As the great Joe Walsh once wrote, life’s been good to me so far.
I am just past ten months in Australia and I feel like I’m still adapting to it, but the last few weeks in particular have made me really hyperaware of just how out of water a fish I am. Prior to picking up actual work outside of writing, I’ve existed in a bubble of expat friends and Australians who are generally very familiar with America/Americans, so I haven’t had to go out of my way to explain things to them and they get my references.
Working outside of that bubble? I think I’ve spent a good quarter of my work time explaining stuff about the states. Not even the election and fallout, which is very obviously a major topic of discussion here along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country” and flipping out at those who consider Australia completely removed from the situation (not like it’s a continent notable for being the canary in the coal mine regarding climate change and sitting in China’s backyard should saber rattling between the other world powers occur). There’s been a lot of that, and as a political junkie I’ve been more than happy to explain things as best I can, but there’s an interest in cultural stuff I took completely for granted stateside.
My current long term contract has me running data administration and analytics for a children’s cancer care project with a pretty sizable coverage area. It’s a cool group of people from all walks of life, and almost all of them have been curious about everything from my prior jobs and working conditions back in the states to the shock of moving from a frozen wasteland to the subtropics.
My go-to at this point when asked “What’s Maine like?” is something along the lines of “you watch Game of Thrones, yeah? Beyond the Wall, but with less ice zombies and more moose. My hometown had under two thousand people at its peak, I lived a good half hour’s drive from anything resembling civilization, and I worked with a lot of people who took pride in never venturing outside of the state because home had everything they needed.”
It’s weird, because I’ve been put on the defensive about some of the things that bother me the most about the USA. There’s a definite element of “I can call it shitty as much as I want, I grew up in it and I understand why it’s shitty, but if you’ve never been there you’d better pump your breaks.” A lot of my time has been spent explaining why some terrible old social remnants exist into the modern day, even when I despise them myself. I have to explain the problems I see with the education system and how it doesn’t absolve people of blame for doing bad things, but it shows why they think that way beyond pure malice like many people see.
One of the big ones is when I was asking a couple of coworkers about leave, reimbursement, things of a financial nature. They were quizzing me on how it was at my old job and were utterly horrified when I told them about the pay rates, overtime policies, health coverage… one of them said it sounded like the third world and that she wanted to give me a hug at one point, and asked how I didn’t go completely mental over living that way for years and years.
And… It got me thinking. It got me thinking, as most things do, about writing and characters and adaptability. One of the oldest and most tired, worn-out tropes I love is that the human racial trait is the ability to be flexible and live anywhere, make anything the norm, and just deal with it. It’s an exceptionally lazy trope used to differentiate mankind from fantasy or alien races and is completely unrealistic because if we encountered elves or dwarves, if they had flourished at all as a people they would have had to adapt to different environments and social situations to meet localized customs. If nothing else you’d have, I don’t know, ice dwarves mining things in the polar regions and tropical dwarves living along the baked equator, and the difference in environment would necessitate different social norms and rules and whatnot.
But nonetheless, humans are usually the ones who get completely rounded stats and the most freedom for how you build them in roleplaying games, and are presented as something like the cockroaches of many sci-fi strategy games. Give us enough time to dig in and get used to something and we’ll treat it like it’s totally fine, what are you complaining about, of course I took my twelve doses of radiation medpac before going out onto the Belts of Zondarr to harvest glo-gems.
We are a remarkably adaptable people and I only see how stressful my life was in hindsight. When I was living it, well, I made ends meet. I recognized that things could be better and I worked towards that, but in the meantime I did what I had to in order to survive and meet my goals as best I could. I mean, I’m someone with chronic medical issues that I control through very strict, disciplined regimes I’ve had to develop since I was 17 years old and had to have multiple major surgeries ripping my large intestine out and reconstructing the ruins in my abdomen. I was, at any given time, even on a decent-if-overpriced health plan, a couple of bad cases of pouchitis away from bankruptcy. I worked 10 hour days and weekends for over a year just to be able to move here, to make a fraction of what I’m making now for similar work.
I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into it. I try to be a woke, feminist dude but I’ve been bombarded by toxic masculine ideals my entire life and I’m sure that I’ve absorbed enough of them to keep a death-grip on my emotions a lot of the time; I simply don’t let myself panic and I bury my stress in a shallow grave. I come from the New England region where a lot of the societal norm is based around stoicism and not complaining about your lot in life. During the brief time I worked outside of New England, anyone who had worked with other people from the region tended to treat me like some kind of viking-golem who they could point at work and I would ponderously hack away at it until it was gone or I was, and that’s what I did.
