Why I Write: In Third Person

    While presenting ‘Wanakufa’ at Pomona High School this week, the most interesting question I was asked was this:  Why do I write my short stories in third person, when they are very obviously based on real-life experiences?  

    Why not just write essays or fictional memoir pieces in first person? Change a couple of names, maybe some of the smaller details, but make it even more obvious that the stories are less made-up than they seem? It would certainly lend credibility to the stories. No one would be able to say that I had pulled them out of thin air. Even without me coming in to present and explain the story, people would know that these things happened to me, specifically- Elizabeth Rose, and not anyone else. 

   Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. For one, I tend to be a ‘crisis of faith’ kind of writer. I’m not huge on writing stories about when I was on the top of my game. I write about when I was down on my luck, sick, confused, morally challenged, sad, or angry. The other characters in the story sometimes share in that negativity. Sometimes they are the cause of that negativity. These can be people that I met once and never saw again, people I hate, or people that I’ve come to love who were just having a bad day, or I didn’t know them well enough yet. When I write these kinds of encounters in first person, I feel an almost irrepressible urge to explain how I feel presently about those kinds of people. It’s difficult to write in an ‘I’ voice without including what ‘I’ have learned. Putting my own ‘self’ into a third person character helps me create that distance. It gives me the freedom to be able to write both myself as I was, and the other people as they were. Sure, I change their names and normally only the people being talked about have any idea that the story has to do with them in the first place. So they’re protected in that way. But to be honest about how I reacted to them then, I can’t allow the story to become saturated with who I am now. 

   Which is another reason why it’s important for me to write my memories in third person. It’s too easy, when in the first person, for me to write myself as a flawless character. I write myself as the perfect person I know myself to be (even though I’m not). When I create a third-person character who happens to have the same kind of experience that I’ve had, I allow myself to be much more honest about myself. I allow Julia to be horridly arrogant, materialistic, and slightly delusional. Martha is too doe-eyed, cautious and suspicious. Beck is cold, and nearly uncaring to a friend calling out for help. I was all of these things at one time, and in certain situations- in other situations and times I am less so, or more so. I am better able to analyze the memory that I’m trying to work through when I can allow the character to embody the way in which I responded to the situation that I was in- helps me become more harsh towards myself, and more willing to put forth all those little issues that made the situation possible. Creating a ‘me’ without the ‘I’ helps me battle my own ego.

   I don’t write short stories just for other people. Novels, more so. But with short stories, like with poetry, I have something to work out. Old fears. Old trauma. Old questions. New questions brought up that make me think of old memories. Similar situations happening again and again in my life for no apparent reason. My short stories are written as a kind of map for myself- to attempt to see, objectively, where I’ve been and possible figure out where it is that I want to be going. I give them to you all in the hopes that maybe you too will be able to learn something from my own life. 

   Do I think I’ll never write a first person story? No. I’m sure there will come a time when it fits the story. But for the moment, I am not confident enough in my ability to instinctively separate my ego from my writing, and need a couple more years of practice with that. And I need a couple more months practice writing my own stories, from my own experience, before I can conjure up the audacity to make up such concise stories about non-existent people in the first place! So I hope you all will bear with me as I continue to learn, and continue to work things out. I’m grateful for the support. 

Becoming a Better Writer: Guest Speaking

As I approach a couple of milestones (defending my thesis in November, graduating in December, third story story publication coming up soon, etc.) I’ve been lucky enough to be able to chance my pace a bit and play hooky in the name of speaking to local high school classes about short story writing. A couple of 10th grade English classes at Pomona High School in Arvada, Colorado, read my first published short story, Wanakufaand then had be come in during their class so they could ask me questions before I led them in a creative writing exercise for their own short story writing unit in class.

