So I just finished Cure For Souls by Phil Rickman. When I was taking it out of the library (I actually buy all his books, but my favourite bookstore had to order it in and I couldn’t wait, I had to rent it first ), the librarian exclaimed. “Oh, I love him—I love all his Merrily books. He’s not afraid to go there—he’ll tackle anything.”
I agreed that his books about Merrily Watkins, a deliverance consultant (a.k.a. Diocesan Exorcist) in Hereford, a small community on the England/Wales border are amazing (Read them in order, starting with The Wine of Angels, Midwinter of the Spirit, and A Crown of Lights.), but the way the librarian worded her compliment made me think.
I have an aunt who frequently, with vehemence, exclaims, “Don’t even go there!” whenever family discussions get heated (which is often because we’re all fairly passionate folk).
Her command is a bit hilarious to me (and probably to others) because one of the wonderful things about her is how she trudges into tough places, tackles taboo subjects, battles things that needed to be confronted (and even some things that we wish she’d let lie.).
Her “Don’t go there” command and simultaneous fearless disregard for her own warning contrasts dramatically with people who will go on at length about how things should be discussed, made known, blah, blah, blah—but really their self-acclaimed interest in being “transparent” is just so much smoke and mirrors. They don’t really get to the guts of things. They don’t really throw open the closet and jangle the skeleton bones. They don’t rock the boat. And they don’t want you to do those things either.
At least a couple times a year, I’m laughingly warned to not write a column about such and such or informed that some specific deed or event better not make it into a novel one day. Or I’m given wide-eyed looks and told that I’m so brave, that they’d never put such personal details out there for the whole world to read—something’s that is (a) flattering (They really think I have a lot of readers?!) and (b) a bit crazy-making. I try not to behave badly, but usually fail and say something juvenile like, “Hey, I’m not writing about my sex life—yet.”
But seriously, my columns are not risque. At all. They’re for the community section of a small town newspaper and meant to be enjoyed (or at least not hated) by the general public. The only formal “rule” regarding content I received was the instruction that my column was/is “not to be a forum for hot political or religious debate,” which suits me fine because I’ve always thought the most important details of life, those most worthy of exploration, those most powerful to change us for better or for worse are the small, stuff of life moments. Hopefully a reader or two agrees. ☺
But G-rated or not, perhaps (or I flatter myself by hoping) what people who are occasionally uncomfortable with some of my words are responding to is that I try to be honest. Little things make me incredibly happy and grateful. A lot of things make me horribly confused/sad/angry. I have a tendency to be sentimental, melancholy and neurotic—and/or spinney and silly and ecstatic, often in strange swings. . . .
Interestingly the more I resist writing about a particular subject, the more I worry, This is it, this is the column everyone will hate, the more likely said essay is to get lots of feedback and/or the (highest) compliment, “I feel just like, but never have been able to put it into words.”
In my fiction though, perhaps ironically, I used to find it harder to write with abandon. When you’re writing non-fiction or memoir, you can always say, “You don’t like it? Well, sorry, but it’s my life. It’s true. What can you do?”
When you’re writing “make-believe,” you don’t have that duck and hide escape.
I worried (worry!) about what people might think of the things that come out of my imagination. I fretted (fret!) about what some might say about the subjects I choose to write about (though the whole idea of “choosing” your story and characters is sort of humorous and inaccurate as some of you who also write probably know).
I’m getting better, but my inner censor is still alive and brutal, especially if I don’t write regularly (I think a constant flow quashes her quite a bit). The librarian’s chance comment couldn’t have come at a better time or served as a better reminder.
Phil Rickman’s stories are not only enthralling for readers, they’re inspiring to writers (this one at least), because as that librarian so sagely observed: he goes there.
His characters feel as real as can be, exploring or being exposed to various types and expressions of sexuality (and deviance), romantic love in all its glory and confusion and angst, religious faith and doubt and contradictions, opposing philosophical and religious views, evil and goodness (and questions about the nature/existence of both), parenting (success and failures and everything in between), being a child (the brazen fun—and desperate stress—of growing up), being an artist and the neurosis so often attached to that identity . . .
And what may be my favourite thing about his writing: he shows how self-doubt seems to go hand in hand with being human. He makes me feel like it’s okay, that not being sure I’m always on the right track, in fact, being pretty sure that I’m completely off the rails is okay, is normal, is, well, at the very least, probably survivable.
I’m sure he’s sometimes taken aback by a plot turn or detail that suddenly emerges regarding one of his characters, but he doesn’t turn back—maybe simply because his fiction is so much like life. There are many things we wish we could avoid, but can’t . . .
I hope that people who read my fiction will relate to my stories—and I really believe that identifying with a story occurs when authors are brave. When they’re not afraid to go there. And I hope I’ll always remember that while fiction may be a cleverly woven tapestry of pretty, entertaining, intriguing lies—regardless of genre, my stories had better be emotionally true and I’d better not be afraid of going there, of delving into things I really care about, worry about, fear or love—or really, what’s the point?
p.s. This post was getting long, so I stopped myself from delving into another thought. There is a difference between what I mean by “going there” and being gratuitous in terms of sexuality, violence, etc. I will try to elaborate on that some time soon!