Sunday, August 12, 2007

Who's censoring you?

Yesterday at our local SCBWI chapter meeting, author April Lurie posed this question to a group of children's writers: Who's your personal censor?

A personal censor, the way I'd define it, is that little voice in a writer's brain that tries to control what topics should be avoided. The voice stands patrol, and as a writer begins to put words on paper, it begins to send warnings: You can't write about that. That subject is taboo, off limits. You should feel ashamed of yourself for writing about that. Under certain circumstances, a personal censor may not be a bad thing. Eventually, I had to employ one to watch over this blog, so that I wouldn't put anything out that might damage my career. But when it comes to writing a novel, particularly getting through a first draft, a personal censor can be more harm than good.

During yesterday's meeting, there were many answers to the question: Who's your personal censor. For one guy, it was his teenage daughters. For an elderly woman, it was her critical mother. For someone else, their devoutly religious father.

Me, I have many personal censors. The most influential — and probably most harmful for my writing — is my personal religious beliefs, and those of others important to me — my wife, mother, grandfather, friends or family who know me as a Christian. I mean, what would those people think about me if I wrote a story about a 16-year-old kid who, following some emotionally traumatic event in his life, acted out by using alcohol, participated in risky sexual behavior, used drugs, and shoplifted as a means to boost his self esteem? Not saying that's the story I'm gonna write but, if I did, I'd hear the voices of my personal censors telling me that I shouldn't write such things that might introduce, encourage or romanticize such behaviors. "Is this you?" they'd ask. And I might not want to answer that question.

Of course, I wouldn't paint this picture gratuitously. I'd use these behaviors to illustrate my character at his weakest point. My readers would then witness him overcome his demons; He would grow into a better person, or maybe even self-destruct. Either way, writing a story like this would be a struggle between me — my creativity, my imagination, my personal experiences — vs. my personal censors.

Who are your personal censors?


Disco Mermaids said...

Fascinating topic, Don. On our blog, all of our posts are read by at least one other Mermaid. But when it comes to writing my books, it would be much better to have no friends or family or fellow church members ever read what I write.

My first book is an edgy teen novel and there are some scenes I am terrified to have them read. But, like you said, I wrote it as responsibly as possible while also being true to the story. And yet, I know they're going to react differently since it's my book as opposed to one where they don't know the author.

Oh well.

- Jay

rindawriter said...

I have practiced for a long time now leaving the naysayers, the critics, the folks whom I call DEMEANERS, the people who seem to have to DIMINISH other people constantly instead of just being honest, true to themselves, and doing their own thing, speaking out what they believe in their own voices, strong and true and constantly seeking the truth, all those sorts of people and voices and critics who don't stay true to themselves, I leave at my writing room door, and I LOCK THAT DOOR AGAINST THEM! No, I BARRICADE the door agasinst them!

That's why I love my writing spaces so much, as I have more than one room or space as a writer. I guard them jealously. No one gets into my creating space, no one. That's why I don't show my incomplete work to others like in a critique group. It just ruins the writing process for me. The work is still too new. Once, it's grown up enough, then it can go out on its own to take whatever comes it's way. But writers must keep nurturing places, safe places for their words, too.

"To thine own self, be true," as Shakespeare said. I think, if you want originality and voice and uniqueness as a writer, you have to do that. You have to be true to yourself in some private place or space.

It takes courage to do that. But it can be a whole lot worse for you if you don't do it and instead listen to and allow in all the critics in those fragile personal creative moments and spaces. Guard your creative spaces well, say I. Keep those private areas private, always keep something private when you create. Always.

Later when the work gets out there when the critics and the world come pouring in, you'll find yourself well protected and able to withstand the tough pressures.

And I will share this, about being a Christian, since I am one also, what matters are the values that seep through your work: Are they really Christian values?

I would call Sherman Alexie's work very Christian in the values contained in them, and that might shock some Christians because his words contain sex scenes and swear words. But that is not what his words are about, those things are not what his work is. Those things are not how his words change readers, affect readers.

To me his words are about hope and redemption and truth, really, coming right down to it, and understanding others and, in deep sense, loving them--and in the process coming to a healing of ourselves. Despite all the so-called "bad things" some people see on the surface of his words.

I know I am sticking my neck out here in the views of many who say they are Christians--a very radical perspective, but then, when weren't real Christians not radical?

Thanks for letting me share, Don, in the grand old tradition of big-mouth Mother Paul--St. Paul to those who don't know about whom I am talking. How I love Mother Paul!

Liz in Ink said...

Wow, this is so fascinating and I'm really glad to hear the question since I wasn't in town for April's talk. It's interesting to consider that when we first write we tend to underestimate the power of the word and step on all sorts of people toes. Then, later, the censor rears her ugly head. Do you think?