License to Write Outside Your Self

I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.  

License to Write Outside Your Self

William Styron took on Nat Turner , made his version of the rebel slave real to readers.  Anne Rice did the same with the Vampire Lestat —an undead male of her own fabrication from 18th Century France.  In White Teeth, Zadie Smith did this with people of multiple ethnicities, only two of which she shared.  In She’s Come Undone,  Wally Lamb wrote so convincingly as Delores, a young, troubled girl—got inside her head, made you feel as if you were Delores—that I had to keep checking the front cover, incredulous that a man had written the book.

It happens all the time: a writer brings to life a character who is unlike himself or herself in many ways and manages to pull it off masterfully.  Without stereotyping (though unfortunately, that happens too).  Verisimilitude is so important in fiction, so in such cases lots of research is imperative.  But still, how does a writer justify taking on a character with whom he or she has little or nothing in common?  How does a writer feel entitled?

The twins in my WIP are both compilations of people I knew when I was dancing, with traces of some of my adolescent psychotherapy clients mixed in.  I made my character sketch over a year ago, but as I’ve been writing, the twins’ personalities and identity struggles have evolved and gained dimension.  But knowing them better actually highlights how different they are from me, especially Oliver.

Olivia is easier, she’s a female, pre-professional ballet dancer whose body is different from that of the ideal ballerina.  Though I am biracial and she is white (the twins are of Irish and Italian descent, which I’ll address in another post), though Olivia is plagued by other people’s criticisms while I suffered most from my own negative body image, I can speak as her with some authority.  I know what her toes feel like after a long day at rehearsal; I know what it’s like to get your period in the middle of pas de deux class when your partner is the guy you have a crush on.

Olivia’s twin brother, on the other hand, is removed from my personal experience in many ways.  Oliver is not only white, male, seventeen, and a math and physics whiz (who uses these skills to perfect his dancing), he also has the classic ballet physique (unlike his sister, unlike me).  And lastly, most importantly in this story, he is gay.

Being gay is not generally a strike against a guy in the ballet world itself; Oliver knows plenty of others like him as well as having strong role models who are out and proud of who they are.  But outside the ballet world—at his “regular” school, in his family, he’s faced what any LGBT or questioning teen might face, including bullying peers and a parent who can’t accept him.

Oliver has every advantage in ballet: turn-out, Feet (with a capital F, meaning gracefully high arches, a ballet dancer’s prize), musicality, extension, elevation—the list goes on.  He would seem to lead a charmed life.  But the twins’ homophobic father is determined to stop Oliver from pursuing the career he is clearly made for.  Dad, though supportive of Olivia’s ballet dreams, has other plans for Oliver: a career with great financial rewards, hopefully in finance or engineering.  It isn’t always clear whether Dad’s protests against ballet (for Oliver) are a smoke screen for his anti-gay sentiments.  In any event, Oliver’s biggest conflict is longing to be accepted and loved by his father, even as he claims and is claimed by Ballet—a world his father disdains.

When I was dancing I knew so many guys like Oliver: beautiful, talented, and bright, who seemed to have it all together now that they were a world that loved them for their gifts without judging their orientation.  Often these were the guys I had crushes on in my youth–both before and after I learned that my affection was unlikely to be returned.  Sometimes I was jealous of guys like this because I believed they held all the power.  (Which I will explain in yet another post).  But I only saw these real life “Olivers” in the context of the studio, not with their families, not in settings where they’d been discriminated against or attacked.  That side of the story I didn’t learn much about until I worked as an adolescent psychotherapist.

Of the kids I saw in my practice who were gay, bi or questioning, I am glad to say that a good percentage of their parents were supportive of their orientations.  (Peers tended to be more of a problem.)  Some parents were dismissive though, refusing to believe the child’s statement, others were in denial, believing that this was a “phase.”  I knew only one angrily unsupportive father of a boy who had come out.   This man made a point of not attending family sessions, though I tried to get him in.

What is compelling for me about Oliver is how he longs for his father’s love and approval, how not having it takes a terrible emotional toll no matter how supportive the ballet world is.  (Contrast that with Olivia’s situation: in Dad’s eyes she is perfect, but the ballet world cannot love her as she is.)  Oliver’s cross to bear will always be the condition of not being the son his father wanted.  I think this is something that many people can relate to.

Writing this book is a process–sometimes thrilling, sometimes kind of scary, but it’s less scary when I remind myself that this is only a first draft.  When it’s done I get to revise, which is the fun part.  In the meantime, I’ll do as much research as I can, let my characters speak—no matter how different they are from me—and grant myself license to tell their story.

33 responses to “License to Write Outside Your Self

  1. Look forward to reading your book when it comes out! Sounds really interesting :)

  2. Can’t wait to hear more, especially about Oliver. I am reminded of Billy Elliot a tad…

  3. Very interesting! Can you think that “gay people” go to jail for a minimum sentence of 3 years in my country?

  4. Wow, this book sounds absolutely amazing!!! :)

  5. Can’t wait to read it. :)

  6. A fascinating read Lisa — and what sounds like promising characters who reflect so much of our ‘real world’ angst.

    I’m excited to learn more — and what Nikky said — so very sad.

