med dose has made me so groggy I can’t think my way to anything else – but this might be a fear I have to learn to live with. I am so much less anxious about many things of late – travelling after dark, meeting strangers, trying new things – which is amazing and something I don’t take for granted, but this anxiety might be forever with me. It’s scar-tissue, a burn healed: the skin is never quite the same as the unburnt skin that surrounds it and never will be. The scar will always be white and hairless, and I will always live with the ghost of who I was. I will always, I think, be a little afraid of that girl. That’s a sad and horrible thing to articulate in words, but it feels like my truth.

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Walk the talk: you’re not alone

I had a conversation with someone about the contents of my last post – in general about the reality of the creative life but more specifically about the anxiety inherent in not only being creative but promoting that creativity. It wasn’t the conversation I was being paid to have – I guess teaching is like that, sometimes – but it was the kind of conversation that makes one sit up and take notice because of the words she told me: I thought I was the only one who felt like that.

I talk a lot about anxiety, here. I truly hope I’m not presenting an image of being anything other than a person who is utterly terrified of every word I write. I do it anyway, because otherwise I’m back to being that person who wrote millions of words as desperate escapism, but I am not a fearless hero. In fact, I despise fearless heroes, for they are not human. (Steve Nakamura is the closest I’ll ever get to writing one, and he isn’t as much fearless as he is well-grounded and a tad reckless. He’s also a foil for the true fearful hero in the piece, Abe.) I wrote 140 000 words about a fearful not-hero who becomes a fearful hero, because the world needs more stories about heroes who break into a nervous sweat at the thought of doing anything remotely heroic and yet have people with faith in their heroism. There are, in fact, not enough words in the world about these sorts of heroes if anyone can ever look at me and tell me in all seriousness that they thought they were alone in being utterly terrified at the thought of blogging or social media or putting their words out for public consumption. Those words spoken by one person are a tragic failure of society. Those words, when they go unspoken by someone who needs to know they are not alone, lead to mental illness and suicide.

We create a world that has a direct hand in the deaths of our siblings in spirit because people can, in all honesty, say those terrible, awful words, and that’s still better, by far, than the alternative: people dying because they don’t know that they’re not alone.

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The demon at the crossroads

(Note: I don’t usually content-warn for specific blog posts, but this one contains a lot of reflections on suicide – not as something I want to do, but what it means to me, as a person who has been suicidal and still has suicidal thoughts, so it rather merits a heads up.)

I’ve been experimenting with how much design I can do without actually paying money for upgrades. As it turns out, a fair bit. Not as much as I want, but more than I thought, as long as I’m armed with Photoshop and Font Squirrel. I didn’t quite realise I could carry over so much of my developing design skills to the web; I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that I could make my own header. So expect more changes and tweaks, because it’s really quite addicting. One day I’ll have the money to either learn how to make a website from scratch or pay for the upgrades, and then I’ll really have fun.

And since I’ve been updating my resume and designing business cards (I’m starting to find myself in positions where I need them) well, new domain. I dare say it’s a better investment than an Ever After High Maddie doll (and cheaper, at least here in Australia). The thing that really makes me smile is the new email address I created through having said domain – finally, I have a gender-neutral professional-resembling email!

(There’s not much to see on my Port Carmila site, if anyone noticed it … yet. Why, yes, I may be editing a bunch of older short stories and turning them into ebooks. I may be writing this so I therefore have to go and do it. Accountability is awesome.)

Where have I been?

I have done something this year I said I was going to do – not many of the things I have to do, mind, but something I wanted.

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Platform 16 launch / Silence, please!

Hi, blog. Long time, no see. Yes, I’ve been busy and crazy. That’s pretty much status normal.

For anyone who is local (Melbourne, Australia): on Thursday night at the Helen Garner Rotunda we will be launching Platform 16, our education-themed bumper edition of local Australian writing featuring community, emerging and established writers. (What’s Platform? Check out issue 15 here!) For no more than the cost of entry, you get to enjoy Helen Garner in conversation with the fabulous Bruno Lettieri, the best literary crowd in Melbourne and pick up a free copy of a magazine that features (in no particular order) the works of Sherryl Clark, Myron Lysenko, Raimond Gaita, John Marsden and Kristin Henry among many talented community, academic, established and emerging writers the world should know. (And a piece or two by yours truly.) The editorial team have worked long and hard on this project, and we’re very excited to celebrate its emergence into the world.

Interested? Download the flyer and drop Bruno Lettieri an email. I assure you, a great night will be had – it’s Rotunda’s big 60 and we mean to party!

