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.