The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Or, so says Carson McCullers. I think it is no coincidence that when I thought of the content of today’s post, I thought of the title of that book. But it was another book I had in mind when I wanted to touch on today’s topic. WHEN EVERYTHING FEELS LIKE THE MOVIES is the book I wanted to bring up. But in borrowing the title of McCullers’s classic, I realized that her book also applies to the subject at hand.
Take this excerpt from the Wiki page for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (henceforth referred to as THIALH):
When published, the novel created a literary sensation, enjoying a meteoric rise to the top of the bestseller lists in 1940; it was the first in a string of works by McCullers that give voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated or oppressed.
Now, from what I recall THIALH was an extraordinary read. Admittedly, it’s been a few years now (perhaps decades) since I last delved into it. But it speaks to what I had in mind in the same way When Everything Feels Like the Movies (henceforth referred to as WEFLTM) speaks to it.
It would seem that there is, at times, an expectation of the writer to perhaps write the story that wants to be read by the masses. Be it the latest fad, trend, hashtagable getbehindable cause, or what have you. That expectation often feels a bit white bread in nature. Don’t interrupt the status quo. Don’t shake the foundations. Don’t deride the sleeping village that does not want to be awoken.
And then along comes a delightful little dish like WEFLTM or THIALH, books that challenge the envelope of comfort-ability. Books that break down walls and cause discussion. Books that people rail against. When I get the extreme pleasure of reading such a book, I am immediately grateful for the courage of the author, the agent, the editors, the publisher… The author has decided to write the story that was in their heart. The rest of the chain decided to embrace, love, champion the story.
It shouldn’t be a brave thing to write on a subject matter, concept, or theme that speaks to you. A great story trumps all other considerations. If you have a story inside you, don’t check on outside influences for permissions or viability before telling it. Sure it’s a risk to tell the story your way. It may not be the story that the world is looking for at the moment, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell it. Maybe the world will fall in love with the story they didn’t know they wanted to read.
Sure, you risk telling a story that may never see the light of day in the publication world. Even then it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell it. Every time a writer sits down to tell a story they are taking a risk. Why take a risk on the latest trend? Why take a risk on an expectation? Listen to your heart. It may very well be a lonely hunter…but it is also who you are. It’s where you live, wherein you will discover your authenticity.
If you write for ‘the man‘ you run the risk of inauthentic voice, of grasping for the hot trend. Trailblazers like Raziel Reid and Carson McCullers are trailblazers not because they were selling something that wasn’t already there in all its neon glory in the real world. They are/were trailblazers because they don’t/didn’t give a damn about anything but telling the story that spoke to them. They stepped on lines, crossed borders, took risks with topics and subjects as an aside to storytelling…not in order to shock or dismay or discomfort the bookburning crowd.
I think of what could have happened with WEFLTM, if someone didn’t take a chance on its perceived vulgarity, and I cringe. Some rallied against it, saying it was NOT Young Adult (personally, I challenge their understanding of the young adult market…and of young adults in general). I mean, it was the most authentic YOUNG ADULT voice I think I ever read. When it was nominated for CANADA READS and the GOVERNOR GENERAL’S AWARD…that’s all the validation the author, agent, publisher needed. They all took risks with that book and all the risks paid off. Why? Not because it crossed the line, not because it shocked, not because it was obscene (as some would have you believe), but because it was a damn fine story! One of the best young adult novels I have ever read.
What happened after the GG nomination was just noise. Ignorant people being affronted is as age-old as Puritanicalism itself. I, for one, am ecstatic that Raziel Reid walked the walk. They had a story to tell and they told it. It was the heart of a writer who wrote that story, not expectation. Expectation might have wanted a story like WEFLTM…but I’m betting dollars to donuts that that just is not the case. Expectation doesn’t like to take chances. Sure, it loves high concept and something new…but edgy and raw? Probably not so much. But sometimes it’s the books that come out of nowhere that impact the reader the most. There was a big gaping hole in the young adult market that was just screaming to be filled by When Everything Feels Like the Movies. I’m thrilled that Reid wrote the story they imagined in their heart, come what may. Reid knew its validity as a YA story…just as the publisher understood the same. Is that courageous? Maybe…more like authenticity firing on all synapses, if you ask me. They all just knew.
In short, I guess what I am trying to say, is to be a fearless writer. Don’t consider your subject matter above your story. Don’t not write something because you’re afraid to tackle a hot-button issue. Don’t look for the trend and then write to it (if you know anything about trends and publishing, you already know that the trend in the marketplace is a year or two or three away from the trend at the agent/publisher level…so it’s virtually impossible to strike out at the beginning of a trend unless you already wrote the book and arrived on the first wave of the trend).
Take a look at the synopsis of WEFLTM:
School is just like a film set: there’s The Crew, who make things happen, The Extras who fill the empty desks, and The Movie Stars, whom everyone wants tagged in their Facebook photos. But Jude doesn’t fit in. He’s not part of The Crew because he isn’t about to do anything unless it’s court-appointed; he’s not an Extra because nothing about him is anonymous; and he’s not a Movie Star because even though everyone know his name like an A-lister, he isn’t invited to the cool parties. As the director calls action, Jude is the flamer that lights the set on fire.
Before everything turns to ashes from the resulting inferno, Jude drags his best friend Angela off the casting couch and into enough melodrama to incite the paparazzi, all while trying to fend off the haters and win the heart of his favourite co-star Luke Morris. It’s a total train wreck!
But train wrecks always make the front page.
TRAIN WRECKS ALWAYS MAKE THE FRONT PAGE. But stories told exquisitely are not always about shock-value, even though they may shock. Sometimes, they just catch a thing in its spotlight at just the right moment. Do you have a story you’re afraid/nervous to tell? You’ll never know if it’s good enough, if you don’t write it. Courage in writing is just a matter of following your heart…and ignoring the expectations of others. It’s your story. Don’t let others tell you it won’t fly before you even get it out. You never know unless you try.
From my review of WEFLTM:
When Everything Feels Like the Movies is essentially the story of a teen who is larger than the small town that could never truly contain them. What sets it aside from other stories about breaking out of the small and into the limelight is that the character who is struggling to be contained is trans. Jude (Judy) deals with bigotry at every turn…including at home. But she is still able to dream big and have such lofty glamorous goals for herself. Her almost vulgar egoism and arrogance is a delight. Where it should turn a reader off, it endears her to them. We see the raw vulnerability in her swaggering confidence and self-love. True sarcasm comes not from pride, but from the shaky ego that wants to emulate pride. Jude is such a flawlessly written flawed character. He will remain one of my favourite characters for a long time to come.
Read the full review of WEFLTM HERE at Try This Book On For Size