Shapeshifting for Writers

I enjoyed this blog.

I especially liked “Surely it is the role of a writer to take that leap of imagination and empathy into another body and soul, and in doing so, show that it is possible to see through another’s eyes, though we may be different. We may find in doing so that we are not even that different. We are all humans inhabiting Earth, are we not? We know each other through what we empirically observe as ‘other’, but also through what we recognize as the same in ourselves. And if there’s a characteristic that utterly revolts you in someone else, that you feel you could never possess, let alone comprehend, it’s a pretty safe bet it’s because that very trait lies lurking somewhere in your own psyche. It is a writer’s job to animate those shadows.” That’s shapeshifting for me! And it’s what we all do, as writers … and not even just fiction writers.

And I take extreme exception to that American (and possibly elsewhere too) school of thought that claims no voice should speak for another, particularly if that other is oppressed. White must not write for black, man cannot write for woman, nor able-bodied for disabled; it’s offensive and damaging, they say, for a man to fabricate the voice of a female rape victim. I have several issues here: I’m crippled (I so dislike being called disabled!), I’m old, I’m currently wearing a female body, just to mention three of them, there are others too. And I’m a spirit-keeper, that’s what we indigenous Britons call ourselves, those of us who do, indeed are, what you might know better as shamanism. And there’s another issue … many of you may try to tell me I’m not indigenous! All the gods help you if you do.

But back to women writing men, and/or vice versa, or writing gay when you’re straight, or of some other country than the one you were born into. You know, I’m damned if I’m going to be hobbled by some politically correct twat and forced to live their script, ideals and prejudices. You may have gathered the mere thought makes me rather cross.

Writers are all shapeshifters, able to transport ourselves elsewhere, into other places, times, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, religions, faiths, creatures, and other human bodies too. Didn’t you know that? It’s one of the skills we have to learn, and mostly by on-the-job training as the various academic courses usually seem (to me anyway) to produce stultified, cardboard cutouts, rather than real characters. Oooops … ranting again LOL.

Let’s just think about one genre … fantasy and sci fi. How can you possibly write that if you can’t shift yourself there? Ok, let’s do another one, historical novels … when was the last time you were a Roman soldier, Chinese prostitute, Elizabethan explorer. And when were you last a Russian spy, or even a British one? The author must transpose their consciousness into the space-time of whoever and wherever and whenever they are writing. And that is a skill, some folk might even think it a scary skill because you do, indeed, become the character, thinking like them, acting like them, speaking like them. You also learn to come back to yourself, to be you again, so you can chat to the postman, buy the groceries, cuddle the cats, even talk to the husband, from your normal everyday self. That’s shapeshifting.

Shapeshifting isn’t necessarily about physically becoming a dolphin or an eagle, or even only travelling within an animal’s psyche although it may be. I’ve done those too, with the permission of the beasties concerned, and enormously exciting it is too. But shapeshifting is also about being able to feel into another person, a form of empathy if you like, where you seriously do feel what they feel. Writers, fiction writers especially, are often café-people. We can sit in a café for hours, watching and listening to the people around us, hearing tricks of speech, watching mannerisms, learning body-language. We do it on trains, and at bus stops too, in fact we do it all the time, everywhere, so watch out if you’re with a writer, they’re certainly picking up “stuff” from you that will go into a book.

Watching people, listening to them, is a way in to learning to shapeshift, and one I use with my students. It’s also very useful as a people-skill for everyone … if you can feel like the person you’re with then you’re less likely to tread on them accidentally!

Life, nowadays, is so often concerned with privacy that we have separation forced on us … not the same thing as privacy! We “keep ourselves to ourselves” to such a degree that many, many, people feel very isolated and out of touch. A good writer cannot do that. Why do we write? Strangely enough, not for fame and fortune (although all of us would probably like that!) but because of the deep inner urge that we have something to say that we want (need, even) others to hear. We want to be read, more than anything else, more than money, more than fame. So, we need to know people, the readers, those who may already read us and those who we hope will do so very soon. To know people means you have to climb out of yourself and get into the skin of others, even when that’s completely repulsive to you! You’ll never write good if you can’t feel the character you’re writing.

So … I write men as well as women. I’ll shift into any character who wants me to write them, and while there are some I’ve loved dearly there have also been those who make my personal skin crawl. I’ve learned, like all good writers, to be a shapeshifter.