Writers on Writing #99: Matthew Burnside
The Devil (and God) in the Details
We don’t often see how strange we are until we look back and are overburdened with the incriminating, undeniable evidence of our awkwardness. The devil is in the details, as they say. But even when I was young I knew I was a strange kid. I spent a lot of time alone building worlds in my head (my choice, I lie to myself – the truth is I lacked the social grace to make and keep many friends). I remember climbing a tree once during a lightning storm, wind shaking the bough, sky flashing white and me riding it out wondering when I might finally get struck. It wasn’t a death wish. I had seen a film where someone was electrified and transformed into a giant monster and I wanted to be a giant monster, too. Some days I would wander around town barefoot with a walking stick, pretending McKinney, Texas, was an alien planet and I, the first pilgrim observing alien life there. This may or may not have been my way of dealing with the fact I was the alien, or at least felt like one. One day I crawled up on the roof of my house, waiting for my dad to hear my footfalls, and when he came yelling I leapt to the ground, making a game of it. I had always wondered whether or not I could survive that fall. Again, not a death wish, just sheer curiosity. I could, obviously. I would always win this game, and many others I made for myself, always one-player because I didn’t have anyone else to play them with.
Last semester, in the Creative Writing for New Media course I taught at the University of Iowa, I saw in the work of my students an unfortunate pattern I had never seen before. Students were writing characters they felt could appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, purposely crafting superficial Everymen or Everywomen, often keeping even their physical characteristics intentionally vague, their lives and inner lives status quo so that “the reader might better empathize and step into the shoes of their protagonists.” Or so the class would collectively argue upon my bringing up the observation. Never mind that for the vast majority that meant writing a straight while male protagonist (which deserves its own blog post entirely), in most cases a college student named Joe or John or Bill or Sally. It was their depiction of the protagonist’s lives that I took issue with. They would wake up, go to school, hang with friends, drink, come home, do homework, play a video game, watch a movie, or at their craziest, read a book. Their lives were depressingly vapid, innocuous, mediocre. They never did anything incriminating. At no point in the stories did any of the characters attempt to build a tent for their dog out of Snuggies, cry over a tampon commercial, have a spontaneous Nerf gun fight with their girlfriend, or breakdance across the living room to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” while juggling popsicles, all things I’ve done this week.
The devil is in the details, and the pursuit of an Everyman in fiction is the pursuit of a Nothingman. It is the avoidance of intimacy, of writing something deep and true. I suspect it is borne out of fear — like most things with writing that matters — that we might divulge our deepest vulnerabilities, crack open our chests to expose the dust and rust, open the floodgates and reveal something of ourselves on the page that we wished to be kept locked up, out of embarrassment, or shame, or regret. But these things are exactly what make fiction worth writing and reading. To capture life, true life in all its glorious messiness. To invoke the bizarre from the benign and witness we aren’t nearly as strange or ugly as we think we are. To be reminded we all do weird shit sometimes in a desperate attempt to wage war on our inner demons, our addictions, our self-hate, our loneliness. To be granted, at last, confirmation that while we may be alone at least we’re alone together. To be forgiven our freakishness.
When my writing students tell me they’re shaving all the rough edges off a character in an attempt to appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, I tell them they’re assassinating everything human about that character. Humans, after all, are made of rough edges: wondrous patchworks of eccentricity—cuneiforms of scars and oddities. If you want to appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, I tell them, the way to do that is not by appealing to any of your hypothetical readers but the characters you’re trying to do justice. Imagine they are your readers. Would they be satisfied? Have you cheated them out of their weirdness? Their misery? Their humanity? Have you cheapened them in some way to hypothetically sell more hypothetical books to hypothetical readers? If you love your characters, I tell my students, you honor them by putting them on the page in all their aberrant and idiosyncratic splendor. If you can forget about trying to give the reader someone like them and just give them someone real, someone true, someone deficient, flawed, odd and beautifully broken, then counter-intuitively, I promise them, readers will see themselves in there somewhere, and they will rejoice.
The devil is indeed in the details. So is God.
And people, real people contain equal measures of both.
Matthew Burnside keeps a list of his sins here.