Because I Can Take the Pieces With Me
Kameron Hurley of Brutal Women, guestblogging
I’ve pretty much been writing books forever.
Everybody says that.
I think writers say that because we really hope that we can say it was some sort of calling, something we were meant to do, destiny, like writing is the magic sword that slays the dragon.
Saying I’ve been writing forever excuses the fact that I have a master’s degree but make less than 40K a year doing project support for a company that builds, designs, and upgrades cell phone towers. I am slowly allowing my brain to atrophy while I convert documents from voloview to PDF all day.
It excuses the fact that when “promotions” are offered to me that involve traveling 90% of the time and making the same amount of money I’m making now, I turn them down because I want a life.
It excuses the fact that I’m still at this job, because we have “high” and “low” periods, and during the low periods, I’ll spend 6-8 hours a day working on web pages, writing projects, blogging, or playing computer games.
You just can’t beat that.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
When I was twelve years old, I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. They exchanged dubious looks and said, “That’s great, Kameron, but you realize you’ll be poor for the rest of your life?”
I’m starting to understand what they meant.
School, in general, bored me, so I wrote during class. I’d bring a big spiral bound notebook with me, and so long as I looked busy, none of the teachers bothered me. They assumed I was taking notes, being a busy good girl. I got a lot of writing done during dull classes.
I started writing stories to catalogue all of the adventures me and my siblings and the kids across the field had together. We had these wild imaginary romps, pretended we were runaways or a pack of unicorns. We sang weird songs and made fires in fire pits in the woods and had “Indian” wars where we threw pinecones at each other and dueled with char-tipped branches that we’d worked into staves. We made tee-pees out of pine branches and painted our faces and gave ourselves fantasy tribal names and made ink out of blackberries and rope out of fireweed and turned everything into a fort of some kind (at one point, we hollowed-out a huge blackberry thicket that had grown up over a tree).
We had pretty elaborate storylines that often involved plane crashes, imaginary boyfriends, monsters of all sorts, rival tribes, made-up languages, and animal hunts. I thought these stories were pretty stunning when I was nine or ten, and I started writing so I could get them all down before we forgot them. We lived in the middle of nowhere, in a house on almost three wooded acres, and for years, we were surrounded by lots of undeveloped woods. Later on, people put in houses, but all of the houses tended to be in the middle of their plots, so we’d have a great time fence-jumping around other people’s wooded property while avoiding their dogs.
Like most dorky kids, school wasn’t all that great for me on the social end, either, and woodland playtime and the subsequent cataloguing of those stories was a great escape. It doesn’t surprise that I wrote my first book when I was twelve.
I switched schools when I was twelve, and entered the sixth grade as an overweight newcomer with braces, glasses, and headgear (oh, my!).
I hadn’t exactly been popular at the old school, either, but at least kids there left me alone.
I wasn’t so lucky at the new school.
Everyone loves a scapegoat, and I guess I was a pretty good one. I didn’t have a group of friends, so I was fair game. Kids thought reading out on recess was pretty weird. I had stuff stolen, got chew and Tabasco sauce dumped in my hair, and got lambasted with the full range of fat-girl catcalls from groups of boys, everything from “water buffalo” to “earthquake.” The teachers out at recess watching this “boys will be boys” behavior thought it was all terribly funny, and told me I should stop making myself a target by bringing things to school like books and playground balls.
The “blame the victim” bullshit happens pretty early.
I was trying so hard to be a “nice girl” that I only stood up for myself once, when I tripped one of the guys who’d stolen my recess ball. He got a bruise, and I got called in to the principal’s office. I got detention and a severe scolding from the VP, who said my “utter lack of remorse” about what I’d “done” was really “shocking.”
I wish I knew then what I know now, because instead of bursting into tears at being called a bad, evil, remorseless girl (I just wanted to be a “nice girl”!), I would have told her she was a blind, incompetent fucktard who’d relentlessly allowed gangs of boys to torment girls at recess and should be fired for her incompetence.
In any case, not being able to vent to the authority figures who were supposed to be looking out for harassment, and not wanting to vent to my parents because I didn’t want to get them involved, and not wanting to rock the boat any more by trying to defend myself (just look how that turned out! I thought), I spent all of my detention time working on the outline of a book about a scullery maid who was really a princess and an Evil Queen seeking to assassinate the rightful ruler of the kingdom. The scullery maid teamed up with a stable boy and a jester to defeat the evil monarch and save the country! Then the scullery maid would be acknowledged by everyone and cheered for saving the kingdom! Then, of course, the stable boy would turn out to be a prince, and they would get married, and rule the kingdom. Because that’s what heroines did in fantasy stories.
Because the book had so many characters, I started to just pull people from real life and base the characters on them. That way, I already had a template for the characters. “People from real life” meant the kids in school. It meant my chief tormentors were turned into bad guys who were ruthlessly slaughtered in a myriad of brutal, bloody, gory ways.
It was fun.
