Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Artistic Integrity, Why I Judge & Spiritual Manipulation

If you ever wanted to understand my negativity, this is the post to read. We'll call it a confession.

I recently asked if it’s ever okay to kill off a beloved character, or career suicide. The result of the discussion on Crimespace led way beyond that one topic, to questions about whether or not novels are collaborations and what constitutes compromise.

I think almost every novel produced is, to some degree, a series of triumphs and compromises. The reality is, we all have a learning curve, we all get things drilled into us. How many times can it be debated whether or not you have to drop a body in the first chapter? Perhaps more established authors have forgotten, because the rules are more relaxed for them? I don’t honestly know.

I certainly know I’ve been told to put the victim in chapter 1, many times over.

There are other things I’ve been told as well. We could make a long, long list, but the point isn’t what people get told to do… It’s more why they get told to do them. As far as I’m concerned, the writer can consider those things, and decide for themselves whether they are essential truths that should be applied to the work, or whether or not they’re opinions that can be dismissed.

Now, I just finished EXIT MUSIC by Ian Rankin, purported to be the last Rebus book. And I raised the question about killing off beloved characters, in part, because of extreme anger raised repeatedly on discussion lists and forums about the latest Karin Slaughter book, and a while back, an Elizabeth George book. In both cases, I hadn’t read the work in question, so I had no personal opinion. But the reactions gave me pause.

Some readers took the death of beloved characters personally.

For me, if the Rebus series had ended with knowledge that at some point a few months earlier Rebus and Siobhan had been alone with opportunity (but she’d had the same opportunity with someone else, and in both cases, we didn’t know if she’d taken it) and the end of the book was her standing over Rebus’s grave and feeling the baby move for the first time, golden. In all honesty, as much as I’d be sad to see a character I’ve enjoyed spending so much time with six feet under, I would completely respect the author’s right to decide to kill him off, as long as I didn’t feel it was simply done for emotional manipulation. If it fit the book and was what was called for, no issue at all.

However, I’m well aware that the publishers might have a different opinion about that.

If we listen to our agents/publishers/fans, I don’t think we’ve necessarily compromised artistically. Okay, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, I found it worrying. Kill off a character because you’re done with him, but be forced to bring him back. (And thus were many soap opera storylines born, with people surviving plunges over waterfalls, explosions, drownings, etc. etc. etc… Thanks to Holmes, we can say death really is not the end for all.) Now, that… seems to me like a compromise.

But what if my editor said, “I don’t like the name Ashlyn Hart. Can we come up with something else?” Well, I would have produced a list of possible changes and discussed them with him. After all, in SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, Lara originally had a different name, and I changed it. I can handle that. Sometimes, it’s necessary, because maybe the editor knows someone else has a book coming out with a character named Ashley Hart. Artistic compromise? Not in my opinion, certainly not for that reason.

Some things boil down to the practical. What matters not is the specifics, but the reason behind them.

With WHAT BURNS WITHIN, setting was crucial for the story. There is a technical aspect to the story that means it can’t work just anywhere. For the most part, I expect readers won’t even know what it is. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that I do my homework, and knowing that a crucial element of the story hangs on this, it required a very specific type of fire department. This story could not work in Calgary. It could not work in Vancouver, or Burnaby or New Westminster. It could work in Surrey, Langley or Coquitlam.

So I chose Coquitlam. Yes, yes, it’s part of the Greater Vancouver Area, and that generally means ‘Vancouver’ in simplest terms. But if I was told to move the story to literally Vancouver, I would have said no and held my ground. Why? Because the setting was dictated by an aspect of the story, and therefore crucial to the story. The same scenario could not happen in Vancouver. And because a major component of the plot hinged on this, essentially the book couldn’t happen just anywhere.

Did I get to keep my setting? Yes. Triumph. Did I change character names along the way? Well, don’t blame my editor, but the current names of some characters are not the original names I had picked. For a variety of reasons, I changed them. Artistic compromise? Well, I don’t think so.

