Writing simple can be complex

So lately I’ve been thinking (Amazing! I know!) about what it is to be an individual, and how as writers we can create individuals who mirror real life truths on our page.

“An individual is someone who cannot be neatly classified or categorized because he or she cannot be easily dissected or analyzed, divided into definable parts. The individual is, first and foremost, a being-unto-itself, a unique whole

Kevin L Stoehr, “You Who Philosophize Dylan” 

The problem is that people are hopefully complex, yet often in writing there’s this overall simplification of story and character that does not mimic that complexity. It seems like corporate media America has decided that people want simple things, which is fine, as long as there are also complex things to balance out literature, particularly children’s literature. And we all buy into it.

M. T. Anderson talks about something pretty similar in an interview with Joel Shoemaker in VOYA back in 1999.

But maybe that drive towards the simple is something that we should make little rebellions against. Maybe instead of following the grade-school description of what a story and genre should be, we should be fiddling around with that description.

Maybe instead of simplifying our characters we could expand them, make them more complex than hairstyles and clothing choices, than ‘good girl,’ ‘good boy,’ ‘bad child.’ And I’m not talking about giving the evil villain one redeeming quality, I’m talking about giving the evil villain a complex identity. 

Making Things Predictable

 When my daughter Em turned 13, she had one major gripe with the books she read. She said that most plots are too predictable. She said that most characters just have one defining trait, and well, that bored her.

 I’m just worrying that maybe we should be putting some emphasis back on complex stories and characters for the big-time readers who are losing their faith in books. I’m not saying to rid ourselves of the simple stories, I’m just saying we should embrace the complex, too. 

I guess, I’m just worried that in our surge to make lots of money by reaching massive audiences we are making out stories too simple, our genre choices too straight forward.

And we fall into traps because we’re so afraid nobody will buy or understand our books. We don’t want to scare off readers with something difficult to read. We want to keep things straight and common, no eccentric teachers, no bizarre-o main characters.  We make sure the character always has a clear want and they go after it. We make sure the main character isn’t too complicated. Some of us follow formulas and plotting rules, and that’s okay. It’s not bad. I just don’t want it to be the only way. And I don’t want the authors who brave themselves up enough to deviate to be blasted.

Someone asked me why I made Belle have seizures in TIPS ON HAVING A GAY (ex) BOYFRIEND and not have those seizures be an active part of her character development. Okay, first off, I did it because that’s how Belle is. Her epilepsy isn’t about her character any more than having thick hair is about her character. It doesn’t have to be.

It’s only by treating epilepsy as a condition rather than a defining character trait that we can:

  1. lessen the stigma of epilepsy
  2. create a character who is an individual

And obviously this doesn’t just apply to epilepsy. It applies to every condition and physical trait that can cause stigma. But we can’t do this is we make our characters too simple, too one dimensional. It’s only when we make complex INDIVIDUALS that we can really battle stigma and stereotyping and all those things that we don’t want to perpetuate. 

So what I want to know is what happens if we keep making narrative more and more simple. What happens to our minds? What happens to our books? Do we become numb? Do we look sideways at books that aren’t simple? Do we become so used to simple that we start believing it’s complex? And has that already happened? I hope not. I really, really hope not. 

Writing simple can be complex

But there’s another side to things. By making the choice to have a character have hobbies that aren’t necessary to the plot, to quote philosophers occasionally in a romance/horror novel? By making a science fiction origin story, clean and easy to read and focusing on a girl? To make a character have epilepsy but not be defined by it? Those are simple writing choices that can have complex ripples.

Don’t be afraid of the ripples.

Things Referenced

Joel Shoemaker, “Hungry . . . for M.T. Anderson: An Interview with M.T. Anderson,” VOYA 27, 2 (June 2004) 98-102.

“Bob Dylan and Philosphy.” Edited by Peter Vernezze and Car J. Porter. Chicago: Open Court Press, 2006 182-193.

PODCAST

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WRITING NEWS

IN THE WOODS – READ AN EXCERPT, PREORDER NOW!