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Life in the world of monsters

Hey, all. My life has gone to hell the past few weeks. I want to put the sword down and take a nap for a while … said every hero ever.

So, here. Have a post on why singular they is grammatically correct, thank you very much, before I get started on the monsters.

Yes, I’m still riffing on the hero themes. What can I say? If the universe gives me lemons, do I decide to not make lemonade, lemon crepes and lemon tarts? Fuck no, I’m making baked lemony goodness.

I submitted a piece to the upcoming issue of Platform that is a snapshot through quotations (the things people have said to me) of my childhood/teenagerhood. It’s essentially an exploration of why the bullying I endured (and how it was handled) was so psychologically damaging. The editorial team read it, of course, and one of the team members made a very nice comment that he was sorry I had to endure a shit childhood, but I’m (quote because topical relevancy) ‘slaying’ now.

My issue isn’t with the comment but with my reaction to it. Not what I said – I said thank you and that I really appreciate it when people take the time to acknowledge my strengths, because the one thing I’ve learned in therapy is that the only appropriate, non-rude response to a compliment is to say thank you – but how I felt. What I would have said if I hadn’t been in therapy long enough to know to keep my mouth shut/fingers still when the Brain Demons of Low Self-Esteem start to gnaw on my thoughts.

See, I felt like a fraud.

I still do.

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Humanity: a tale of hats beyond counting

Guess what? I’m going to write some more about hero narratives, representation and the intersectionality I wish to see in narrative! Strap in: this one also involves many words.

Because I am evil, I’m going to link you to TV Tropes: Planet of Hats. (Please note that this is not necessarily a recommendation of TV Tropes, as I have major issues with many things on that site, but this is a good starting point for the concept.) In this post, I’m generally using ‘hat’ to mean ‘queer’ or ‘disability’ or ‘race’ or ‘mental illness’ or ‘trans’ or … anything a person can be on an axis of oppression, as opposed to traits or objects.

Now that I’ve introduced that, I’m going somewhere else entirely.

My novella, as mentioned last time, has become a novel. New characters came alive in my head, I had an idea, I added new chapters, and ended up with a complete novel-length first draft. It’s a hot mess right now – with my writing style, that’s what a first draft should be – but I’ve got pages of notes for redrafting, the ideas are still bubbling away, and it feels like a novel that has the potential to be solid. I can see, in my head, what this messy draft can be, and while there’s a need for so much adding of detail and description, so much cutting of dialogue, so much fine-tuning, the plot and character arc – the structure – are stable enough to support the rest of the novel. The characters end up nowhere close to where they were at the beginning, the motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike are clear and vivid, the conclusion is firm for a first book, I know what I want to say with the story, and I adore the cast. It is really fucking exciting to be working on a character-driven novel that’s got enough plot to hold it up as a narrative and involves two active, decisive characters who keep it ticking along. It’s just as exciting to see how I’ve grown as a writer between this and Asylum.

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Not Vogler: the nature of a hero

(And other assorted ramblings on narrative, storytelling, and representation!)

Note: Assume that ‘hero’ is a gender-neutral/non-specific word: I use it throughout in this sense. Unfortunately, it still carries the connotation of masculinity, but I don’t have another word for non-binary heroes (who are heroes, not protagonists). Also, this is long even by my standards.

So…

In the last ten days I’ve written 48 000 words, almost a complete novella first draft (one chapter to go). It’s really a story about two characters, one who is a bitter, fragile trans man with the gift of snark and a willingness to stab first and ask questions later; and one who is an anxious non-binary person with sensory processing difficulties and a desperate yearning to believe that hir culture’s treatment of hir doesn’t constitute abuse (in the form of ableism). They team up and kick off a series that’s about the beautiful friendship of two people who’ll save each other time and time again on a quest to save the world.

(I am fascinated by the desperate lengths to which abused people will go to deny abuse is abuse – to protect and validate the attitudes and behaviours of the abuser, especially a parental-type abuser, out of love and the need to belong. Looking back, the thought of how long I spent doing this, how much I still do it, kills me. I love writing about characters who cannot simply walk away from abuse, where the walking away is complicated and tangled and messy, where it is impossible to hate a parental-abuser even though rationality says you should, because we are all children at heart who want to measure up. I endured too much because I wanted my parents to love me. I still endure too much because I want my parents to love me. It’s pathetic, it’s heartbreaking and it makes no fucking sense from the outside. It’s also real and human. It is, in fact, a sacrifice of heroic proportions – the surrender of safety, happiness and sanity in order to enable someone else’s (distorted view of) happiness. This sacrifice is all the more heroic when we consider that it is made by a child or child-figure.)

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