On Becoming a Main Character in My Own Writings (and learning how to step aside)

“I’ve recently been experimenting with answering ‘fashion’ rather than ‘politics’ when men casually ask me what I write about, and the result has been a 100 per cent increase in phone numbers, business cards, and offers of drinks. This is still substantially fewer advances than I received when I gave the truthful answer that what I wrote was ‘sometimes, in notebooks, just for myself.”
— Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things

I’ve always had lousy luck dating other writers. And by lousy, I mean, that by 15 minutes into the date, I already know it’s not going to work.

The conversation always starts out on a decent note, something along the lines of :“You’re a writer? Right on. I’m a writer, too. What do you write about?”

“Science.”

Science. Which marks me as a girl who thinks about more than just girl things. Which marks me of someone who spins stories out of the facts on blood, touch, bone, rocket ships, and earthquakes.

The hipster boys who populate so many of my collegiate and post-graduate drunken weekends are the sort who spend hours upon hours trying to find ways to make their ideas sound both trippy and relevant.

My writing deals with invisible machines that circulate through every cell in your body, the forces that connect us to our environments, the ways that living chemicals find loopholes in laws of physics in order transmit and receive information needed for replication or targeted destruction. It deals with medicine prices, political rhetoric, human relationships, and quite possibly, the fate of your dog, too. I don’t need sex or drugs or psychedelic soundtracks to write about trippy shit; I’m naturally like this. And establishment-approved to boot.

Well, I was until I got drop-kicked out of MIT but I don’t like to talk about that.

But my editor contacts at national magazines still answer my magazines, so I’m optimistic about my future…

By this point, the writer boys have usually gone quiet. See, they grew up watching movies, reading novels, and hearing stories of writerly romances, where the guy is the tortured and rejected genius and the girl is the doomed muse. She may write poetry or play instruments, too, but her talents only speak to how talented the main artiste is. After all, the smarter and prettier the muse, the more talented the musician/writer/creative fellow must be, right?

Getting used to the fact that girls who write and make music and dance and take drugs aren’t simply subjects to be immortalized in art or writing, that we’re actually trying to make our own shit that stands in its own right can be hard for guys.

It can be hard for girls, too.

The Muse Problem

At 19, I hated my essay-writing voice. I sounded too young, too bougie, too tame. My word choices were predictable. Turns of phrase that would imply “this writer is on another level, man” eluded me. I didn’t like reading poetry, but writing like someone who didn’t read poetry seemed like the most horrible fate possible. So I became a biology major.

I couldn’t imagine myself as the sort of girl who could inspire creative work. Nor could I imagine myself as a character compelling enough to compel a reader’s attention.

Trees, germs, rivers, oceans, cancers, blood, foxes — all of those would make more charismatic protagonists than me, I figured. If I wanted to be a writer, I reasoned, I had better learn to tell stories about entities other than me.

So I kept trying to learn stuff.

And I kept writing.

All Leveled Up and Nowhere to Go

“Not being sure what story you’re in any more is a different experience depending on whether or not you were expecting to be the hero,” Laurie Penny writes in her luminous book of feminist essays, Unspeakable Things. “Women and girls, and low-status men, often don’t have that expectation. We expect to be forgettable supporting characters…”

Forgettable. That was what I expected my writing to be, until suddenly, it wasn’t.

Suddenly, I was writing about neurodiversity. I had caught hold of a topic where I could deploy the full range of items and concepts in my writing arsenal— the incredible facts I had picked up in biology classes, the notions gleaned from reading feminist and post-colonial theory and essays, the penchant for weaving pop-culture references into esoteric gobbledy-gook, and my painful personal experiences — and weave them into one story. Suddenly, people were treating me as if I was interesting as a writer.

The ironic part was that I had given up on becoming interesting years earlier; I just wanted to write clearly and to articulate science topics in something vaguely resembling standard English.

Suddenly, people were posting articles on my Facebook wall asking me what I thought. People were following me on Twitter. I read articles in major magazines and newspapers where the phrasing made me wonder, “Did they read one of my reddit rants while researching this story?”

People were asking me to say more in my own voice, so I did. It became habit.

Writing is like a muscle, or so the old expression goes. You have to exercise it. But writing is actually more like a set of many muscles. If you only write in one mode, in one voice, all the time, then that muscle will become strong, but others will start to atrophy and muscle memory will fade.

At 24, my essay writing voice induces far fewer cringes than it did at 19. Some of the improvement is grammatical. My sentences have become bolder, less hedged. Some of it is simple maturation in diction. Once you experience a word in a new context — by learning its origin or discovering a new slang or jargon term it echoes — you start using that word a bit differently. You learn to resist the temptation to point out your double entendres with the verbal equivalents of flashing neon signs, and you get a feel for when to quote someone else in order to guide your readers home.

But I’ve realized recently that I’ve been neglecting some of my most valuable voices, specifically the ones that can sculpt empirical facts into accounts of other people’s stories.

Y’know, the voices for writing non-fiction in the third person. The journalistic voices.

The ones that free you from the tyranny of trying too hard and allow you to actually become interesting.

My 19-year-old self stumbled into that secret by accident. I suspect that’s why a lot of the 20something writer boys I encounter find me so intimidating; they spent their early 20s trying to find themselves. I went looking for other shit, and the self found me.

In fact, my self found me so hard that she managed to drown out the gnawing need to exercise other voices.

The Really Hard Part

This weekend, out of curiosity, I decided to flip through the books on my office shelf, my science writing “touchstones”, if you will, and count how many of them used the 1st person. The answer turned out to be: all of them.

So much of my early 20s has revolved around nurturing that 1st person voice and developing the confidence I need to wield it, that my third-person voices fell into disrepair. I have to start exercising them again.

If you’re a fan of my essays, don’t worry. I’m not going to stop writing them altogether. But they are only one prong of my writing career. I’m interesting, sure. But I’m not THAT interesting.

Growing up as a writer is tough. Learning to believe that you’re compelling enough to hold a reader’s attention is an uphill battle. Learning when to stand aside and let your fabulous self play second or third fiddle can be even tougher.

But the first step is easy: Practice writing…in the third person.