Beginning the writer's workshop

Beginning the writer’s workshop

These kids were asking me some questions I had prepared for, and some I hadn’t even really thought about. These surprise questions ranged from ‘what’s the tone of this story, do you think’? to ‘why would you risk your life in a foreign country’ and ‘were you scared to die?’. Some of those I really had thought myself prepared to answer (I mean the whole story is about being afraid to die,  for pete’s sake). I’ve learned in this past week, however, that it’s one thing to answer these kinds of questions in your head or to your mirror- and an entirely different thing to answer these questions to a room full of teenagers, a third-of whom are staring at you with relentless interest, another third who are beginning to fall asleep, and a mixture of both in the rest. Part of me wanted them to love everything I said. Another part of me wanted to sneak out the window somehow and forget the whole presentation. But I soldiered through, and I really think that I’m better for it.

Guest speaking on your own writing is a whole different experience. For one, it really made me examine (in a short, pressured amount of time) my own motivations for writing. Again, its one thing to have ‘motivations’ in your own head. It’s another thing to have to articulate that to a group of people who have not yet learned how to be pretentious about writing and are notorious for questioning and challenging authority.  I found that I wasn’t just justifying my writing career to them, but to myself- and I couldn’t just cop out halfway through and give up. I was forced to justify my own choices in authorship in a way that was entirely convincing- which, far from being depressing or overly difficult, towards the end, was extremely uplifting and personally affirming.

Which with this group, I think, had the added difficulty of speaking to an age group that I did not go into this specifically writing for. My writing, both my novels and my short stories, were all written with more of a young adult (twenties and up) to adult audience. I didn’t realize how much I had taken that for granted until I heard some of the questions that these kids were asking me about Wanakufa. Which is not to say that I was sudden inspired to write new Teen and YA genre stories. I still believe that, at least for now, I’m sticking with my chosen audience. It just made me more aware of the real differences between those audiences- as much as I would like to think that there are none. And again, the differences are not huge and it doesn’t mean that I don’t think people can age-level jump like crazy between them. But that difference has to be addressed, at least by me as an author. Which is,  again, fun to have to think about as a twenty-one year old speaking to fifteen year olds. Only six years difference, and look where we are! I wouldn’t have believed it myself only two years ago, to be honest.

Explaining some more of the background information on Wanakufa

Explaining some more of the background information on Wanakufa

The writing workshop was super fun. I really enjoyed hearing some of the things that the kids were saying that they wanted to write about- ranging from the deaths of siblings to twisted ankles and family trips to Vegas that they were turning into comedy, horror and romance short stories. I was really impressed by the range of creativity in these classes, which gave me, in turn, a couple of ideas for my own short-story planning coming up.

Suffice to say, I was very thankful for this experience. At the end of it, I was solicited by another teacher at that school to come back and speak to his classes in a couple of weeks as well. This time, I will be much better prepared, but no less excited. I really do appreciate all of these opportunities to give back to my local community in little ways- and to become a better writer in the process!

Follow-Up Interview

As I prepare for a couple of interesting opportunities in the next couple of weeks (discussing my short stories with local high schools and a radio interview), I was asked back to the Cult of Me blog for a follow up interview. Click here to see what I’ve been up to since I last chatted with author Michael Brookes, what wisdom I’ve learnt since the release of my first novel, and what I’m working on at the moment.

Why I Write: About Kenya & Typhoid

I’ve gotten a handful of questions about my recent short story release, Wanakufa, and I feel like that makes it the prime subject of my next installment of ‘Why I Write’.  I promise this one won’t be quite so heavy as the last. In fact, the story that Wanakufa is based off of is one of my personal favorites to tell people when I am getting to know them. I mean, who else can say that they’ve not only gotten to go to Kenya, but got a deadly disease and still made it out alive? I’ve been surprised at the amount of people who automatically assume from the story’s subject that Wanakufa is a period piece, as if typhoid is something people can’t possibly get anymore.  If nothing else, it tends to be a good conversation starter.