Ultimately, I don’t really care about the decisions others make, as long as the product works and they’re happy with it. Have I been told to relocate books to a US setting? Yes. Have I done that? Yes – SC. Would I set books in the US again? Yes, I would. It isn’t that I’m necessarily opposed to relocating a book, it’s more that I don’t want to have to for everything, especially if the story won’t work somewhere else.

Another example? When I interviewed John Rickards for Crimespree Magazine last year, I asked why he chose to set his books in the US instead of the UK, seeing as he’s British. He said guns. And there’s a great point. It’s hard to have a lot of realistic gunfights in books set in the UK. And so much more delicate to try to describe a stabbing attack… See, a reason to pick a different setting.

I don’t have a problem with people moving settings, or with people renaming characters, or with someone changing their mind about killing off a character after a discussion with their editor. I don’t think that’s all artistic compromise.

When it’s compromise is when it’s dictated and there is no good reason for it, or making the change would compromise the technical correctness of the storyline.

Do I have a bit of an issue over the Canada vs US settings? Yes, I do. My initial rejections from agents and publishers centered on one thing, Canada. Not the quality of the writing. Not the storyline. Just the setting. I was repeatedly told a police procedural series using the RCMP would never sell to a US publisher.

Frankly, I could set everything else I write outside this country and not take it so personally, having just proven all the naysayers wrong. Yeah, I’m remarkably stubborn that way… But I love setting stuff in places I know, where I can use that as a strength in the work.

Whatever anyone else does is up to them. And whether or not it’s an artistic compromise, only they’ll really know in their own heart. If so, it’s them living with it, not me.

The only thing I don’t understand is the idea that you absolutely should not listen to anyone about something like killing a character off because you should be true to your vision of the work… but if a publisher had told Rankin to relocate the Rebus books in England because it has a much bigger population, would that have been okay?

In my mind anyway, once you set a standard for what constitutes compromise, shouldn’t it be universal, not situation specific?

You see, that’s a throwback. That’s me wanting the world to be black and white.

Okay, I honestly don’t get it. I don’t get how changing a decision about whether or not to kill off a character because of the opinion of your agent or editor is a compromise, but changing something else, like setting isn’t. I pare it down to that root – asking why the decision was reached – for myself anyways. But it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it. I’m sorry if I offended anyone in the process of raising my questions. I honestly haven’t got the foggiest idea (unless someone tells me) who’s relocated a book or made any decision about their work that might tie to my general thoughts. I felt like the conversation risked getting personal, and that wasn’t what I intended out of it. Nine times out of ten, six days a week, I’m one of those people who can agree to disagree and still love and accept a person. I have many friends from different cultures, backgrounds, religions, belief systems, and as long as they don’t go against my core (ie: abuse a child, for example) I don’t care what they do or what they believe. I can like and accept them for who they are, even if I completely disagree with their politics or don’t practice their religion.

But this whole discussion became a throwback, to the world I lived in a long time ago, one that denies gray. Over the past few days, I’ve had reason to think a lot about my religious background, and how it shaped my life. And my biggest regret is the judgment I put on other people, based on them not measuring up to the standards I’d been taught to believe were God’s. I was trained by the best, to quote chapter and verse, to know the standards and tell everyone and anyone when they weren’t living up to them. Ah, to be a young, impressionable teenager, armed with a healthy dose of brainwashing that you are RIGHT.

I was such a screwed up kid, on so many levels, I looked for absolutes to give my life meaning and structure. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in God – I do. But I was manipulated spiritually by a number of people who used religion as a weapon and a method of abusing others. (Not all the people I knew were like this. Sooner or later, it becomes impossible to look back on your life and regret things, because so much good and bad becomes intertwined that you realize if one bad thing hadn’t happened, some good things wouldn’t have happened either. I knew some wonderful people, people I still love.)

Without detailing the whole history here, part of the reason I connected with Rebus, became so attached to the books, was because I felt like I was on the same spiritual journey. I was so conditioned to what was supposed to be acceptable that I couldn’t really talk to anyone about what was going on in my head and my heart. When I read Rebus musing over the death of the priest he talked to, I found in a character someone I could connect with.

