I’m working my way through filing a sheaf of papers when my office phone rings. It’s Ismael, my husband, on the other end. After the usual hellos, he launches into a conversation the likes of which has become utterly commonplace for us.
Ismael: So I’m having trouble with the hierarchy of my gods. I can’t figure out which ones would answer to which.
Me: You think that’s bad. I think I’ve discovered a plot hole in LK. If Jacklyn has enhanced hearing, wouldn’t she have heard that inter-dimensional coming when he attacks her in the cave scene?
And all of the people walking by my desk get the “What the hell did she just say?” look on their faces.
It’s something that comes up a lot for me. You see, genre comes with a stigma. Literary journals are largely against it’s publication within their pages. Most writing teachers try to twist them into literary fiction when you submit them for a workshop. Those who read books or watch movies with the kinds of themes my husband and I often employ are relegated to the levels of geekdom.
I once ate lunch with a group of women who sat in the cafeteria and discussed their book, movie and television choices. They rarely matched with mine. I’m sure what they were reading was incredibly well-written. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. It may have had something to do with the ringing endorsement the work received from one of my co-workers. “You wouldn’t like it. You only like to read that weird stuff.” At first I was taken aback. And a little offended. Which, with some distance, I’ve realized is ridiculous. She was partially correct. While she was wrong to assume I wouldn’t like it (I have read many books that aren’t genre that I have loved), she was correct that it didn’t fit in line with my normal tastes. I may have read it and enjoyed it, but it would likely never become one of my favorite books. And that’s because all of my favorite books are filled to the brim with weird stuff. Which is something I am totally cool with.
Being asked by a friend who only reads true literary fiction what I am writing used to feel like I was introducing myself at an AA meeting. “Hi, my name is Justine and my current works in progress contain a computer virus alien race, a divorcee with an imaginary friend, and dimensional portals. Please do not throw tomatoes or insults at me.” And I would say it with the same level of shyness, of shame, as though what I was writing was any less valid than your normal everyday literary work. There’s literary fiction and there’s commercial fiction, and my muse just happens to like characters who are possessed by an alien computer virus. So sue me.
My favorite author, Urban Fantasy extraordinaire Kelley Armstrong’s website bio boasts the following: “If asked for a story about girls and dolls, mine would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to my teachers’ dismay. All efforts to make me produce “normal” stories failed. Today, I continue to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in my basement writing dungeon.”
The more I started to read things like that, the better I started to feel about my writing identity. For one thing, I found myself in rather illustrious company. For another, I seemed, like Armstrong, to be incapable of doing anything other than that which I was embarrassed to admit. One of my works in progress began as the comedic story of a divorcee struggling to get her life on track and become a more adventurous person in the process. I worked on it as such for awhile. But the idea just didn’t have enough spirit to get me going until I decided that she should be getting her adventurous ideas from an imaginary friend, who happens to be the main character from her favorite television show. The story didn’t come together until I added that wackadoo element to it. And then, it all gelled. Scenes became better with Imaginary Guy shouting directions at my lead from the background.
It was when that puzzle piece fell into place that I figured it out – as it stands right now, my muse doesn’t want me to write normal stuff. It wants me to write strange, convoluted stories with science fiction and fantasy and unfamiliar elements. When it wants me to write coming-of-age stories about a boy coming to terms with the death of his sister by rebuilding the car she crashed in (an idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile but have never been able to make work – maybe it will work if the car is POSSESSED by his sister! Now that’s a winner!), it will tell me and that will be what I write. But for now, it seems I better get used to announcing it.
Hi, my name is Justine Manzano. And I write weird stuff.