We have spent and will probably continue to spend a lot of time talking about the technical side of things—studying “spells” to help harness the energies and the synchronicities rumbling on the page, living outside our intent and our control. A lot of it might feel dry. Perhaps even like work. Writing (like any other profession) is work.
But it’s also more than that.
Writing, for some, is a spiritual experience: tapping into the magic of the world, unearthing the universals of the human soul, practicing wu wei (in the Taoist belief) or “flow” (as western creativity scholars call it), becoming one’s truest self both on and off the page.
Writing, for some, is all about fun: a hobby to whittle away the hours, a way to make into existence the stories you can’t get anywhere else, the power to rewrite the endings of shows you love or put beloved characters into new situations.
And writing is—and can—be a thousand other things for a thousand other people. To echo my introductory post, there’s no one way to write. There’s no one right experience, no universal “why” any of us do this.
Writing always is more than that. Art is. It’s becoming and being and communicating and everything else in between. It is the way we decorate and process existence. It’s more.
But it’s also brought back down to earth because it is, at the end of the day, a market. A product. An ISBN.
As writers, we are both artists and sellers.
It’s easy to get lost in the work of it all when we’re out here trying to make it (whatever making it means or looks like: self pub, trad pub, a certain number of sales or accolades, or maybe just grinding). We dive into craft books and social media forums and MFAs, spiraling ever and ever further into the science of plotting, outlining, and editing in order to map our way to the perfect story. Or at least a good one. We want our stories to have the most power that they can—and succeed as much as they can in the marketplace—so we want to gain as many spells as we can to wrangle the power of words into some kind of harmony.
I’m certainly not discounting ANY of that, considering how important it all is to me. That all (minus the MFA… just remove the F part) is my story. That’s my experience: trying to “Git Gud” (to throw some Hollow Knight language in there). And trying to make some money at it down the road.
But it’s worth taking the time for an ode—a love song, if you will—to what probably brought us all here in the first place:
It’s weird how I came to this blog post. It wasn’t planned.
For shits, I watched a documentary on Hulu called, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, which details some of the history behind the toy as well as why Barbie now is a “brand in crisis” in need of a “crisis plan.” The result is a relaunch with tall, petite, and curvy body types as well as multiple new skin tones, hair textures, and modern fashion choices to better reflect the cultural moment—a more inclusive, representative interpretation of femininity.
There’s a good amount of critical engagement with what Barbie is and what she—as a construct—represents. The stakes of a toy with that much brand recognition (it’s crazy… like 98% worldwide) is rather large because of how pivotal play is to childhood development.
Google the importance of play, and you’ll see parenting blogs and child psychologists alike emphasizing just how big of a deal it is. Play is the way children learn, how they come to terms with their own personhood, how they interpret the social rules of any given culture. Play encourages creativity and solidifies neural pathways that are necessary for later learning.
Barbies, as toys (but specifically as dolls), run into the same paradox that books do:
they are a vehicle of imagination that has a barcode on the back.
The brand has been in existence since 1959, and it took until 2016 to vastly change the body type—and that only happened after a *lot* of critique. The barcode is probably why. The market had to force Mattel to make changes to its cash cow.
The concern with Barbie is that she limits the boundaries of play. Feminists (2nd wave onward) have long argued she privileges white supremacy, misogynistic displays of femininity, neoliberal consumerism, and unhealthy body image—that when children explore the rules of society, that’s all that barbies can facilitate when they look the way they do. It’s most definitely a valid critique and has pushed the brand into new, better places in terms of representation—perhaps, some might argue, a little too late to the game. But it is, at the very least, interesting to take that idea in comparison to the origins of the doll:
“Barbie was a wildly revolutionary toy because in the past, dolls had been baby dolls. They had all been about teaching little girls how to nurture. Barbie, in contrast, invited a little girl to do a whole other kind of play. It was about being able to project your adult identity onto a figure that you could manipulate in doll play.”Tiny Shoulders
At her inception, Barbie was progressive.
