How to Write About Identity
A guest blog by Matthew Quick
First, you need an identity. No way around that. Do you have one? Have you fought hard enough? Are you sure? Did you earn it? What did you sacrifice? If the answer to that last question is nothing, your fiction will probably reflect that nothingness (and not in a good way).
I wrote A LOT of fiction in my teens and twenties that was utterly unpublishable. It wasn’t even readable. I read books about the craft. I went to grad school for creative writing. I spent almost two decades finger punching keyboards. I tried to publish everywhere. I endured avalanches of rejection letters. I fully believed I was asking smart questions and telling good stories. The problem—which I can now easily identify in hindsight—was this: I had no idea who I was.
We’re all given the seeds of our identity at birth, but that is never enough. I was born a white, straight, male American who grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood. My family and church immediately downloaded conservative Christian software into my brain. If you asked the sixteen-year-old me about his identity he would proudly parrot what he had been taught to believe. It was an untested philosophy that gave him access to the herds he called family and church. And the fiction he was writing largely reflected the worldview of the people who had power over him. He didn’t understand this. He had no vocabulary to converse objectively about identity.
During high school, that young Matt Quick fell in love with literature and the writers he admired offered another sort of software—mentally downloaded by reading novels—and that new software began to compete with the old software his family and church had already downloaded into his mind. Each attacked the other, which created conflict.
Conflict is never fun, but it is an essential part of establishing identity both in fiction and in real life.
When young Matt Quick went to college, his professors began to download even more software into his mind, creating more warring thoughts that kept him up at night and created much anxiety. He met people who had grown up running software he had never even heard of before—different religions, philosophies, worldviews. For the first time in his life he began to realize that it was his job to pick and choose which types of software his brain would run. It was time to take control.
Whenever he ran newer software, the people who were running the old software were dismayed and let him know it. This created more conflict. He fought with his parents and old friends. He disappointed his grandparents. And he started to change. He realized that he was willing to sacrifice relationships and even his membership to old communities in order to be the sole master of his mind.
The old communities often got really pissed off when the young Matt Quick’s mind started to run different software. He lost friends. He left his church. He stopped speaking with certain family members. But new communities opened their doors, new friends emerged, and he began to cobble together surrogate families that allowed him to run whatever software he wanted. It was freeing and definitely healthy, but it was a tough transition to make. He was often accused of being unwise, unkind, and even selfish. Having an authentic identity is a necessary part of becoming a storyteller, and so he pushed on.
When he taught high school he tried to explain all of the above to young people and encourage them to form unique and healthy identities, but the school and the town where he taught mostly ran a software that was not conducive to free thought and so his bosses and the parents of his students often peer-pressured him into pretending to run a mind software that was similar to the software everyone else in the town ran. This software made twenty-something Matthew Quick very ill and prevented him from writing fiction that was any good. It wasn’t until he freed himself from that community’s software—by quitting his job and moving far away—that he could begin to write stories that others actually wanted to read.
Whenever we create a character we need to know what that character wants and what he/she will have to sacrifice in order to earn the object of his or her particular desire. The struggle and choices made reveal the character’s true identity. The same is true in real life. Fiction writers must make the personal journey before we can masterfully create fictitious ones. We must fight, we must sacrifice, we must feel pain, we must endure, and we must discover who we are before we can begin to write fiction worth reading.
There is a price.
Will you pay it?
Don't forget to enter the giveaway to win one of TEN hardcover copies of Quick's newest novel Every Exquisite Thing!
Thanks to Matthew Quick for writing this blog post