I could probably list one hundred reasons why I write, but one of the most important is this: we only have so many opportunities in our lives to transform bad things into good. We only have so many opportunities to take things that are muddled and angry and difficult and shape them into things that matter. We can choose not to lie every day of our lives, but we only have so many opportunities to say things that are very, very true.
So: a story. On the day after Thanksgiving several years ago, I told my mother I had something to say to her, and we took a walk. It was dusk, not quite evening yet, a quiet crisp New England gloaming settling all around us, and I was eighteen and alight with every new thing my life was becoming and I wasn’t sure how to say it but I wasn’t sure how to hide it anymore, either, not even sure I could. We wandered over to a playground surrounded by towering trees, their shadow arms stretching up and out like a congregation lost in prayer and as we swayed back and forth on the swings I clasped my hands in front of me and trembled and opened my mouth and I finally said the words into the frosted air. I watched them wisp up like smoke; I watched them catch in the arms of the trees.
With one sentence, everything changed.
There is power in bringing your voice to bear. Writers know this; so do LGBT people. It’s why writers write. It’s why LGBT people open their mouths and speak themselves into the frost. We know the power of words. We know that one simple declaration can change everything.
And that’s the thing I try to hold on to, as I breathe life into my characters, as I try to give voice to their wants and desires, to bring forth their darkness and tangles and joys and secrets: I am looking for the words that will change everything. After all, that’s what writing is, isn’t it? You discover these people living at the edge of your consciousness and you coax them into being, and then you try your best to take what they give you and somehow shape it into something real and very, very true.
But that isn’t always a simple thing to do. One of my characters recently – and completely unexpectedly – came out to me. I smiled when it happened. I looked up into the trees. It was as though, after all these years, my words were floating back down to me.
And then I freaked out. Because I know that words are powerful – I know it as a writer, I know it as a lesbian. But does that mean I have some sort of obligation to send a message with this character? Do I have to teach a lesson? Do I have to be extra-careful in how I present her, because there’s a risk that she might be read as a stand-in for lesbians everywhere? What added responsibility do I have, if any? What do I owe readers? What do I owe myself? What do I owe my world?
Given the way our society treats LGBT people, and especially its teens, it’s hard not to feel like there’s some extra responsibility that goes along with writing an LGBT character in YA. Of course, writing a queer character isn’t inherently different than writing any other character; after all, like children and significant others, it’s not as though any of them come with instructions for assembly. We’re all muddling through, trying to get out of the way and allow our characters to emerge into the fully-realized people that they are.
But there’s an added weight, with this character of mine. Because I want to do her justice, yes, but I also want to do queer people justice, and if those impulses come into conflict I’m not sure how to reconcile them. I want to write my character as she is – I don’t want her to be a cliché, or too-perfect, or sanitized for public consumption. I want her to be complex and genuine and flawed. But as she walks through the world, this perfectly imperfect creature, I can’t help but fear that somehow she’ll be misused. That instead of being seen as an example of a shared humanity, she’ll only be seen as proof of queer people’s flaws. Too this. Too that. Not enough. Never enough.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe this is a non-issue, and people are more enlightened than I give them credit for. Maybe everyone who reads LGBT characters does so with an open mind, a generous heart.
Or maybe I’m right to have doubts, but it doesn’t matter anyway. Because maybe – and this is what I’ve come to realize – maybe what it comes down to is that while my words matter, my intention for them doesn’t.
The thing is, once your characters go out into the world, they’re no longer yours. You can have intended all sorts of things for them, attempted to steer them one way or another, forced them into boxes, tried to keep them safe – but in the end, the world won’t have it. Readers may misunderstand them, may turn your every intention on its head, may use your ideas in ways you never intended. You can’t predict that. You don’t get to control it. You can only do your best to say what you mean, and then release your words like so many balloons and hope they find their way. And that is part of being a writer, too – the letting go.
So for me, I’ve found it’s best to write without those sorts of conscious intentions. I am not here to create perfect characters who project some kind of idealized reality, and I think that using a character as a lesson is a quick and easy way to kill a story. My character is who she is. She is flawed. She is a street-level miracle. She is ordinary; she is astounding. She is true, and she doesn’t owe the world anything more than that.
Here is what I know. To write is to sit beneath the sky on a very cold night and speak words that float into the waiting arms of a congregation of trees. It is to try your hardest to say the words that change everything. Hold on to that: write from that place. Use your words to say the things that are very, very true.
Speak into the frost. That is your only obligation. That is what you can control.
And if you are lucky, that will be enough.
Jessica Albrecht is a reader and writer of YA, a lawyer, a tea-drinker, and a solver of problems that do not involve math. When she’s not reading, writing, or failing to count correct change, she’s blogging. (Okay, she also occasionally indulges in really bad TV). Visit her at http://sortofmentalsquint.blogspot.com/ or catch her on Twitter at @writerlyjes.