Here was a doll that moved beyond limits of play that baby dolls encouraged—teaching women that they could be more than just mothers. Young girls could explore worlds beyond their gender constructs while also imagining adult versions of themsleves because Barbie had adult anatomy. (Again, here’s a moment of criticism, since that imagination is limited to slender and disproportionate anatomy). That was such a radical idea that the inventor / co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler, had a hard time convincing male executives and male buyers that a doll with breasts would even sell.
Spoiler alert, it did.
Although Mattel might have moved at a glacial pace when it came to opening up the limits of representational play today, there’s something beautiful about what role this doll has played in the lives of young girls for generations:
“Although Barbie has had her fair share of criticism, she has played an absolutely vital role in the imaginative and physical and sexual development of millions and millions of young girls. She herself isn’t powerful. What makes Barbie powerful are the feelings and emotions and stories that we invest in her.”Tiny Shoulders
I, myself, invested a lot of stories in Barbie.
*Finally, you may be thinking, Christina reached the freaking punch line.*
I loved my barbies. I had tons of them. I played with them nearly every day. And it was a big deal to my poor younger sister when I stopped making up stories with them.
Looking back, it’s fun for me to see the seeds of what would eventually bloom in my own literature.
Barbie, as a brand, provided a vehicle for young girls to imagine their older selves–the careers they’d choose, the romances they’d experience, the spaces they’d carve out for themselves. But my play was rooted more in fantasy. And although I wasn’t old enough to think critically about the social rules I enacted through play, now I can wonder at it in amazement.
Maybe it was the fact that my mom was *such* a feminist (and my dad too, for that matter), or maybe it was because Hunchback of Notre Dame was (and still is) my favorite Disney movie. But without fail, my villains tended to be male sorcerers and corrupt kings / priests that simultaneously were afraid of their sexual attraction towards my barbies and threatened by their female power. With those male villains, I’d enact gendered violence that was supported by a toxic, patriarchal status quo, and within that liminal space, my witches and princesses and mermaids would have to harness their own feminine power–their magic–and overcome.
How crazy is that?
So you don’t think I’m totally full of shit, an example.
When I told my dad that I was writing this particular blog post, he laughed and asked if I was going to tell people how I would hang my barbies from the loft. The poor guy had two strong daughters on his hands, both of whom had done some sociopath-level shit to their dolls–to the point where, as a parent, he had to put on a soft voice and ask if we ever thought of doing that to real people. Looking back, I’m so sorry for and so proud of him! My sister dismembered her dolls because she was fascinated by the mechanical workings of them–the hip sockets, the weird texture of the plastic that was both hard and soft and rubbery–and meanwhile, I had my Frollo-esque baddies hanging witches from the beams and leaving them there as a warning to my heroines. I didn’t exactly leave physical evidence of the third act resolution to my stories in the same way I’d absentmindedly leave the inciting incident out there for all to see.
It’s so fascinating to me, knowing the odd trajectory of my 10,000-hours-journey of practice.
Middle grade leprechauns, YA and adult horror, contemporary YA, adult epic fantasy, and then finally adult #WitchyHorrorRomance–I tried out a lot of genres, but always at the center of them, I had female MCs navigating a liminal space pressurized by some sort of toxic masculinity, eventually embracing their own strength or magic in order to win.
I wonder where stories come from all the time: from the collective unconscious or our own minds, from nature or nurture. I was a young girl growing up in a very conservative space, learning each day what that had done to my mother–all the traumas she endured–and then, over the course of my life, amassing a few traumas myself. It makes sense that I would use literature to reflect on those experiences, to tell stories of women loving in the face of hate, embracing their inner fire, prevailing when the odds are stacked against them.
But I was so dang young when I started telling that story. Before I ever even thought to craft it with words, I told it through play.
Play is important for all children, but for me—and I imagine for a lot of you—it holds a special place in my heart. Playing with barbies was a chaotic incarnation of the career I would eventually try to pursue: storytelling.
