It’s been an interesting transition as a writer, to go from writing nonfiction articles for magazines to co-authoring a lesbian mystery series to writing a syndicated column to working on the memoir Queerly Beloved (the fourth book I wrote with my co-conspirator, Diane).
These different styles of writing take different skills and now I’m working on a graphic novel, which is employing entirely new ones. Some of which I’m doing pretty well with. My illustrations may not be great but I think they’re good enough, a phrase I’m trying to embrace after hearing Melissa Brayden at the Golden Crown Conference talk about how to be a more productive writer. She said to “embrace imperfection,” which is a struggle for me but I’m working on it and reminding myself that done is better than perfect.
Other aspects of writing a graphic novel are more of a struggle, like synthesizing half a chapter of content into 140 words and using imagery to replace words entirely. I just “read” a great graphic novel, Leaf, which has no words at all. The characters communicate exclusively by facial expressions and gestures. I’m certainly not able to pull that off yet!
And unlike some of my previous work, with this project I’m deliberately trying to harness my darker impulses, which I’m hoping to do without becoming subsumed by negativity or personally adopting the pessimistic worldview of some of my characters.
I don’t know if this is a surprise to anyone, but I’m a huge pessimist. Or I was. No, I think Diane would say I still am, even if I work harder now to hide that part of myself away (as the joke goes, “where it can fester as a mental illness.”)
Still, I think I’m less depressive and gloomy than I was before I started taking testosterone. Before my transition, especially back when I was a young adult, and my emotional state was like driving through the Sierras; with a lot of ups and downs. My “highs” never really went that high, but my lows were bottom of the Mariana Trench low.
The thing is, I’m not just a pessimist—I’m a second generation pessimist. My father recently revealed that he’s been expecting some kind of apocalyptic end to life as we know it since he was a little boy. The terrible future I’ve imagined has changed over the years but there’s always a dark cloud on the horizon, a doomsday around the corner (I just saw a right wingnut-type ad in the LA Times warning that “this is the year the world ends!” And, to quote a satirical moment from a Halloween Special of The Simpsons, “It will be Obama’s fault.”)
When I was 10, I was terrified of nuclear war, which I thought was an inevitable outcome of the Cold War arms race. A lot of us children of the 1980s were weaned on nuclear hysteria and the apocalyptic 1983 TV movie, The Day After. I was a pretty dark kid. But then my mom used to read us Edgar Allen Poe as bedtime stories, so it’s probably not a huge surprise. Plus once we moved to the farm I didn’t have friends, and I was already awkward in my physical body, both because it wasn’t the boy’s body I thought it should be and because it was already a source of chronic pain. I was so full of anxiety about the state of the world, and the struggles my family were facing, that I developed an ulcer before I was even 11 years old.
When the cold war ended and the nuclear threat receded there was still the religious right to fear, America’s ability to piss off other countries, the threat of AIDS, and looming climate change. There was still the promise that everything could go to hell overnight. Clearly I could catastrophize with the best of them.
This may have something to do with why I’ve had trouble putting down roots, why Diane and I have spent much of our 25 year marriage living as nomads, moving nearly every year; sometimes across the country, sometimes just down the street.
With my pessimistic view of the world, I was surprised when the Cold War ended, amazed that the Berlin Wall fell, and utterly shocked that Nelson Mandela was not only released from prison but eventually became South Africa’s first black President. Those were troubling times for a sworn misanthrope. Could it turn out that people were better, as a whole, than I thought?
No worries, the bigotry and discrimination I experienced first an out lesbian and later a trans man were able to reinforce my mistrust of other people. In the mid-1990s, when Hawaii’s Supreme Court threw out the state’s marriage law for discriminating against same-sex couples, my negative resolve almost crumbled, but it quickly rebounded when the voters of Hawaii rushed to pass legislation that would keep marriage an institution untainted by same-sex couples.
My negative world view was reinforced by climate change denialists and the increasingly negative impact humans were having on the planet. Whether it’s peak oil or global climate change, rising sea water, species extinctions, a virulent virus or the killer super volcano simmering under Yellowstone National Park, it seemed like there’s always something terrible looming in the distance.
Sometimes Diane has had to wrestle me back from the precipice to keep me from becoming a full-blown doomsday prepper with an underground bunker full of supplies and a bug-out bag by the door. She keeps me grounded in a world where we’re all capable of doing real good and real evil.
And I’m finding a way to channel my dystopian outlook into my characters, especially since one dark inhabitant of my graphic novel is really more villain than hero.
The funny thing is that while I’m drawn to really dark stories and my favorite TV shows, movies, and books are all a bit twisted, I don’t think that has come out in the stories I’ve written in the last two decades.
Sure some of the stories I tell about my life may be a little disturbing to some, but I usually play them for laughs. Sure I have unpublished manuscripts in which I’ve tortured characters (and the English language) but—like the three Blind Eye Detective Mysteries we penned—even these stories still seem to close on positive notes.
Where the hell does that come from?
My fear is that I’m secretly a huge dewy-eyed romantic who wants to believe in fairy tales and magic and that real justice exists, that people get what they deserve and one person can change the world. Gross, right?
In my new promect I’m rejecting that niceness, the sense of justice, and comedic romance and embracing a darker universe that is not so much a dystopian future as it is a cynical present. I haven’t finalized the story’s ending yet but I’m pretty sure it won’t be a happy one. I’m thinking more like an act of ultimate betrayal by the one person the protagonist ever loved, followed by that person’s death, so there can never be forgiveness or redemption.
Because the truth is, the doomsday that I truly fear has less to do with apocalyptic weather patterns and more to do with my wife not being in my life. That would be like a future without the sun. Without her to brighten my days I’m afraid I would become enveloped by an eternal darkness.
Hmm. Maybe that’s what drove my character down such a dark path…..