I don’t think it’s easy to understand what it is to have worked for organizations that you’ve seen destroy people, to carry the guilt and shame of that on you, to feel this constant pressure to measure up and live a certain way. People wonder how I can often be so open here? I lived in a fishbowl. I spent three years of my life living in a community. Whatever I tried to keep private was pried open and exposed. I’ve seen people publicly shamed over choices others didn’t approve of. I’ve seen people fired because of “sin”. A girl was raped, and she was coerced not to press charged because God says to forgive (and boy, wouldn’t it have been bad PR for this ‘godly’ community, but let’s not talk about that, just stick to the spiritual manipulation).

Newsflash. Jesus hung out with hookers and tax collectors, the reviled amongst society, and didn’t judge them. He loved them. And it’s a Goddamn shame more Christians don’t put a priority on that over everything else. Lecture me about my secular music like that’s a fucking priority when my mom’s just tried to commit suicide. Yeah, that’s what I remember about my teenage years. Judgment. Criticism. Standards impossible to measure up to, and most of the time accusations thrown at me by people who didn’t have planks in their eyes – builders had poured a foundation and started building skyscrapers.

When I learned to walk away from it, when I started to learn that God was more than a list of rules and regulations, that most of these organizations and churches were corrupt to the core and that by heeding their counsel I was condoning their sin, I learned to question everything to the root.

The problem is, I never really learned to stop.

I read about organizations and start dissecting the rules for contradictions and gaps. I can’t join political groups because I can’t handle that stuff. I was actually vice president of a writers’ group and I actually believed as an elected official of the group I had a responsibility to serve the interests of the group as a whole, not my own personal agenda. How could I have been such an idiot? Meanwhile the president is dictating what services to use or not use – even if it means paying more – because they don’t conform to her religion or her politics. For fuck’s sakes, I left my religion and politics at the door and evaluated decisions based on the best interests of the membership.

Sometimes, I look at the disagreements I have, and I still see so much shadow of the church and what it represents to me, because in reality the Christian organizations I was a part of were bureaucratic manmade constructs that had little to do with truth and God, and a lot to do with control.

I guess I’m still trying to get the monkey off my back.

Maybe part of it is that when I perceive contradictions, it’s just so ingrained in me to judge. I don’t know. I really didn’t mean to over the whole kill a character/setting thing… but I realized I had to walk away from that discussion because I didn’t want to say something poorly phrased that came off wrong, or that I would end up regretting.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I have strong feelings and strong opinions… or believes it, anyway. Sometimes, I really do. And sometimes, things come off harsher in type on a screen than I mean for them to.

But I have found that there is a willingness to assume without asking, to draw conclusions without seeking clarification. When someone misreads you, you notice it.

And then you realize how often you do it yourself.

In the ultimate irony, so many talk about how authors are great because they aren’t celebrities, they’re people. But then some wag fingers about how to behave because there are some times you’re expected to pucker up and kiss ass.

I don’t know if figuring out why I feel my chest tighten at the thought of dealing with the politics of organizations is going to help me be okay belonging to them. I realize I’m afraid of being put in a position where I feel like I’m back in that religious community, where just the act of being there makes me complicit in something horrendous.

Sometimes, I feel like I have enough guilt in my life. Part of me wishes I didn’t have to concern myself with decisions, but I’ve never been the type to put my head in the sand. I tried in my church days and failed. And that flaw of mine was my saving grace and what got me out of the borderline cult life I was in, because I didn’t turn blind eyes.

I just hope I can learn to switch some of that off so that I’m not always so suspicious. When I feel I'm being handled the way people in the religious communities used to belittle, condescend and judge, I'm quick to dig my heels in. Defense mechanism, sure. And some people are beligerent assholes who shouldn't be mollycoddled, but the reason behind my reaction is an issue I have to deal with.

Something Kevin made me face, when he said I had poor impulse control. I just jokingly blame it on an Irish temper, but the truth is, it's more about defending myself to all the abusers over the years, wishing I could get back to that moment and stand up to them. I can't, and no matter how much I argue with some people, it won't change the past.

