Listening to a podcast in which two under-employed actors from Los Angeles narrate the life of Dolly Parton from a saccharine script. Eating a lemon-flavored protein bar that tastes like Pine Sol. Two beverages: one iced coffee, one water, both out. My manuscript is two months late, and my editor finally broke her silence. Something to the tune of “just checking in!” which can sometimes mean “just checking in” but in this case means “where the hell are your pages.” They’re coming! They really are.
My last post was about how inspirational the work of Kendrick Lamar has been to my creative process, but I deleted it until I could read more about “Auntie Diaries,” a track on his latest album which attempts to reckon with his understanding of a trans family member. In the song, Kendrick’s speaker (who is based on Kendrick himself) misgenders his relative and repeatedly uses a homophobic slur. In the afterglow of my first listen of the latest album, I brushed over what I knew was a potentially harmful creative choice to focus on the choices that intrigued and delighted me. I thought Kendrick’s speaker was communicating from a place of good intentions, attempting to tell the story of a changed mind. Judging by the speaker’s faulty language, this “story” (I thought) was clearly still in progress; the speaker is still attached to his former perceptions, no matter how wrong they may be, and has just begun to ask questions. In some cases, however, context isn’t enough. It became clear to me that the impact of the song was less about the speaker’s perception, and more about the words he used to describe this perception, which makes sense. Doesn’t matter if the speaker is operating at some level of ignorance; the words still stab.
I don’t expect Kendrick Lamar–or anyone, really–to be perfect. But I do expect the people I admire, especially someone who uses language so effectively, to be more thoughtful and careful about the way their words could affect someone. He didn’t do that, so I’m feeling less inspired, and more disappointed. I am curious how Kendrick, who I believe is as compassionate and self-aware as any popular musician, will react to the backlash and evolve. I am also curious how his real life relative reacted to the song; maybe his opinion matters more than ours. But he’s still a public figure, with many gay and trans fans who are hurt, and the questions he’s posing are still kind of half-baked. The more fully he acknowledges his mistake, the more fully he acknowledges his relative’s humanity, the better his work will be.
Speaking of work: it’s worth noting the most successful chapters I’ve written lately have been casually sketched out first, filled out later. I think this is a habit that’s going to stick. I look at my list of “beats,” (which for those who aren’t familiar is just an industry term for “events that need to happen in the story”) and dash out the lines that come to me, some in the form of narration, some in the form of dialogue. Sometimes whole scenes of dialogue will come to me, which is always surprising and delightful. I admit the transcription of these voices is when I feel most like a “writer.” I just keep “listening,” moving my fingers on the keyboard until my characters are quiet, or leave the scene. Then, I go back and elaborate on where they are, how they came to be there, how they look. Sometimes these passages of context and description change the direction of the scene, but most of the time they are just there to enrich and exacerbate the conflict. I enjoy closing my eyes, entering the narrative space. Describing smells and sounds is another favorite “writerly” practice of mine, and more proof of the adage that there is no such thing as “being a writer”; you are a writer when you write. That’s it. And now, I am going to stop being a writer for the time being, no offense to my editor. I am a dinner eater now.
Of course I love the part where you break down the technology of writing. Sketching out! That is what I should be doing.
Sincerely, Sharon Avery