It’s not a bad thing, but it’s one of those ones where you don’t realize just how ridiculous the situation was until you were out of it. I look at my health coverage here, the kind of money I could make from entry-level stuff or short term temp work if I walked out of my job tomorrow, and I have no idea how I didn’t go insane from the stress of not having the options I do now.
I think that a lot of that shows up in my writing. I try not to do author avatar characters unless they’re well-hidden in the background or bit parts or I’m poking fun at myself, but there’s an element of that stubbornness that seeps into most of my main characters. And, weirdly enough, I feel like I’ve learned from them as well. There’s an incredibly bizarre kind of osmosis and reversal that happens to some writers, a bloc of which I feel increasingly part, where I really attach a good chunk of what makes me me to a protagonist (or antagonist, because I can also be an asshole) and throw them out into the vast ocean of fiction, and when I reel them back in at the end of the story I collect a lot of what they’ve learned.
It’s a bit like the old conundrum of how you write a character who is smarter than you, or better at you than something. You research it meticulously and you end up a bit smarter or better yourself. It’s one of the things that drew me to writing in the first place, more than any other creative form in the world.
My characters tend to be very adaptable, because when I read fiction that’s what I myself enjoy seeing. No one likes seeing a character who just gives up in the face of overwhelming odds. No one should ever feel like they need to be that character, either. Take advantage of the hoary stereotype of the incredibly adaptable people and let it be a wellspring of strength for you, and create these situations where you stand between the mirrors of real life and fiction and let both enrich you. I try to maintain the adaptability of the characters in my own life, in my case through sheer bullheadedness.
I don’t advocate bottling things up quite as much as I do, of course. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not that healthy for me and it’s something I’ve tried to work on for much of my adult life, but I recognize that it’s there and I can harness it when I need to. Your flaws can become strengths when you look at them just right. It’s like a much less violent version of Sam Vimes’s The Beast from the Discworld novels, particularly Night Watch:
Vimes felt his hand begin to move of its own accord–
And stopped. Red rage froze.
There was The Beast, all around him.
And that’s all it was. A beast. Useful, but still a beast. You could hold it on a chain, and make it dance, and juggle balls. It didn’t think. It was dumb. What you were, what you were, was not The Beast.
Self-indulgent wankery and shoehorned Pratchett worship aside, I need to get back to book recommendations beyond just re-reading the old Stephen King novels out of a misplaced longing for my homeland!
Rather than fiction I want to recommend one of the very few writing advice books I enjoy and have found helpful.
Now, I don’t have any personal hatred for writing advice books. I recognize that everyone needs to make money, it’s easier to sell shovels in a gold rush than the pan for gold yourself, and that many of the books contain really good advice, but I tend to look at them more as tools I can keep in a very large cabinet and fish out when I run into something that I can’t handle with my own homemade items.
Generally I like advice books that take almost a narrative form, like King’s On Writing or Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, or some of Chuck Wendig’s collected essays. Authors talking about how much they love their craft does more for my brain than lists of how to do certain things or how not to do them.
One of the very few exceptions to that is The Art of War for Writers by James Bell, written just a few years ago. There have been a billion business variations of The Art of War over the decades, all boiling down to strained “don’t be an idiot on the battlefield / don’t be an idiot in the boardroom” similes, but this is the first time I’ve seen it applied to storytelling. It presents the structures of a story as troop formations, the “enemy” as the reader, and winning the battle as battering down their defenses and capturing their attention fully enough that they not only buy your book but actively look to buy more. It’s split into helpful sections devoted to everything from narrative hooks to character development and how to foreshadow a compelling plot twist, and it does it with wry wit that is genuinely enjoyable to read on its own. You can’t use it as a blueprint for a story, nor should you because then it wouldn’t be your story or your voice, but it gives you a very useful tool that you can pull out when you find yourself in a bind or butting up against writers block. The snippets are, if nothing else, inspiration and story seeds for when you’re having a bad day and your head is feeling cloudy. It’s not going to hold your hand through writing a bestseller, but it can allow you to frame your own story from another angle and sometimes that makes a difference.