  7. I think it’s important (and possible) to write outside oneself. And necessary – how interesting would a book be about women exactly my age, sexual orientation, size, physical ability, and political persuasion? *yawn*

    One thing that helps me when I go over “to the other side” is having some fabulous male crit partners. They are the first to tell me, “A guy wouldn’t do that,” or say that, or think that. So I would advise, if you can find some young gay men to talk to, especially athletes (for all I know, they get sore in different places than girls do), who might be willing to read parts of the novel, that would probably make it even more real.

  8. You’ve got some good issues there, Lisa! Best of luck.

  9. Your WIP sounds like a wonderful read! The characters seem to be undergoing many hardships that unfortunately, are so tangible in the world we live in. And the fact that they’re twins should make it interesting for readers to discover just how alike and different they are. :)

  10. Lisa — you inspired me and I write about how on my Recover Your Joy blog today :)

    thank you!

  11. Hi Lisa,

    I find Louise sends us to the best blogs and I’ve enjoyed reading about your WIP. I also love your previous post about blogging – couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said.

    I look forward to discovering more as I explore your blog

  12. Sorry – I am having all sorts of trouble commenting on WordPress blogs at the moment, so my last comment just goes to ‘page not found’. Checking if I can change where it goes. Hopefully this will work

  13. Thank you for stopping by and reading, Fiona!

  14. Body image, body image. Ingrained in me from an early age. I grew up in the ‘sixties and no one knew what eating disorders were. They were nameless. There was no help for the afflicted. I was sure that no one else in the world had these problems.

    I’m enjoying your blog.

    • I can only imagine what it was like for ED sufferers in those days, though when I came of age in the 80s eating disorder discussions were pretty new. Based on what my mother tells me about the 50s and 60s, and what I remember from the 70s, eating behavior that would now be considered disordered was applauded, even recommended. Thank you for reading, Eloise.

      • Thank you for writing about this.

        The ‘sixties and ‘seventies were truly the skinny days. I remember when Farrah Fawcett died and I saw a clip from Charlies Angels on the news; it was appalling just how thin those girls were. They were in high-waisted jeans, tight through the thigh and flaring out into big bell-bottoms. Rail-thin they were, no rear end, hip bones protruding. It was shocking and I was shocked at myself for being shocked that it got that response from me, someone still fighting to keep my high school size. I’m 58. And, I’m succeeding. There are times when I wonder why. But when the blues descend, I retreat into no-food mode. It is firmly entrenched.

        Thanks again. I’ll be back.

  15. I understand a lot of what boys in ballet go through, especially those that are gay. In high school, I stopped playing sports after tenth grade, even though I had some success in football (twice player of the game in tenth grade) and track (undefeated in my event for 9th grade). I wasn’t Out but people had suspicions about me and didn’t want me on their teams. Especially in football, every day was an act of survival. My own teammates would try to injure me on the field, hurt me or wreck my clothing in the locker room, and challenge me to fights if I made them look bad in practice. I found your article when looking up homophobia in ballet for boys. I think most people are oblivious to all the homophobia WITHIN ballet as many of the boys (straights and closeted gays) are afraid of being seen as gay so they hate perceived gays in ballet. Read people’s postings on related articles or YouTube videos–by men and those by women–who in essence wish gays would leave ballet so straight boys “wouldn’t get teased”, etc. Very homophobic. Anyhow, nice article!

    • Thank you, Chris, for this candid and thgought-provoking comment. I can not imagine having the courage to play football under any circumstances, let alone go through what you lived through. Also, I will definitely check out the postings. These perspectives are very important, I think.
      When you describe people who “in essence wish gays would leave ballet so straight boys “wouldn’t get teased”,” I have to say, I am so blown away by that notion. Though my reaction is probably naive. Most of the guys I knew when I was dancing APPEARED to be comfortable with their own and one another’s sexuality, regardless of whether they were gay or straight or evolving. Note, I say appeared to be. I was not in their locker room; I’m sure there was more to it than what I saw–or what my friends told me about.

  16. You’ll find the comments most commonly after some non-ballet person makes a homophobic comment about a male dancer. Then, rushing to the male dancer’s defense will be those homophobic persons from within ballet or simply fans of ballet who don’t want male dancers tarnished with the “gay” label. These persons will then want the world to know that the given dancer isn’t gay and they will be emphatic about it. Rarely does someone simply say it doesn’t matter, for we should enjoy the person for himself, not whatever his orientation is. I tried making such a comment after reading a multiple back-and-forth homophobic commentary as described above. When I later returned, the comments, including my own, had been deleted. There is the sometimes subtle, sometimes not, assertion that it would have been bad if the dancer had been gay. For example, in the documentary “First Position,” there seems to be an effort to show the boys as heterosexual. First, a young boy makes a comment on how boys are perceived in ballet, then the rest of the movie he is shown to have a love interest in a girl in ballet–which is fairly silly since he is ten to my recollection. An older boy is shown to also be dealing with perceptions, then they show him playing footsie with a girl in one scene, affirming his heterosexuality. No boys who would be perceived as gay are chosen to be filmed or interviewed.