The book took about a year to finish, and by then I was in the seventh grade and had started to find some other dorks to hang out with. It was only appropriate that since my characters were my friends when I didn’t have any, that my friends became my characters once I actually had some. Friends, that is. With a bigger group of friends, even if they’re dorks, you get harassed less often. So my friends became heroes and thieves and ruled countries and fought duels. There was Joe the comic book artist, who became a towering red-haired brute who worked as the muscle for one of my heroines. There was Wren the drama queen who became a foul-mouthed princess-turned-adventurer. There was Ro the martial artist who became the most cunning and crazy of jesters, and Helen the aspiring architect who became a princess-in-hiding, and a couple more who wove in and out of the circle as time went on.
I figured that by putting them into my books, I would carry around a piece of each of them forever. So even when they stopped being my friends, when Wren drifted away and Helen got pregnant and dropped out of college, and Joe joined a skin-head gang and Ro started calling me fat and dating dancers, I still had these books, this world. I still had the map Ro drew for me. I still had all the comments pages they’d written on when I passed the finished book around in a big three-ring binder.
I wouldn’t be so lonely ever again.
But after a time, stories take on a life of their own, one outside of the safe little world you took them out of, and I started writing more books. The characters stopped being people I knew, and started existing on their own merits. Their world got bigger. And I started inventing new worlds.
By the time I ran out of my house just after turning 18, I’d written five or six books and a bunch of stories. I’d been submitting stuff for publication for three years, and I’d made a couple of sales. But the project closest to my heart was the growing fantasy series and its ever-expanding cast of characters. When I left behind everyone I knew and a lot of what I owned, I could take the books with me.
I knew things weren’t going to work out in the new digs in Bellingham with the unstable boyfriend when I realized I couldn’t write. I’d sit down at my desk and open my manuscript and just stare at it.
Nobody was talking to me anymore. I didn’t have any stories.
When things were really, really, bad in Bellingham and the sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet were looking pretty good, I’d say, “I can’t kill myself. I have a lot of books to write.”
When I thought I was for shit and probably going certifiably crazy in that little apartment, I’d lie in bed at night and consult all of the characters I’d created; I’d listen to all those old friends who’d become their own people, and when I thought I couldn’t go on, they, those pieces of me, decided that I could, that I had to, because they would die with me.
We can joke a lot about what writing means to us, how it’s all destiny, how it keeps us going. I joke about it a lot.
But I knew things were going to get better when my high school boyfriend ran off to join the Marines and I could suddenly write again. A whole dam opened up, and I spent night after night alone in my big bed, waiting to get evicted because I couldn’t pay the rent, typing and typing and typing. Everything flooded back out, like I’d been holding it back, like a piece of me had gone quiet.
Sometimes, something becomes so much a part of you, that you don’t know how to express yourself without it.
And once you start writing books, you just can’t stop.
Writing became a way for me to be social when I didn’t have friends. When the world had gone to shit, I could create a new one. During the darkest teatimes of the soul, it gave me a reason to get up in the morning. I could keep going long after I couldn’t, because I had worlds and worlds to drag after me.
A fan of Ayn Rand once asked me if I was given the choice to either take a bunch of money and never write again, or continue to write but never be paid for it and never allowed to take any other kind of employment, which I would choose?
I told him that was easy, I’d choose to write.
“But you’d die,” he said. “You couldn’t afford food.”
“I’d die anyway,” I said.
It sounded very dramatic at the time.
And yes, identifying as a writer, writing past the 200 rejections mark, continuing to send things off expecting a different result (the definition of insanity being “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”), to write nine books, try selling two of them and being rebuffed, to keep writing more books, to stay in an admin job and refuse to advance because you like being able to blow off work every other Friday and take a writing day, is pretty fucking crazy. It makes no sense.
I could have gone to law school.
But see, I’m one of those writers who’s disappointing to meet in person. I get my thoughts all mixed up. I’m not very funny. I mess up the timelines on my story narratives. I dress badly. I eat too much. I often devolve into an inarticulate mess. I’m not sure how to put all the pieces together.
Writing, this space, this medium, is where I find myself. Where I take all the pieces and put them together and see what turns up. If somebody told me tomorrow to stop writing, I’d get stuck. I’d go crazy. Not for any grand poetical reason but because I couldn’t express myself. I couldn’t make sense of myself, of the world. I’d cut myself off from the one place I could always go when I wanted to figure out the world by making new ones.
This place, me, this writing personae, wouldn’t exist. So a piece of me would be gone. And when that piece goes quiet, I’m not me.
It’s not like I get paid for this shit.
So yea, I’ve pretty much been writing books forever. On some level, I do it because I’m so far gone now that I can’t imagine not doing it. And on another level, I do it because what comes out often tells me more of who I am than any bridge I ever jumped off or any country I ever trekked through, because I can take those pieces and figure out what they mean and how they work.
I do it because I can slay dragons here.
Real and metaphorical.
The writing can make sense of this big, bold world and what I see in it when spoken words fail me, and my thoughts skip ahead of… well, my thoughts.
But mostly, I think, I write because I would be lonely otherwise.
I have gotten older, and slightly less dorky, and I have good friends, good company, but there is that part of me that is always lonely, that wants to reach out by telling stories, that wants to understand myself and say see, here, do you understand that? Have you seen that? Felt that? Because if they are shared experiences, you're no longer lonely. It’s the person I can’t be in public, the person I talk to in private.
It is this person, and without her, I’m not much at all.
- K Hurley