The class I'm taking is technically called "Creative Process and Imaginative Writing," but sometimes I think it's real name is "Figuring Out Stuff About Yourself While You Pretend To Write About Other People." I can't believe how much of myself is brought into these fictional situations, and sometimes the result ain't pretty.
I'll give you an example that's been churning in my head for weeks now. We start each class with a timed writing exercise - 10 minutes of writing from a prompt and the only rule is that you write continuously for those ten minutes, no stopping to think or cross out, just keep your pen moving. The idea is that when your pen has to keep moving, you don't have time to self-censor or edit or say "that's dumb" to every idea that pops into your head. I love this concept. As a person who tends toward perfectionism (or at least, towards being embarrassed when something isn't perfect, which is frequent) my internal critic works overtime when I'm writing. Especially trying to write fiction, I can barely hear the words I'm trying to write over the relentless mocking going on in my head. So writing fast gives me permission to silence the critic and write whatever pops into my mind. It's very liberating and frequently surprises me with the direction my writing takes.
A few weeks ago, we spent about 45 minutes doing a series of timed writes that built on top of each other. We started by writing a list of our roles - mine included mother, wife, student, daughter, etc. Next, we wrote a list of the opposites of those roles - opposite of mother was child, or childless woman, or father; the opposite of worshipper was sinner, or preacher, or athiest; you get the idea. Then we wrote a list of people that push our buttons - mine included mouth breathers, whiners, interrupters, drama queens, and preachy liberals. What we ended up with were several lists of different kinds of characters. We picked one from each group and wrote a paragraph or two of them talking about themselves, trying to define who each of these people are. Finally, we put the three characters in a broken elevator and had them interact with each other.
My elevator ended up containing a preachy liberal, a childless businesswoman, and a stay at home mother (with her kids). Here's where it got interesting. The preachy liberal judged the mother for driving a gas-guzzling SUV and wasting the earth's resources by having so many children. The businesswoman was irritated by the crying baby on the elevator interrupting her important business call. And the mother - she just took it! She didn't stand up for herself, or be assertive at all, she felt embarrassed for having inconvenienced other people with her loud kids and wished she could disappear.
Are you seeing what I'm seeing? I took the role that I most closely associate with myself and TURNED HER INTO A VICTIM! I could have written this any way I wanted, from any point of view, with any conflict, and what came out of my pen was a worn-down, exhausted, embarrassed mother. Is this how I really see myself? I don't think so - I know that I'm more than just the one label of "mother." But it is quite possibly how I view that role, something to be picked on, to be looked down on, to be considered "lesser." I was shocked. I mean, sure, I've got issues with being a stay at home mom. Sometimes I think being in this house every single solitary day is bound to suck the soul right out of my body. But that's just sometimes. Most of the time, I'm good - aren't I?
After the exercise, we discussed what we learned from it. I told the class that I wrote my role as the victim without meaning to, and wondered if that revealed an ambivalence toward that role in my life. My teacher told me that my goal now is to write a story with the mother as the hero. And that's where my mind has been ever since. How to write a story where the stay at home mom is looked up to, celebrated, honored for what she does. I have to say, I'm completely stuck. I've got nothing. Sure, I could cobble together a decent plot with a mom at the center, but I don't think I could get the honest emotion behind it that would make it believable. Maybe it's because I just don't buy it myself.
So my goal now is to change my thinking about my roles and write a story with a mother as the hero. Since most of the mothers I know lead the same kind of lives as I do (i.e. slightly boring - no offense intended) I'm going to have to jazz things up a bit. Maybe she's a mother by day but when the kids go to bed - she's a crime fighting super-hero! Or she solves murder mysteries while cheering at her son's soccer game! Or she realizes that she's married to an alien who has taken on a human form in order to procreate and make the next generation of human/alien hybrids that are poised to take over the world! Oh yeah, I can make a mom a hero, I just have to stretch my imagination a teeny, weeny bit.