This may be hard for people to connect, but something happened over the weekend that destroyed a twenty-year friendship I’d had with someone. And they used the name of God to level judgment, first in my life, then Kevin’s. But in the course of doing this, they lied to me… and hit on Kevin. Then they talked about the sanctity of marriage…

Reminding me again, of that religious community. A leader’s wife fucking another instructor. Yes, yes, God will forgive, but repentance means you’re supposed to stop. It reminds me of lines from a Steve Taylor song:

There's a sweaty hand handling his cocktail napkin
"come on up and see me" is scribbled with a gold pen
"but you'd better ring twice"
seven months after his little indiscretion
he sits with his wife at a therapy session
for a little advice
"if the healing happens as the time goes by
tell me why I still can't look her in the eye"

"God I'm only human, got no other reason..."
sin for a season...

Wealthy lips say "keep us from the Evil One"
while the praying hands prey with deliberate cunning
on the carcass of the cold
gonna get the Good Lord to forgive a little sin
get the slate cleaned so he can dirty it again
and no one else will ever know

I don’t mean for it to sound as melodramatic as it might, but some days, I feel broken beyond repair. It’s one of those days.


RAC said...

Every organization has its own crazy version of "the blind leading the blind." Hypocrites, whether conscious or unconscious of their thoughts and behavior, are everywhere. The trick is to find the rare individual people who are able to put their beliefs into action, and befriend them. Not one official religious organization stood up to Hitler, for example, but many individual people (who had so-called memberships in those groups) did take huge, personal risks to rescue or hide people from the insanity of the Nazi machine.

I say count on good people, not the "goodness" of groups. The worst part of dealing with judgmental people (emphasize the "mental") is feeling somehow to blame for not conforming -- the guilt trips and personal recrimination and betrayals. I think it helps to think about the Tao -- that we do instinctively know right from wrong, good from bad, friends from enemies. Just acknowledging our own inner wisdom can bring a lot of peace and comfort. Sometimes we have to just write off things that are not healthy for us. I hope all is well with you soon, Sandra!

Sandra Ruttan said...


I think I'm going to print this and tack it on the wall. So incredibly true, and something I needed to be reminded of.

But I do need to deprogram myself about organizations to adopt your thinking!

RAC said...

I'm still learning myself. I may have to drive up into the Sangre De Cristo mountains this weekend and commune with nature!

JamesO said...

I was very fortunate to be sent to a school where the core of their teaching was that you should question everything and never take anything on trust. At times I worry that this has made me a rather heartless cynic, but it kick-started my rejection of the faith I'd been brainwshed with as a child. Nevertheless, the deprogramming was long and hard, and I can well remember days and weeks when the contradictions, the goodness of some people and sheer nastiness of others made me depressed with doubt. I still get them sometimes, though not as much. I guess you're going through something similar right now.

For what it's worth, I find the best approach is to try and let the bad stuff slide by and enjoy the good whilst it lasts. Easy to say, I know, but very hard to do. I hope you get back in balance soon.

angie said...

"I say count on good people, not the 'goodness' of groups."

That is so freakin' true. And honestly, when folks are deeply damaged, they play some pretty wacky mind games (with themselves and with everyone else) just to get by. One trick I've used is to remind myself that as crappy as I may be feeling as a result of one of those games, that person has to live and feel like that ALL THE TIME. Me? I get to walk away and get on with my bad self.

Here's wishing you better days and a break from the wackos.

Sandra Ruttan said...

See, this is why I need a blog. It's cheaper than therapy! Thanks James and Angie...

Oh, and Angie, since you know the story, I can now tell you the story isn't over. I spent about an hour this morning just thinking MAKE IT STOP, interspersed with BITCH.

Didn't really help and now I have a headache.

John McFetridge said...

At the beginning of your post I thought maybe I'd been involved in a different Crimespace discussion in a different dimension ;)

You know, I was raised in almost the opposite environment you were - no faith, totally cynical and no abuse at all. Here we are, meeting in the middle, counting on good people, not the goodness of groups.