  17. “No boys who would be perceived as gay are chosen to be filmed or interviewed.” I’m sort of shocked by this. That there’s this homophobic pendulum swinging the wrong way in ballet of all places! I was raised in ballet in the 80s. Despite that many artists were beginning to be diagnosed with AIDS, despite that we lost people, the ballet world did seem to be a pretty safe place–emotionally to be gay and male (not necessarily gay and female though). Friends of mine found role models who were out and validated their experiences. Not that it wasn’t a process for everyone, but I remember one friend, 15 and newly out telling me how happy he was now. Being himself. It was much harder for my non-dancing college friends (gay, male, closeted) to come out.
    I think some people are so desperate to counter stereotypes they don’t care who they hurt.
    I had a chance to see First Position out here, by the way, but for the first time ever my son asked to see a musical: West Side Story, I dropped everything and got us tickets. I’ll have to catch First position in the city. I’m glad of your warning in advance though.

    Are you writing a book about this?? Hope so.

    • [NOTE: I feel I have sent you down a tangent, so don't feel like you need to respond if you'd like to redirect the discussion more related to writing.]

      I truly hope that I am overstating the problem and I likely am. I have had little historic interest in ballet other than seeing a few things like the Nutcracker and Billy Elliot (film). In deciding to see First Position (which I liked overall), I pulled up some videos that were said to be related. That led me to the work of Derek Dunn. He amazed me and literally left me in tears at the beauty of his dancing. Thus, going to the film was an easy choice (Derek actually only has a cameo role in the film). Yet, as I became increasingly interested in ballet over the past couple weeks, it seems I keep running into people writing or saying things like “ballet is for boys” (e.g., http://www.boysdoballet.com). This seems innocuous but it is meant to rebut the idea that “ballet is for gays.” Ballet, I am told, in the USA is having trouble attracting boys due to that “gay” stigma. Could it be that if the gay stigma is bad, so are persons giving credence to that stigma by being openly gay and dancing ballet?

      On the aforementioned website (www.boysdoballet.com), I found an interview of Derek Dunn. He was asked, “How do your friends react?”

      Derek: “When I was a younger a lot of boys in my grade would come up to me and say, ‘Why do you dance?’ or ‘Only girls are meant to dance’. People just don’t understand what ballet is for guys. You obviously have to be athletic to be a successful ballet dancer because there’s so much jumping – and you have to be so strong, too.”

      I mean nothing against Derek by quoting this, nor do I think he is homophobic. My only point is to begin showing what appears to be a prevalent “talking point” in boys ballet that ballet isn’t “gay” but masculine. If I were a teen doing ballet today, I think I would feel pushed to the side by this marketing pitch to supposedly more “masculine” boys. Could this be another attempt by our culture to denigrate all that is effeminate? It should be noted this happens in gay circles, too (e.g., see all the myriad of gay personals ads that are looking for someone that is “straight acting”). Personally, I long for a world free of labels. I would like to see these teens feel free simply to be themselves with no pressures to conform to anyone’s concept of “ballet boy,” especially if the concept is a marketing pitch.

      As far as your question as to my writing a book, I like the idea of exploring how homophobia hides throughout our society–and that could include ballet as a chapter. About eleven years ago I published a theology book for GLBT teens coming out of very conservative backgrounds. I give it away as a free download on my website. I haven’t done much with my writing as I have been in law school, but now that I have graduated this past December and passed the bar, I hope to get back to writing after a few more hectic months of getting my career going.

      My final thought is that I would venture that your experience of ballet is likely still strongly present in ballet today. I think there is just a lot of other pressures going on. I think society as a whole is both becoming more accepting of gays and less so at the same time. For example, my state is currently considering a constitutional amendment against gay marriage at the same time so many other persons are ready to welcome gays into society. Being gay is no longer something that happens under the radar, so people’s reactions to gay persons can be really hostile as a form of backlash. I can see why the sales pitch to young boys is to stress that ballet is masculine, but it makes me deeply sad as well, for I believe it tells young boys that the taunts of their friends are merely misdirected, not inaccurate and inappropriate.

      • Chris, as a blogger/writer I welcome such tangents.  This has been both fascinating and  directly related to my writing .  Congratulations on graduating and passing the bar.  Best wishes for the future too.

  18. Thanks. Good luck and best wishes on your June 15th deadline. I hope the pressure of the deadline pushes you to great things.

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