Villains did unspeakable things and got their just desserts at the hands of fantastically named heroes and heroines. I turned bubble baths into underwater worlds, cat carriers into ancient castles, and propped-up children’s books into sprawling labyrinths that would have spun Theseus’s head. Playing barbies meant hanging out on the playground of my imagination–a place I’d visit time and time again as an adult trying to craft worlds that are not our own.
So yeah, although Barbie has had her fair share of (very valid) criticism, I found myself rather thankful for her as I was watching Tiny Shoulders. She was the vehicle through which I stretched my writerly muscles for the first time.
But most importantly, it wasn’t work. It wasn’t technical. I wasn’t writing a dissertation on gendered violence and female power. I was just. having. fun.
And at the end of the day, that’s what writing’s supposed to be, right? We want to have fun with our first drafts or our editing phase–whatever floats your boat–and our readers want to have fun turning the page when we’re done. That joy is important. It honestly can’t be overstated how important it is, even if the material we’re working with is not exactly popcorn entertainment.
So here’s the lesson for creative writers–the one Tiny Shoulders reminded me of on a lazy Sunday watching Hulu:
Play is the first step to creativity.
It can be silly or dark or completely unhinged because when we play, we aren’t trying to create art and we aren’t trying to sell a product. We are just existing in a space of imagination for the fun of it. And if we really tap into the magic of play, we might even experience flow while we do it—losing our sense of time and ego. That magical experience where everything is right with the universe.
Because writing doesn’t always feel like that.
Sometimes writing is just not fun.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to come up with an original idea, something that will pitch well on Twitter, something that won’t shrivel up and die in the query trenches or leave us suffocating in the red with indie sales, and then we pressure ourselves to outline it well, to draft it in X number of days, to keep chipping away at it even if we fall short of our deadlines, to worry about characters’ misbeliefs and act structures and whether or not we’re using too much passive voice. We pressure ourselves to do our first drafts justice and then shred them with steely-eyed scientific accuracy in Draft 2 and then again in Draft 3 and again in Draft 4 and again and again and again. We put our careers on hold and our families through hell because we are chasing this one thing that sets our soul on fire but there are gatekeepers at the finish line holding their hands on our heads while we bury ourselves deeper and deeper into the earth with each exhausted footstep.
Writing is HARD. It is WORK. It is DEPLETING to simultaneously be student, artist, and seller. I see you out there. I know what you’ve been through trying to make this work. It’s not all the time, but it’s enough. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a writer who hasn’t burned out at least once.
But it’s worthwhile to take a breath, to step away from the grind. To remember why we’re here. Why we were called to this communal space. Why we warm our fingers with each flint-sparked strike of the keyboard–in search of true magic.
One of the best pieces of writing advice shows up a lot on our Instagram writing community:
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”Toni Morrison
Write the book that you want to read–that would bring you joy if you were the one sitting on the couch and flipping the pages. In other words, write for the fun of it. If we focus solely on the barcode on the back, we stifle our imagination; and if we lose ourselves to the grind, we might lose sight of the magic.
As adults with limited time resources, that might scare you. I know it scared me when I was battered by the query trenches and needing a warm hearth to curl up next to while I recovered. Writing a crappy little story just because it makes you happy is, honestly, quite radical in our neoliberal world. Knowing that it may never get published, that it may never sell copies, and that it might just be part of your 10,000-hour journey of practice and patience is an utter leap of faith. A moment of choosing you, your joy.
But if I hadn’t done that, The Moon Tells No Lies wouldn’t exist. I would have cheated myself out of my favorite story I’ve ever written. And years before that, I wouldn’t have written a far crappier road trip romance that made my sophomore year of college far more enjoyable. Sometimes you strike gold, other time’s it’s decidedly of the “fools” variety.
AND THAT’S OKAY. Not every story we write needs to be ready for PitMad.
So my advice to you this week, by way of a little documentary on Hulu:
Embrace the magical chaos that is putting words on a page. Warm your fingers with your keys and worry a little less about the finished product. Play with your characters like you played with your barbies and write the story you want to write.
Because play is still important. It’s the path to joy, and it’s what’s going to keep your future readers turning the page one day.