why you need to write like a bad girl, part one

 

 

1

A young woman described the memoir she wanted to write.

The story gripped me: a bright and talented child struggling to assert herself against narcissistic parents, become the master of her own identity. Except every few minutes she would backtrack and say how her parents weren’t actually that bad, they had a lot of good qualities, she was grateful for the life they had given her…

When she talked like this, her body language became stiff and awkward, her voice a bit robotic.

It was like she was flipping between two personalities: the good daughter she had been trained to be, and the bad daughter, the rebel daughter, she wanted and needed to be.

I heard myself say, “You need to write like the bad daughter.”

If she could tell how she fought her parents for the right to her own personhood instead of being an extension or reflection of them, she could claim the truth of her life and herself — and offer up a valuable story in the process.

If she wrote as the good daughter, she was doomed.

2

I like bad girls. I’m not talking about Paris or Lindsey or Britney: they’re too lost or damaged or attention-seeking. They want you to love them, or to look at them, which to them is much the same thing.

A true bad girl doesn’t give a damn.

One of my favorite quotes is from Twyla Tharp. In her book The Creative Habit, she talks about her decision to become a dancer and choreographer.

She says, “I became my own rebellion.”

I would turn this phrase over in my mind, thinking that it sounded good, but what did it mean, exactly? Why did it appeal to me so much, and seem necessary to anyone who wanted to be an artist (or entrepreneur or hacker or any other thing that demands stepping off the beaten path)?

Probably because of this: the statement is rooted in such spirit and defiance. It’s not just a challenge to the conventional ways of living, the accepted wisdom, the status quo, the established Establishment, etcetera…but a challenge to the self.

We are all born into ways of thinking that we take for granted. We are raised within certain belief systems. We take the dominating voices of the adults around us and internalize them until those perceptions of us become what we are to ourselves.

But when you become your own rebellion you say a healthy Fuck You to all of that.

And if you’ve been raised to be the good daughter (or the good son), you maybe start to think that what is ‘bad’ is in many ways ‘good’ and what is ‘good’…might be killing you slowly.

3

A good girl does not defy.

She pleases. She listens. She serves. She supports.

She makes no demands. She has no natural sense of entitlement.

She doesn’t say anything that might offend, or make you dislike her.

She has some spirit, sure, but it’s contained. She is ‘fiesty’.

Which is just another quality that makes her really cute.

And if she doesn’t have anything nice to say, she won’t say much at all.

This could be a problem if you want to be a writer.

Nov 28, 2009
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22 comments · Add Yours

I think for creative types, especially in the arts (as loosely defined as you like), this is especially necessary because if you’re not Different, then there’s nothing to make you stand out.

I don’t mean Different in a ‘I grew up in an ashram in India’ sort way — though it can be.

The best way I can think to put it is that you need to let all of you, the good, the bad and the ugly express itself in your work, and not necessarily strictly in the autobiographical sense.

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I agree — and sometimes fiction is the most ‘honest’ way of exploring those aspects of yourself/your life/your loved ones/etc….

I also think it has to do with authenticity, honesty. Those ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ parts, the ‘hidden’ parts, are sometimes what people connect to the most. It’s part of acknowledging the full range of the experience of being human.

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Have you read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series? In one of the later books, after Cordelia psychoanalyses her son, he asks her ‘who shaves the barber?’ I always think, if she was a writer, she would do it herself.

I do think of it as ‘honesty.’

That’s actually one thing I like about SFF/UF. It’s one way to explore race/cultural differences, amongst other questions like ‘how would a human deal with living forever?’

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Twyla Tharp’s book also made a big impression on me — particularly her statement that she felt she had to choose where exactly she was going to put her creative energy, and decided that she could not both be married and have children and be an artist. That fierceness permeates her book. I read it at the same time I read Steven Pressman’s book, and they both represent an end of the spectrum that I think is valuable to contemplate. I also thought her book was eminently practical, one of the most practical I’ve read.

Ruth Reichl was recently interviewed on Fresh Air. Her book “Not Becoming My Mother,” is about — among other things — discovering journals her mother kept throughout her life. Reichl finds that, having spent her life trying to not become her mother, her mother was writing in her journals about … trying to not become her mother. Tending the fire of one’s own rebellion may be one of the central acts of personhood.

In life, as in storytelling, authorial self-confidence is paramount (I’m using Ian Wood’s language from his comment on your last post here). Tentativeness is so often the default, and while it often has a great deal to recommend it in general, it can be very costly (not to mention boring.) I hate to quote from “Eat, Pray, Love” here, but there’s a scene I love in which she’s kneeling on her bathroom floor, sobbing as she has for months, feeling victimized by the consequences of all the decisions she’s made up to that point. A voice in her head tells her to shut up and go back to bed. The crying stops, and seven months later she’s out of her marriage. There’s a cultural bias here — the ethos of rugged individualism leads Americans to believe they control everything that happens to them. But the day the crying stops and you take a step in the direction of your dreams: that’s the story I want to read.

Good post!

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Whenever my characters are too good, they bore me to no end & I get blocked. I need flaws, rudeness, hatred, passion, poor judgment… something “good” to work with.

Thanks for this post. It’s wonderful and spot on.

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Thank you so much for this post! I think good girl syndrome is fueling my writer’s block. I may have to quote a one-woman revolution as my new work motto: “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”

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I also like that about SFF/UF — I was extremely impressed by how China Mieville addresses those issues in books like PERDIDO STREET STATION (loved that book, it blew the top of my head off) — although haven’t exploited that ability in my own stuff yet. Haven’t read Bujold’s series. I agree — who else could analyze the analyst except for a fiction writer?