It's the eternal struggle of the artist - always an outsider, but needing to be involved in the world. I never used to understand why so many artists went crazy, but I'm a lot more sympathetic now.

Blogging it away is a great idea, cheaper than therapy, as you say, and you can do it from home.

Anonymous said...

This is a very sad post Sandra. I hope you pull through this and regognise the good in the people who have commented ahead of me, surround yourself with them.
I wish i were glue...

Evil Kev said...

I think the problem is that it is so easy to judge. If someone does something I don't like, I can just condemn their actions.

The challenge is to try to see the motives. Bad things are done with the best intentions and noble actions are done by those with cruel hearts.

My issue is when someone uses religion, the American way or some other institution to infer their values are superior to others. We each have our own value systems and though life in our society dictates that we all hold some of the same values (i.e. don't kill someone), the rest are the result of our upbringing and beliefs.

I have been accused many times of acting in a way that others don't approve of, which means that I am doing the wrong thing. But my conscience must be my guide. If I can grow as a result of the outcome of a decision, then the action can not be all bad. Living with your mistakes is the hardest part of life but I am reminded of an episode of ST:TNG called "Tapestry". The idea behind it was that every action we do creates the Tapestry that is our life. If we try to remove the bad, we remove what is good.

I once had such a bad temper that once I put my hand though a windshield because I was mad. Back in College, I was with my girlfriend at the time and I got mad and punched a blackboard. The look on her face burned into my brain. She told me she had an ex-boyfriend who beat her and he got that same look on his face that I just had. Starting that day, I learned to control my temper much better. The negative of that experience made me better.

We are all darkness and light. I think when we deny the existance of either side, we are only fooling ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Sandra I am touched by your post -hope things balance out for you soon hon - sending you good thoughts and hugs - Betty

Pepper Smith said...

"Not one official religious organization stood up to Hitler"

Little-known fact--the only Christian religious group as a whole that stood up to Hitler was Jehovah's Witnesses. They were the only group that was offered the chance to sign a paper renouncing their beliefs and get out of the concentration camps, and the vast majority refused to do so. (The ones who signed the paper didn't know until later that they were going to get sent to the front. Hitler figured if they couldn't be loyal to their God, they wouldn't be loyal to him, either.) They were subjected to vicious persecution to try to force them to change their minds, but chose to stay loyal and refused to support Hitler and his regime.

Sandra, I'm so sorry for what's happened to you. People are not always what they seem to be, even when you've known them for years. When someone proves to be a danger to you, listen to your instincts and get out.

People are also imperfect, so sometimes folks are going to do or say things that come across in ways they don't mean. We have to use our own discernment there. Unfortunately online communications don't include facial expressions and tone of voice, cues we use to decide what someone means by what they say.

On forgiveness, it is part of being Christian. The Bible also shows occasions that God stopped being forgiving due to the religious misbehavior of people who made the claim of worshipping him. Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that there would be those who claimed to be his followers and to do powerful works in his name, but that he would tell them he never knew them and that they were evildoers. Not everyone who claims to be Christian truly is. 'By their fruits you will know them' is a truism. It sounds to me like you've already seen that yourself.

((((Sandra)))) I'm sorry. It is very hard to get over being betrayed by someone you thought was a friend. It makes you question yourself and your own judgment as much as anything else. Talk about it all you need to, because it helps.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks John, Chel, Kev, Betty and Pepper... Chel, I'll e-mail a bit later.

I think with people I've always had bad judgment. I'm highly suspicious, but I always want to believe the best, so even if I've seen warning signs I often overlook them.

Unfortunately, this means at the point someone's earned my distrust, they've usually had to do something pretty serious.

This situation with didn't just involve e-mail. It involved a phone call as well... well, a message on my machine. They outright lied to me on that message.

Unfortunately, they are continuing to harass - over 30 e-mails yesterday, plus messages on this blog I deleted. (A few had the "pleasure" of reading them and e-mailed.) This has continued this morning, because they've interpreted Evil Kev's comment as a blatant personal attack on them. (WTF? Proof right there they're off their rocker.)

