When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but not any particular kind. I wrote all sorts of different stories as a teenager, and the only goals I had were to entertain myself and to make my friends laugh and flail their arms and demand more.
My first novel, composed at age fifteen, was a magical girl story with heavy anime influences. The main character was an immortal queen whose life was tied to the life of the land she ruled. I was especially proud of the three crucifixions in the last chapter.
(Anime was really fucked up in 1997, just saying.)
Another story followed the adventures of four young women, all thinly veiled portraits of me and my friends as adults, as they pursued successful careers in the arts in New York City. Another was a hardboiled mystery featuring a main character who was basically the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files.
The real headliner of my adolescent writing career was A Society of Like Minds. I started Society the summer of 1998, when I was 16, and I worked on it devotedly over the next two years. Society was a work of historical fiction that reflected my obsession with the English Romantic poets. My characters were all vaguely aristocratic and vaguely scandalous: one had a French opera singer for a wife, one had a mysteriously dead husband, there were rumors of infidelity between sister- and brother-in-law, etc. They all lived together in Florence and had strong feelings about society and God. I am still convinced it is some kind of masterpiece, and I occasionally pour over the old manuscripts with giggling and glee.
(Remember that time Gabriel Byrne was Byron and Natasha Richardson was Mary Shelley and Julian Sands made out with a woman who had eyes for nipples?)
I was thinking the other day about all of those stories, and about the fact that, I never used to consider genre in the context of my own writing. Genre was for libraries and bookstores. I wrote whatever came into my head, and I didn’t see anything wrong with that.
I began wondering if I’d lost that kind of creative flexibility, given that I can’t seem to stop searching for a label that will finally adequately convey the sort of writer I am in a few easy syllables. But then I recollected that my current novel is a gay paranormal romance, that my last novel was a young adult contemporary thriller, and that I’m probably the only one who would even notice all the things they have in common. I haven’t lost any flexibility. I’ve just picked up the additional, unhelpful sense that I’m doing myself some kind of disservice by not choosing one genre and writing in it until I’ve built up a brand.
Writers, especially women writers, internalize a lot of nonsense about the kind of art they’re supposed to produce. Some of that nonsense is aggressively pumped into our heads by a poisonous culture that doesn’t value diverse voices, but some of it we’re vulnerable to just because writers are insecure little bastards. We want to be good, and we want other people to say that we’re good. Most of all, we want to be read. We’ll listen to a lot of advice and try a lot of stuff if we think it’ll advance those goals.
I’d like to say that I sensibly and courageously draw the line before I let any outside considerations affect my work, but the truth is that I’d very much like to make a living off my writing one day. Still, I started developing into the kind of writer I am now a long time before I found out how the writing market works. And apparently, I’m a writer who gets an idea for a young adult thriller, then an idea for a story about boyfriends in their 30s in a haunted castle, and then an idea for a fantasy about deposed boy kings and time-travel. All of which sound great, if I do say so myself, but my life would probably be easier if I had a marvelous idea for one story and then ten brilliant sequels.
Despite how it sounds, I don’t mean to complain. I’m actually really pleased. Because I remember how much I loved to write at the age of16 and 17, and how little anxiety troubled me when I approached the blank page back then. Nothing was hanging on my writing except the fate of the story itself. I admire that now, and I really respect Teenage Brittany’s attitude towards writing in general. It makes me look at the writing career I have now in a different light. Seen through Teenage Brittany’s eyes, the many unconnected projects scattered across my desktop look less like evidence of poor discipline, and more like evidence of creative vitality.
I’m often tempted to think that if my teenage self could look fifteen years down the road and see what she becomes, she’d be appalled and depressed, but then I think about my stories. Teenage Brittany would be depressed that we haven’t yet achieved our dream of making a modest living off our novels, but if she read the books themselves, I honestly think she’d be delighted by them. Making myself happy was the first, most important kind of success I ever knew as a writer, and I think Teenage Brittany would be glad that I’m still getting that part right.