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Great comment. Stuff to mull over. I always knew I wanted to have kids — perhaps a number of them — but I was prepared to go the childless route if my life worked out that way. If I had to sacrifice my dreams to be a mother and work at a bank — for some reason in this scenario it’s always a job in a bank, even though I would suck at it and get fired — I’d be a lousy mother, embittered and resentful and depressed.

The great gift of my life is that I can have kids AND write, thanks — to be blunt about it — to my financial situation. The marriage, however, did not survive; I didn’t have the time (or the interest, or the skills) to be the kind of wife he wanted, and he didn’t have the personality traits required to appreciate and support the kind of work I did (or respect my deadlines) — and thus by extension who I am & what I care about. Which is nobody’s fault; it just was what it was.

What I remember most about Gilbert’s book — which I read around the time I was exiting my own deeply troubled marriage — was her bit early in the book about choosing the safe, secure life or the adventurous life. I don’t recall the details, but it involved putting a blade down in the grass and choosing one side or the other. I enjoyed that book, and I appreciated her defense of the right to pursue happiness…I was also struck by much of the venom she received, mostly from other women, for being — wait for it — “selfish” — and not willing to sacrifice herself for her marriage. Like that would have worked in the long run in any case.

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I often think about Paul Theroux — one of my very favorite writers — and how he has a reputation for being misanthropic, or something, because of his close and unrelenting and merciless examination of character (SIR VIDIA’S SHADOW comes to mind, his memoir of his relationship with V.S. Naipaul — critics slammed him for his unflattering depiction of Naipaul, although, as Theroux himself pointed out, his readers seemed to get it). But I think one of the ultimate compliments is for someone to be fascinated and attentive enough to learn you that well, to give that level of thought to you, to love you (because it is an act of love) without feeling the need to whitewash you.

Not to mention, flaws are interesting, and in any case vices and virtues are flipsides of each other; they can’t exist otherwise. Too much, or too less, of a good thing becomes a bad thing, and some of it is relative….Not to mention, every story is at heart about a transformation of character (or the failure to transform). As readers we want & need that. If there’s no need to transform, then why bother?

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“I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” I love that. I might just write it down and tape it to my desk….

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A bad girl borrows her boyfriends car to pick up guys and brings it back with an empty tank; A good girl fills it up.

A bad girl finds a new guy after a break up; A good girl wants to talk it out.

A bad girl runs away and doesn’t ask if she was missed if she comes back; a good girl never leaves.

Favorite bad girls: Thelma and Louise with a gun.

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Great post. So true. You have to be bad when writing. :] It’s the only way to be truly honest.

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I was thinking of doing the same thing! It’s JK Rowling’s words – she’s definitely an inspiration to me.

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She said that? My respect for her just went up another ten points.

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Excellent, fun, sassy book: The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want. Scored a copy of that just after my separation from my first husband. Much needed attitude infusion! A good beginning.

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“And if you’ve been raised to be the good daughter (or the good son), you maybe start to think that what is ‘bad’ is in many ways ‘good’ and what is ‘good’…might be killing you slowly.”

I’m glad to see you make mention of “the good son” (if only in passing) in the above passage, as I think that being too much of a “good boy” can be just as detrimental to a budding career as a writer as being too much of a “good girl” can be. I’ve found that, when you’re a guy, you have your own particular set of self-sacrificing behaviours that others expect from you eg:
1) to support a wife and children by means of a full-time job;
2) to be a “team player” in that job;
3) to be prepared to risk your life fighting for your country should it ever go to war;
4) and to “never let your mates down” (as we Australians tend to put it).
And no doubt there are many others. Anyway, it’s not hard to see how these things – the first two in particular – could stymie a writing career.

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Definitely. And I would never mean to imply otherwise. Thanks for your response.

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Laughing. Thanks.

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I recently asked on twitter & my livejournal: why is fiction important? and one person responded: because people say things through fiction that they would never tell you otherwise. Fiction is the ultimate license to be ‘bad’. :)

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Great post! I was actually just writing a post for my own blog along similar lines – spunky female MCs and why we love them. Your post has given me some additional insight into this topic. While we have to embrace the bad girl in ourselves to write, our readers equally want to embrace the bad girl in our characters and, by extension, themselves. In short, bad girls for all :)

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Good stuff here; my only concern is the, to me, counterproductive use of the word “girl” to describe women who engage in resistance to the social order. Unless you and the “young woman” you described are both under 18, you are not “girls.” The word girl is, by definition, infantilizing and we use it a lot more for women than we do “boy” for “men.” (And we know that “boy” has been obviously offensive and deliberately degrading when used for black men in the US, as it has been historically. Black men are right to reject and suspect that usage.)

The media has no use for women past the age of childbearing, i.e., early 30s–I can’t recall the exact statistic, but the film Miss Representation reported that by far the majority of the women we see on television and movies are under 40. So when I hear “girl” to describe women, I hear all the things you so accurately used to describe good GIRL: “She has some spirit, sure, but it’s contained. She is ‘fiesty’.
Which is just another quality that makes her really cute.” Girl, as applied to women, is cutesifying, too, and another way of getting ourselves to take up less space. Can we stop using it for women?

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I totally hear you. I use it in a sense of irony and play, Lori — the last thing I want anybody to think is that I mean the word seriously. (I never ever, for example, say I’m “having lunch with the girls”, which makes me cringe for all the reasons you describe.)

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