But if I’m being honest, it is something else. Something much more than just a ‘conversation starter’. It was a moment in time  that changed my life in so many ways. Not that I didn’t expect that- 17 years old, bright eyed and bushy tailed on my first mission trip overseas with a small group of young people similarly on fire to change the world in the name of Christ (yes, I am unapologetically Roman Catholic). We were tasked with helping to build a well for a small village in Kakamega. Our guide, at the time a professor of African History in Colorado, had been born in our host village- we’d be building a second well several hours away. Our trip to that village was the first time he’d seen his hometown since the death of his beloved mother. We entered that community to the sounds of a stirring memorial.

reception

It was that kind of reception that hit me the hardest, and would stick with me for the duration of our stay. Here I was, expecting some sort of wild joy to receive us. Some kind of acknowledgement that we, the Americans, were there to make their lives better. And yet, that didn’t matter to them until after the memorial was finished. More important was the welcoming home of their prodigal son. More important was the completion of a mourning that had been missing an integral piece for too many years. I am ashamed to admit now, years after the fact, that I felt upstaged for the briefest of moments. Uncomfortable, even. Ever since, I have pinpointed that moment of my own awakening to the awareness of my own privilege and the ways that it hurt people down to the bone. Of my own colonialist attitude, of the racist society I had been raised in and the self-absorbed way in which I had been dreaming of conducting my own skewed sense of social justice.

 

Which is not to say that I was all of a sudden enlightened, no. I still have so much more to learn. It has only been through years of fever dreams and obsessive remembrance of my time in Kakamega that have even brought me to this point- the point of attempting to write down my own process of growth in order to continue the dialogue through storytelling. I don’t want to ruin too much of the story, but I can safely admit that the story does closely mirror my own experience of contracting typhoid during my stay. (I couldn’t stand not shaving my legs because it was part of my routine and so I did, nicked myself, and let tainted water directly into my bloodstream, stupidly enough). The story was born from that experience, though the details and the ending might be a little different.

So why write it? Why not just leave it to talk about at gatherings for shock value? Because I felt like there was something in that experience that I needed to work out- namely, my own guilt over the attitude I had taken going into the mission trip. The arrogance that I had had to assume that I a) had any strength to offer our host village that they did not already have and b) that I could bring Christ to them any better than they could already feel Him. I also wanted to admit to both myself and the world how othering I had been from the outset, and how it had taken nearly dying to make myself truly, and not just cosmetically, accept my host village as family. And how sad it is for the world as a whole that white colonialism, and the attitudes born from it still alive and well today, continue to hurt a people who have their own rich cultures and voices. It’s a story that wants to say “I was wrong to be so arrogant, and I had no right. I came here, guns blazing, into someone elses’ family, thinking I was stronger than all of this, and now I’m about to die of a sickness most of our host family have had multiple times since they were children though the rest of the world considers it ‘ancient’, and I might never get to see my family again. And I might deserve that.” The story is fixated on longing and human closeness, and an insecurity in the face of death that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake.

I thank God every day for that humbling experience, and for the further humbling experience of having to learn even more about it through writing it down in fictional memoir style. It is one of my hopes that this story, this ‘confession’ of mine, if you will, will lead to learning even more about how I can put aside old ways of seeing the world, and be able to truly work towards a better way of being. This is all I am capable of saying- admitting my past shortcomings- and now, I must prepare myself to listen.

The Covers That Almost Were

One of the most fun parts of the authoring process has to be the making of covers for novels/ stories. I tend to do a lot of it in my spare time, just for kicks and giggles. So when I get to the part of publishing where I actually get to banter back and forth with my editors about what kind of cover is going to be used, I get rather excited.

To give you a hint of that- here is a peek at some of the ‘covers that almost were’ for my last publication (from last week), the short story Wanakufa:

samplecover1

samplecover2

face

Pretty neat, huh? Each of the different covers highlighted a different aspect of the story. We went with the one with the jaundiced eye because, well… maybe you should read the story for yourself to find out 😉

New Publication: A Short Story

My short story, Wanakufa, is now available from eLectio publishing. Download it from their bookstore for .99!

wanakufafinalcover

Here’s the blurb:

In the impoverished village of Kakamega, Kenya, seven missionaries from Colorado arrive to dig wells, pray, and share the culture of the indigenous Luhya tribe. Along for the ride is Julia, a senior in high school hoping to leave her own mark on the world through her service in Christ’s name. Little does she know, she will bring more to this trip than she will ever realize.

 

She is Wanakufa. Dying.