My next book, IN THE WOODS, appears in July with Steve Wedel. It’s scary and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Buzz Books for Summer 2019. There’s an excerpt of it there and everything! But even cooler (for me) they’ve deemed it buzz worthy! Buzz worthy seems like an awesome thing to be deemed! 

You can preorder this bad boy, which might make it have a sequel. The sequel would be amazing. Believe me, I know. It features caves and monsters and love. Because doesn’t every story?

In the Woods
In the Woods


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Having Epilepsy

 

I am pretty open about having occasional seizures, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how that aspect of my identity fits in the writing community and I’ve been really inspired by author Mike Jung’s adult autism journey and it’s made me wonder why despite the fact that I’m so open about having seizures, I’m so hesitant to claim that as part of who I am.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not sure.

My seizure journey is a bit weird. Right before I started college, I had a #metoomoment that left lasting physical consequences. The guy was about to have  (or did have) Mono, which meant he had the Epstein Barr virus. He gave that to me. But the virus didn’t just give me Mono. It attacked my brain. I had bullet rashes and seizures that started with my right hand jerking and then my arm and then I would pass out.

It wasn’t the best way to start college but the administration at Bates were outstanding with one dean even volunteering to stay up all night with me to make sure I didn’t fall asleep for sleep deprivation tests.

Eventually, those seizures stopped being multiple times a day to once a week to hardly ever.

And when they did happen, it was usually at night. And when they did happen, I knew it and would say how I felt sort of “wiggly,” which I guess is my code word for seizures.

This is my first book. The main character has seizures.
So how does this relate to being a writer and labels and discrimination? I’m honestly not 100 % sure. I know that when people talk about being a disabled author, I don’t think of myself. I know that when people post stereotypes or negativity about people with epilepsy in their family, it takes a hell of a lot for me to confront them about it, but I do and afterwards I feel … panic. Because their worries/fears about their family member’s health tends to be more important to them than the stigma they are reinforcing. Or, when people ask me about epilepsy in a book and I say that it’s a trope that’s happening or a stereotype, they ignore it and win awards. 
And yes, this is partly my fault.
My disability is hidden and I let it stay that way because I don’t announce it very often. I don’t claim it much anymore. And you know what? That’s wrong. It makes me a coward. Other people dealing with discrimination and oppression don’t have that luxury. 

Despite the fact that epilepsy is commonplace in our society, there is still a feeling of secrecy and shame associated with it. There are still negative stereotypes that exist.

Jenna Martin quotes Bruce Link of Columbia University who wrote “Stigma exists when a person is identified by a label that sets that person apart and links that person to undesirable stereotypes that result in unfair treatment and discrimination.” (Martin 1)

I am a really fully functioning person who has had seizures – so many seizures. The amount of seizures that I’ve had in my past has made me more susceptible to having seizures now, but the virus also caused some cognitive degeneration. It’s not good for a brain to have as many seizures as my brain has had, for that virus to attack it.

“You’ve lost a good 20 IQ points,” my neurologist told me in college and when I grimaced, he sort of laughed and said, “It’s a good thing you started off so high, but I really don’t want you to lose anymore.”

But the thing is? I can tell. I can feel that loss of cognitive ability. All. The. Time. And I hate it.

I also hate the stigma that Link speaks of and that’s why I have been so hesitant to really claim the label.

It is a negative cycle according to Martin and Link. The first step that occurs is that people realize that others are different from them and they give those differences “labels.” Next, the cultural mores determine that those people with labeled characteristics are representative of all people like them, creating a “negative stereotype.” There becomes an “us vs. them” mentality. Finally, those who are labeled become discriminated against. (Martin 1)

Obviously in the United State in 2017, this applies to more than people with epilepsy, but I’m going to try to confine my topic to this stigma here.

By being a successful writer and having a wonderful, eclectic AF life, I am not fighting that epilepsy stigma when I don’t talk about my times with seizures. I have  friends who also have seizures and nobody knows except me and a couple other people. They keep it secret, really secret. Why? Because they are afraid of being judged. Because they are afraid of losing a job, not getting a job, not being able to afford their health insurance.