Ultimately, it's just sad. Until you face up to things in your own life, you'll never start to heal from them. Admission is the first step on the road to recovery for a reason. Whenever someone holds themselves up and says they're blameless, or justifies their actions by comparing against another person, and uses that as a basis to judge others to tell them how to live they're indeed falling in the category you mention, Pepper, the ones who speak in God's name, but don't know him.

Pepper Smith said...

As much as you might hate the thought, you might need to moderate you blog replies, at least for a while, until the problem is done. Giving this person a public forum to do this might only be encouraging them.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, well, despite promises to stop I just deleted another comment.

I doubt it will ever stop... how do I enable comment moderation? Off to do that...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Okay, sad to say, comment moderation has been activated, and I'll have to leave it in place until this person stops with the harassment.

The one thing I like about e-mail is that you can follow the process of revisionist history.

There isn't a person, other than Kevin, who'd even know who this person was if they hadn't started posting comments here. It's perhaps a shame they don't realize a number of people we've known over the years do read this blog. And that's where having things in writing is handy, because it's easy to prove that even in the blog comments she's continued to lie.

I let one strong Christian friend read the e-mail sent to Kevin with the sender's name removed, and they agreed it was completely inappropriate. If the harassment continues we'll just have to consider our legal options.

And for the record, since it hasn't been public here on my blog but this wondrous "Christian" decided to dish it out in a comment, just in case anyone saw it, yes Kevin and I are separated.

Which was why her invitation to him to call her and come visit her, when they've only met once, when she came here for a weekend (and did not invite me) was at the very least a pretty serious lapse in judgment. Of course, it's clear I'm beyond redemption.

And I also don't have a dick.

RAC said...

Pepper, no offense, but religious histories are unfortunately biased to make their own religious groups appear more favorable. Even in your example, it was individuals who signed papers who were often released, not the whole group. Individual people make the difference: not organized religious groups, not ever.

As far as the harassment is concerned, Sandra, I would consider getting restraining orders in order to get some peace of mind. And a massage and some hottubbing. Yeah.

Pepper Smith said...

rac, you might find interesting the book "The Nazi State and the New Religions: Five Case Studies in Non-Conformity," by Christine E. King, who is not one of Jehovah's Witnesses.

RAC said...

Yes, Pepper, but maybe the passive resistance of a really small religious group is not really "standing up to" the Nazis. Yes, it took tremendous individual courage to refuse to say Heil Hitler. Yes, group members proved they would even die for their group's faith. But those individual noble acts didn't really help OTHER people escape the massive Holocaust. The Jehovah's Witnesses were a tiny minority religion in Germany, of only about 20,000, and half of them ended up in prison camps for refusing to support the military, just like in World War I, (which really pissed off the Germans and probably heightened their persecution.) The Witnesses did try to tell the Nazis they were "non-political" and "neutral," which is not really very effective in the face of world-wide genocide. They were, however, excellent at passive resistance, and the Nazi officers often used them as house servants (because these individuals wouldn't run away or resist a beating!) Because of the tiny numbers of Witnesses, I believe they were able to generate a huge amount of useful group-thinking to promote their values of serving God over the needs of Man. But even if the Nazis had not persecuted them, had let them live their neutral, non-political lives, how would that have actually helped millions of other people to survive the atrocities? Sometimes individual actions, like hiding and saving Jews from the Nazis (which the Seventh Day Adventists in Italy did) speak louder than words or passivity. IMHO, it is not very helpful that minority Christian religions would welcome Armageddon -- every war that comes along is seen by them as the possible dawn of a thousand year reign of God on earth. But, on the other hand, if the major religious groups of Europe had actually stuck together as well as some of the minority religions, especially the Witnesses, that would had a definite, practical impact on holding down the religious-like Nationalism of the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of passive resisters could do a lot, I'd bet. But we'll never know. Instead (since God didn't come down and personally whack the Nazis) we have a history of individual, good people making an impact on the world rather than a history of effective organized religion.

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to be clear. There may be other exceptions, but my original point was that good people are more impactful in our lives than groups, as rule of thumb.