I live in Kansas City, and right now, if you watch the news, I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent tragedies that have happened here. I drive on the highways where the “Highway Shooter” is every day, and I live less than one mile away from the Jewish Community Center where three people died. In fact, I heard the sirens from my living room when it happened, and one of the victims went to Blue Valley High School, the same school I graduated from in 2009. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the effect it has on the Kansas City community.
I am reminded of how quickly a community can change, how the feeling of safety is a fleeting comfort, and how important it is to come together during this time. But I wanted to discuss an aspect of a writer’s life that these instances reminded me of that I’m sure many writers struggle with:
When we’re writing about sensitive issues, and they occur in real life – and occasionally, right down the street – we question ourselves.
I went through this when I wrote “Sean’s Bullet.” My military fiction story that was published in 2013: A Stellar Collection is fiction, but it deals with real-life issues, including friendly fire and PTSD. My recently published YA novel, Seconds Before Sunrise, deals with underage drinking and reckless driving. During this past week, I am going through some of the same thoughts I had when I was writing these stories.
Am I being true to the story? Am I not being sensitive to the victims? Am I portraying this respectfully and honestly? Am I over-thinking this?
These thoughts run rampant through an author’s mind when they are facing a story with controversial events, but the answers are harder to find when the events are right outside your window.
My current manuscript – which I have yet to reveal – has a few instances where guns are used. Being a Kansas City resident during a time where we’ve had recent shootings and murders, creates a sensitivity to these things. I am a fantasy writer, but things that happen in fantasy can still happen in reality, and when that happens, it causes this pause – this hesitation that seemingly stops everything. For me, this pause is caused by guilt.
I feel guilty for having scenes that have affected real people. I want to find another way to entertain people in my stories. I break away from my story and question whether it’s right or not. But, eventually, I have to accept the fact that my story is fiction, that my scenes with violence or pain are not creating what occasionally happens in reality – near or far – and that I am doing my best to be a respectable artist.
So what can writers do when they face this issue?
I can’t tell every writer how to approach this. There is actually a lot of debate as to how to handle many controversial subjects in fiction, but I am not going to talk about what I consider appropriate because that’s my opinion. Instead, I’m giving advice.
1. Step away from your manuscript – when there’s an event that shifts your emotions about a piece, take a day and forget it. Then, return and think about it carefully. Is this event directly related to your work or is it just similar?
2. Cope with your emotions – This can include many types of coping. For instance, you can cope with a real-life event and then cope with an event in your fiction. You might realize they aren’t similar at all, and your thoughts will help you realize if your opinions have changed (or even if your characters’ opinions have shifted.)
3. Consider the actual event carefully – what makes it controversial? Who is affected by it? Have you personally dealt with it? Have you researched those who are affected by it?
4. Be willing to change but also be willing to keep it the same – sometimes bad things happen. Just because it’s in fiction doesn’t mean that it is directly related to something real. But if your opinions change, you might have to find a new way to go about a scene, and both are perfectly okay.
These things are very difficult to discuss. Even writing this blog post was challenging because these moments are very emotional, and we all react in our own way, but – in the end – we want to be respectful while pursuing our art in a passionate way. Every experience in our lives results in a lesson, good or bad, and it creates who we are. Personally, I have used my mother’s death as inspiration. Does that make me a bad person? No. It allowed me to cope in a creative way. That is me. I shouldn’t feel ashamed of it. But – at the same time – I strive to use that experience in a respectful manner. That’s all I can do.
I can either hide behind my guilt or I can embrace my emotions and pursue my art.
There are limits, but they are self-imposed, and every artist must decide what is appropriate for them and their audience. It is a responsibility of an artist, and it is one to be considered carefully.
I discussed this today with a heavy heart, but I wanted to open a safe place to talk about this, because I know many artists who struggle with the same emotions. If you’ve had an instance where you have dealt with this, feel free to discuss below.