A tremulous fusion

So once upon a time, I picked up this book called The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer. Because seriously–that title. How could I resist?

There was a point where I almost put it down, because I have a low threshold of tolerance for swearing, and it was riding a little too close to the threshold. But the thing is, Hattemer has a gift for imparting beautiful, hard-hitting truths in the frank and unpolished but still somehow eloquent tone of a teenager who is trying desperately to figure out this insane world we live it. There are a several lines from this novel that jumped straight up near the top of my all-time favorite quotes list. Among them, this one stands out to me today:

“If you have ever wondered what it’s like to be me, or a teenager, or a human, that does a pretty nice job of explaining it. The tremulous fusion between self-trust and self-doubt.” (Hattemer, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, 141)

“Everybody has imaginary friends.”

I’m convinced that the only way to write well is to write for yourself. Whenever I start writing something because I think others will like it better this way, my writing plunges to the depths of humiliating awfulness. I never quite understood why, but I knew that was just how it worked.

And then I read “The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy” by Kate Hattemer, and a lightbulb clicked on.

Here’s an abbreviated version of Elizabeth’s rant as she tries to clue Ethan in to life:

“Andrezejczak,” Elizabeth said, “you’re doing it again. ‘I’m singularly unequipped.’ You think you’re the only real person. You think you’re the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked by how complicated everyone is.”

“You are?”

“Of course I am. . . . Everybody else has unattainable crushes too,” she said. “And imaginary friends. Some part of their mind that they talk to when they can’t deal with talking to real people. You just happen to name yours.” (255–256)

When we look at others, we can only see so much. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that those perky, outgoing, talkative people can share the same fears and insecurities that are so prominent in our own minds. That those successful authors, those Pinterest-perfect mothers, those brilliant artists can ever doubt themselves. That anyone else could possibly have enough in common with us that they will appreciate the stories that come from our hearts.

It’s true that each person is unique, that none are exactly like another. But there is a reason that good stories resonate with people across the world. We all have hopes and doubts and fears and dreams. We are all human.

So if we all share these deep core elements, why does it never work to write something we think others will like, rather than something we like?

When you look at someone, you look through the filter of your own perception. You can’t see everything that person is. You can’t fathom the depths and complications of another’s mind. It’s hard enough to come to grips with your own depths and complications. If you write for the person you see through that filter, you write for someone who doesn’t exist.

But you know your own soul. You know the truths and twists and turns that make up your own being. And if you write something that rings true to your own soul, you’re going to get a lot closer to the core of the rest of the world.

So have faith that everybody else is “amazed and scared and freaked by how complicated everyone is.” Remember that “everybody else has . . . imaginary friends.” Go forward and write your stories for yourself, knowing that that is the only way you can possibly write for others.

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What do you say? Do you ever find yourself writing to please others, instead of yourself? Have you noticed whether it makes a difference in your writing?