Writing does something great for the writer that’s hard to explain. It’s a reflective art, drawing on the writer’s instinctive knowledge of how the world works, how psychology works, to convey a feeling to the reader. You’re channeling the sum of your existence onto the page, and no matter how dark or surreal your creation may be, the act of creation connects you to your core. It’s a form of art therapy we all should practice. I do it because I love it.
I started writing for myself in elementary school, I’d just moved to a new neighborhood where being good at school was suddenly a liability. Even my father never understood why I would rather be reading a book that learning to fix cars or do carpentry. I’m the type of kid that would be sent off to special centers to do math, by High School I found myself slapping a buzzer at the Science Olympiad, competing with other students to answer questions about the chemical composition of plants.
I was definitely a nerd. And that, I think, is my best quality.
Sure, I was on the soccer team and I ran track. But as soon as I got off practice I ditched my teammates to play Dungeons and Dragons which, if you’ve never played it, is awesome. You create characters, entire worlds, set up epic challenges, and try to find a way out of them. It’s like watching an intense action adventure movie, but instead you and your friends are telling the story together. My little brother tagging along, my friends and I would spend hours in our basement playing that game.
Like writing, it is a great mental exercise. A place to fight the brutalities of authoritarianism, to work out our own approaches to doing the right thing. Because in real life, sometimes those answers aren’t so clear.
“You want bitches, I get you bitches. You want drugs I get you drugs.” I had helped Humphery, our resident high school gang member with a math lesson in seventh grade. He was grateful.
Humphery’s small kindnesses aside, high school was not a kind place. Thick chains held open bathroom doors, inside were shattered mirrors and stalls ripped apart by angry denizens. The denizens ripped each other apart as well—the threat of violence was constant. I sat next to Corey in Geography—his father was the teacher. They were both colossal dicks.
“Flames,” he would say the word with such vitriol he would get spit on my face. I have red hair. Sure, I got called Fire Crotch, Opie and a whole number of names, but somehow nothing compared to the rage and contempt in which Corey used the word flames. “Prove you’re not a faggot, Flames.”
“I’m not going to dignify that with a response. If I was gay, it shouldn’t matter.”
In reality, all of my unrequited high school loves were women. From fifth grade to sophomore year I pined for Lindsay, from tenth grade on I admired Cheryl from afar. But for the guys in my school, gayness was more about misogyny, not love.
At track practice, the guys loved to trade sex tales about the sluts they’d banged. I’m sure they were completely invented, but still I felt the need to say something.
“If you like a girl enough to sleep with her, you probably shouldn’t talk about her like that.”
“Are you a faggot?”
The slur isn’t just derogatory, it’s a category used to dehumanize, to legitimate violence, and school was fraught with it. I could (sometimes) hold my own in a fight, but many of my friends were not so lucky. Even in the hands of children, violence is a tool of social control. But where was this coming from? There’s a psychology experiment by Philip Zimbardo funded by the U.S. Navy that sheds light on issue. A mock prison where university students were invited to play roles as both guards and prisoners, The Stanford Prison Experiment lasted only six days before it had to be aborted. The forms of psychological torture and degradation the youths inflicted on each other– guards and prisoners alike– was too extreme. The cruelties children inflict on each other draw striking similarities to the same cruelties of prison inmates. Treated like animals to be controlled, we act the part, just like Zimbardo’s subjects.
Luckily I got out of the prison from time to time. Breakdancing at underground raves and hip hop shows with friends from other schools, midnight trips to the train yards with graffiti artists. Stigma only extends to the network of people who participate in it, and with billions of people on the planet that’s a really small number. It’s easy to find a community that fits you. But my favorite community was Dungeons and Dragons.
Disempowerment comes in a lot of forms: social stigmas placed by children, racism, sexism, political exclusion. It’s relentless, and it can break some people. You have to find a way to remind yourself that you are not the person who others say you are. Creating is the greatest link to the self. Playing these games, having adventures in your mind is an opportunity to explore hidden parts of who you really are: both the good and the bad. You can find yourself in these imaginary epic struggles against evil. You can become the hero of your own story…. but I started to wonder if maybe the hero is the problem.
Writing, according to convention, requires a protagonist. We relate to the protagonist at the expense of the other characters… and of course we revile the antagonist. What do we lose in this one-sidedness? Fantasy, unlike its cousin science fiction, has many pro-establishment elements. The characters are sent on a quest by a king, to save the princess, protect the monarchy. Hierarchy is revered despite the gritty historical injustices perpetrated by monarchies, despite the injustices perpetrated by feudal-like social orders still in practice today, used to subjugate people on the basis of race, sex, or class.
I’m definitely the beneficiary of white privilege, but having endured high school as a red head, I know what it’s like to be sexualized and insulted based upon my genetic make-up, the way I look, who I am, my ethnicity. I know what it’s like for my physical appearance be used as a part of my own dehumanization. Dark menaces like Tolkien’s horde of goblins and orcs are painted as inherently, genetically evil in an almost jingoistic narrative of war. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Lord of the Rings, but am I someone else’s orc? What do the religious extremists, burning people alive in KFC’s in the Middle East see when they see me? What do U.S. nationalists see when they see people of Middle Eastern descent? Listening to the racialized way U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (or even those spectators watching from home on CNN or FOX) talk about Middle Easterners makes me decidedly uncomfortable.
In times of war, racism makes the killing easier.
I was 17 when I was sent to the military recruiter– just four years in the military could pay for medical school, I was told. I didn’t join, but some of my classmates did. I think we forget that soldiers are children, still trying to make sense of the world. They want to be heroes. But so do their enemies.
Now as an adult, I find myself in a new prison. The world isn’t the way I want it to be, and I feel powerless in this newfound dystopia. We all want to be the protagonist of our own story, but someone else at the top is shaping what it means to be “good” what it means to be the hero. It’s a trap I don’t know the way out of: the power don’t just have arms and money at their disposal: they have the hearts and minds of the people. We crave the acceptance of our peers, and that is how we are controlled. With this in mind, I started to write again. I began a fantasy series titled Shadowtales.
I call upon those memories of my childhood, those imperfect characters that my little brother, my friends and I created, having adventures together. We never got the chance to finish those stories—these psychological exercises are unfinished. I don’t know the answer to these problems of power and its abuse, but maybe Lade the thief and his swashbuckling companions can help figure it out for me.