I get that.

One of the happiest things that ever happened when I had a seizure was having the person I was with tell me, “That wasn’t all that big a deal.”

One of the worst things that ever happened when I had a seizure was when someone abandoned me and never talked to me again.

And concussions. Fainting is not as romantic as it sounds when it involves hitting your head on hard surfaces.

There has been a long history of people feeling ashamed that they have epilepsy. Epilepsy was hidden. Epilepsy was a secret. Epilepsy was something to fear. Epilepsy was and is a stigma. But epilepsy has made appearances in literature, which brings us back to books and the power of writing.

It was in 400 B.C. that Hippocrates, a Greek physician, wrote Western civilization’s first book about seizures. On the Sacred Disease was non-fiction. In it, Hippocrates refuted the idea that epilepsy was a sacred power, which had been the thought of the time. He didn’t think it was the work of evil forces. Hippocrates believed epilepsy was a brain disorder.

That way of thinking did not stick, however.

In the Bible, Book of Mark (9:14-29), Jesus Christ rids a young man of epilepsy,

“Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive the spirit out, but they could not.”

In the Bible, to have seizures is to be possessed.

Things got worse for people with seizures. With the blessing of the pope, two friars wrote Malleus Maleficarum, a 1494 handbook on witch-hunting. The handbook influenced the persecution of over 200,000 women. Many were tortured. Many were killed. It was not a good time for women who had seizures, because seizures were identified as a trait of witches. To have seizures was to be a witch. To be a witch was to be killed. Women, children and men who had epilepsy did their best to keep it a secret. If they did not, they risked their lives.

Even as late as the 1900s, people with epilepsy could be banned from driving, sterilized, or prohibited from marrying in some states. In 1980, an Idaho mother lost custody of her child. The father argued the mother was unfit because of her epilepsy. The decision was overturned in 1981. It wasn’t until 1980, just a few decades ago, that Missouri repealed the ban that prohibited the marriage of people with epilepsy.

According to American Steven C. Schachter, M.D., “Epilepsy is perfectly compatible with a normal, happy, and full life. Most people with epilepsy go to school, make friends, date, have jobs and families. Not that it’s always easy. Sometimes coping with the reaction of other people can be the most difficult part of living with epilepsy. Keeping a positive outlook is key. So is a strong sense of self-esteem and independence, with emphasis on abilities rather than difficulties.” (Schachter, Stephen)

That’s how it should be. It isn’t how it is.

Imagine: You’re a man with epilepsy. You go to a pharmacy in a Virginia big box store and while you’re there you have a seizure. The store decides you can’t come back. It’s too disturbing for their customers. The next time you go to pick up your medicine you’re arrested for trespassing.

Imagine: You’re a college student in Tennessee. The school administration tells you, that you can’t attend classes anymore because you have epilepsy. It’s not so bad, they say. You can take your classes through the Internet.

Imagine: You’re a Texas woman with a good job, but you lose it once you fill out insurance forms and write that you’re epileptic.

Imagine: You’re the mother of a California preschooler. The school staff refuses to give your child the emergency life-saving medicine that the child might need.

Imagine: You’re a New Jersey man who has a seizure. Police respond to a call for medical assistance. They use excess force to restrain you. You die. (Legal Information about Epilepsy)

So, yeah. I have epilepsy but epilepsy doesn’t have me. And if you are a writer or reader or anyone, please remember that people aren’t defined by their differences. Their differences are part of them, but not all of them.

Link B., Phelan J. Conceptualizing Stigma. Annu. Rev Sociol. 1001; 27:363-85

Martin, Jenna. “Remembering Danny.” Epilepsy.com. Epilepsy Therapy Development  Project. . 20 Jan. 2006 <http://www.epilepsy.com/stories/ps_1093455944.html>.

Martin, Jenna. “Teens with Epilepsy: Living with Stigma.” Epilepsy.com. Epilepsy Therapy Development  Project.. 20 Jan. 2006 <http://www.epilepsy.com/articles/ar_1089388403.html>.

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