Writers, like most people, struggle with darkness. It’s icky. When scenes with elements of darkness occur, writers might tend to rush through them, avoiding the worst of the conflict. These moments of resistance to darkness are something I have come to call “swerves,” a writerly type of avoidance.
I’ve perfected the art of avoidance over the years. As a child, I learned that I shouldn’t say anything at all unless it was nice and that I should only wear clothing that wasn’t slutty. I learned, in the ’60s and the ’70s, that the only nice girls were virginal. They didn’t swear or smoke or take drugs. They never raised their voices or argued. They wore pearls and very little makeup. To me and to everyone around me, from the head mistress of my super-strict boarding school to my mother and my grandmother, that was what it meant to be feminine, refined, worth marrying. Gender roles in the ’70s in rural Australia remained much the same as they had been in the nineteenth century.
When I became a Chassidic Jew in the late ’70s, I swapped one extremely conservative set of beliefs about gender and the appropriate behavior of feminine women for another, possibly even more conservative set of beliefs. Now, instead of the rules about makeup and pearls, there were rules against speaking in public, singing in front of men, putting your full name on an invitation. There were rules about covering your hair, your elbows, your collarbone.
I went along with it all. I had eight children and raised them in that community for thirty years. It took a lot to change my aversion to conflict, but one day, in response to seeing my thirteen year old son drunk, I called a meeting with community leaders and tried to convince them that serving alcohol to minors was a no-no. In my world, this was not something that women did, and so the leaders ignored me. I might have said something unpleasant about the leaders. I might have ranted.
Now I had their attention and I wasn’t conforming to expectations at all. But they were listening—something which, as a writer, you always want to achieve.
• • •
The strange thing about throwing off this aura of nice was that I didn’t care.
I didn’t care because I hadn’t swerved away from saying something difficult. I felt brave and honest and powerful and that feeling has never left me.
I teach creative writing at two universities, in workshop classes at my home, and in private editorial groups, and I notice the swerve, over and over again, in the manuscripts that come through my hands.
The writers don’t want to write conflict and they don’t want to write rants and they don’t want to write grumpy, unfiltered characters. They don’t want to write sluts and they don’t want to write liars and murderers and they don’t want to write mouthy women. They don’t want to put two people with different desires in the same room at all, most of the time, because, by god, that’s scary, and I totally get it. I do. I’ve been there.
We are intensely socialized to be nice.
When we read about a badly behaved character, part of us says, “That bad person is really just the writer, in disguise” and an audience member might even ask a writer in an interview, “Which parts of you are most like your dreadful character?” And then that writer might think twice about writing a mean protagonist because she’s going to be judged not on her own behavior but on the behavior of her characters.
Hemingway famously said that writing is easy. You just have to sit next to your typewriter and bleed. That bleeding is what happens when you force yourself to write conflict into a scene, despite your own tendencies towards passivity. That bleeding is what happens when you insist on writing a hell-cat of a protagonist while you are wearing pearls and kitten heels. Because it’s a risk. You will be judged by those characters and by the dark fiction you are writing. Your family will exclude you from Thanksgiving because you wrote Auntie Mabel into your recent novel and everyone can tell that it’s her and you’re just a degenerate.
Most people don’t write well in first drafts. When your editors and first readers see what you’ve written, they can tell when you’re avoiding the hard bits. When you’re swerving. The tension has been ramping up, every character is on the hook, you drag the characters into the same room, the explosion is about to happen, and then the characters look away from each other, look down at the ground, and walk away in silence. It’s a swerve.
The tension has been ramping up, every character is on the hook, you drag the characters into the same room, the explosion is about to happen, and then the characters look away from each other, look down at the ground, and walk away in silence.
We all do it. In psychology, it’s called avoidance. Have you changed the experience in a way that neutralizes the problem? Is your narrator married to an abuser? Aw—he’s got a short fuse but is otherwise lovely. About to have a massive blow-up with mum? She has to take a sudden trip to Peru. Writers can be masters at the art of avoidance.
I’m going to read an example of a common type of swerve from a piece of student work:
“Why on earth would you say something like that?” his brother said. He clenched his fists and stuck them into his pockets. “I’ve done nothing but be nice to you since you got home and this is how you treat me? I don’t deserve this crap.”
Andy chewed on his tongue for a moment. He tasted a little blood and he bit down harder. He closed his eyes and soon he couldn’t even hear his brother speaking anymore. He’d fallen asleep in the hay.
In this simple example, the writer has brought two characters in conflict into the same room; she’s done all the heavy lifting of bringing the conflict between the brothers to a head, but then, when Andy is finally confronted about his lack of gratitude, he doesn’t say anything. He falls asleep.
This is a writer’s swerve. Most likely, it’s caused by some of the following reasons:
1. Writing an intense conflict is hard because we are nervous about the darkness implicit in conflict.
2. Writing a dialogue of conflict is hard to control. For people who like to control what happens in their stories, this is often where story laughs in their face.
3. Writing conflict can expose the way you or people you know usually fight, and so it can feel as if you are losing your privacy. Conversely, if it isn’t the way you argue, you might feel as if people will assume it is your way of arguing.
4. Writing conflict makes you feel like you aren’t a nice person. Or that only a bad person writes this kind of dark stuff.
When I point swerves out to writers, they almost always say, “I knew that. I just didn’t think anyone else would notice.”
Pushing past these roadblocks to achieve effective, deep, and wild writing can be painful. Even famous writers have allowed swerves into their published work, so don’t feel too bad if you have difficulty eradicating them from yours.
In fact, I swerved in my first novel, The Paperbark Shoe, when I avoided writing about sex between the two main characters, Gin and Antonio. I believed (correctly!) that I would be rejected from my community if I wrote about sex. But my editor, Fred Shafer, could feel me swerving. We sat down to discuss my novel in the café of the local Borders (now defunct). Surrounding us were dozens of rabbis on their cell phones or reading the Wall Street Journal. Fred threw down my heavy manuscript, leaned back and practically bellowed, “Where are the sex scenes? You need sex scenes!” Everyone was staring at us. My face was red. I could have said something but I swerved.
Resolving swerves involves asking yourself what your character is afraid of. It’s often what you, the writer, are afraid of. Some writers are afraid of violence and of appearing to be “not nice.” So, in writing a dark narrative, you often have to take care of yourself first, and be ready to open up to some of your own fears.
I find it helpful to remind myself that my character is not me.
I find it helpful to remind myself that my character is not me. I go to extra lengths to make sure that my character does not feel too much like me, so that I can make him or her do things I never would without compunction. Since my job as a writer is to drag my character into all kinds of emotionally messy and disturbing situations, I make sure to leave my own psyche out of it. It makes it easier to get past my swerves if I don’t also have to contend with worrying that every reader will think my character is me.
• • •
So, Gin, in my novel, The Paperbark Shoe, is a horrible mother, a pianist with albinism, who cheats on her husband with an Italian bloke and is mad as a meat axe. Just for the record, I am an excellent mother who has never cheated on anyone and my sanity has never yet been called into question. Gwen, the artist heroine of one of my novels, is obsessed with the elderly Rodin and sends him thousands of letters, whilst also forging ahead on her own artistic career using Machiavellian means. Surie, in my most recent novel, On Division, is so preoccupied with her own pain that she forgets to tell her husband of forty years that she is pregnant with twins.
If you find that your characters have more than a faint whiff of . . . well . . . you in them, and you also struggle with working past swerves, you might consider creating characters that are radically different from you, your life circumstances, and your own emotional issues. But bottom line, to get past a swerve, you’ve got to stop being so darn nice.
Goldie Goldbloom’s first novel, The Paperbark Shoe, won the AWP Prize and is an NEA Big Reads selection. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and has been the recipient of multiple grants and awards, including fellowships from Warren Wilson, Northwestern University, the Brown Foundation, the City of Chicago and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is chassidic and the mother of eight children.