I started graduate school last week! It’s a Master’s program of Rhetoric and Writing, and it means I suddenly have less time for blogging than I did before. But it also means I’ve been reading a number of books and scholarly articles that are prompting me to think more deeply on topics related to teaching and the writing process.
That might not sound, at first glance, like something that has to do with “finding our true selves in the people God created us to be.” However, I’m struck by similarities between best practices for teaching students to improve as writers and what I know about personal growth. We don’t all follow the exact same patterns for personal growth, nor do we all grow at the same pace and in the same way. Similarly, one-size-fits-all is not a great approach to teaching writing. There are, of course, certain things we look for in “good writing” — a strong thesis, structure that supports the thesis, integration of quotes and examples, etc. But to a certain extent, whether or not something is “good writing” also depends on the individual writer. Read more →
I don’t talk much about my fiction writing on this blog. In fact, I don’t even write fiction under my own name — I use the pen name Maris McKay to keep my non-fiction and fiction separate. But this blog is partly about me sharing major things going on in my life with all of you, and so I’ve decided to let you all know about something exciting that happened in the fiction-writing part of my life.
I published my first book!!!
Technically this isn’t really my first book since The INFJ Handbook and God’s Love Story have been available for quite some time now, but it’s my first fiction book and it’s the first of my books available in paperback as well as ebook. Getting the proof copy was ridiculously exciting.
A negotiator who uses herself as a bargaining chip.
An adventurous spirit trapped by her culture and family.
A resistance fighter leading her captors into a trap.
A reclusive horse trainer swept into a quest for treasure.
An elderly, overlooked servant smuggling slaves out of her country.
A woman with a gift that seems like far more trouble than it’s worth.
A princess whose arranged marriage puts her in the hands of pirates.
A shepherdess fighting to save her sister.
A belly-dancing assassin who fakes her targets’ deaths.
These are the women of Kern — the sort of women who in our own world are all too often ignored, overlooked, forgotten, and silenced by history. Enter their world of magic, adventure, and romance through nine short stories and novellas driven by women with the strength and courage to shape their own destinies.
I’m anticipating a few questions about this book, so I want to answer them here (feel free to ask others in the comments):
Q: Is this Christian fiction?
A: No. It is fiction written by a Christian and certain stories have Christian themes, but it is not “Christian fiction.”
Q: Is this book clean?
A: Mostly? I’d describe it as PG-13 for violence and sex. My target audience is adults and older teens, not children.
Q: Why the pen name?
A: Several reasons:
The website “marissabaker.com” was taken.
I didn’t want people searching for this blog finding my fiction page instead, or those looking for my fiction to find articles I’d written about gardening (less of a problem now than it was a few years ago when I was writing for eHow).
Since I write such a wide variety of things (non-fiction about personality types, Christian non-fiction, and fantasy/sci-fi) I thought it would be easier to write non-fiction and fiction under separate names.
I should never have stayed here. Nay, I should never have left Italy.
If my cousin Philip had not been so like Ambros perhaps I could have left. To see his face — that beloved, tormenting face — staring into my eyes once more was more than I could leave. More than I could resist when he asked me to stay. Or I should say ordered me. They were orders, though I turned a blind eye to it then because I wanted him. Or perhaps not him, but Ambros back in my life. I know not.
I’m in such fear. It was a foolish thing on both our parts, the midnight of his birthday. He knows too little of the world to realize what I gave him was nothing more than a thank you. A birthday gift that would mean more than that stupid little pearl cravat pin. And yes, I wanted it too. A younger, more devoted Ambros to worship me once again if only for a moment.
And how could I have known that he meant marriage by his comment about lacking warmth and comfort? Or that he thought I’d agreed to be his when he took me into those primroses? Or that he would get so drunk he’d announce our engagement to his godfather and poor Louise at dinner?
I still feel the pressure of his hands at my throat. Those big, powerful hands of a man who works on his farm every day and stands a head taller than me. Stronger than the ones Ambros once put around my neck. My cousin Philip could have snapped my neck, though he wouldn’t have had to. The slightest squeeze more and I’d not have been able to draw the thinnest breath.
Should I feel guilty for bringing Mary Pascoe into this house? Surely his fury won’t touch her, too. The worst he’d do is throw her out of the house. While me … I know not what he’d do were we alone now. Would he wrap his hands around my throat again and expect me to make myself his? Would he force me and afterward tell me I liked it and must marry him?
His fantasy is as complete as the paranoia that claimed Ambrose. I half-believe in his mind we’re already married. That he thinks I’m so sure to agree it’s as if I’ve done so already. That his ridiculous present of his entire fortune will surely convince me to stay.
I must get away. I have the means to do so now, though God knows it’s not why I came here. I simply wanted to see the home Ambros talked about. The symbol of what could have been before he turned on me. The idea of our marriage rather than the reality of it. The allowance my cousin Philip gave me was more than enough. More than I expected or even hoped. To have him honor the will Ambros never signed …
Did he think he’d bought me?
Will he let me leave?
This is quite a bit different than my usual review for books I’m reading on my Classics Club Book list. But I think Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1951) is the sort of novel that invites you to look at it from different perspectives. The fact that you’re trapped inside Philip Ashley’s mind for the entire novel leaves you guessing at what the other characters are really thinking. He’s an unreliable narrator and he’s hopelessly naive, especially when it come to women, so the motives he assigns to Rachel are likely untrue. But if he’s wrong about her, then what is right? Everything we know of her is filtered through Philip. We don’t know her true motive or any of her thoughts. We can only guess, as I’m doing in my little retelling from Rachel’s point of view (which overlaps Chapter 23 of the original novel).
I watched the 2017 film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel before reading the book. I suspected I would still enjoy the book after seeing the movie, but knew if I read the book first there was a good chance I’d spend the film grumpy about how they’d adapted it. It turned out to be a very faithful adaptation, though.
*Spoiler Warning* The only major changes were made at the end. The film provides less evidence of Rachel’s alleged guilt, pointing viewers towards the idea that she was not poisoning Philip. And it also has Philip sending her to ride along a dangerous path rather than choosing not to warn her about a dangerous bridge in the garden. The film pushes you toward believing he intended her to die where the book leaves it a little more ambiguous. But then again, Philip’s the one telling the story. Of course he’d make himself look as good as possible.
Philip wants us second-guessing his cousin Rachel. But I suspect Du Maurier wants us to look at Philip just as closely. Because even though we’re getting his perspective on things and he’s certainly not putting any blame on himself, there are things about being in his mind that make me as scared of him as I think Rachel is.
Repeatedly, Philip says he wants to isolate Rachel from everyone but him. And that’s before he starts becoming overtly controlling. And when he puts his hands around her throat, it’s not in the heat of anger. He presents it as a calculated decision to add fear to the list of reasons she should marry him. Later, he barely contains his fury and indignation when (after he’s given her all his property and she still hasn’t married him) she states that she can and will invite whoever she likes to stay with them because the house belongs to her and she doesn’t feel safe alone with him.
So instead of just asking, “Did Rachel poison Ambros and/or Philip?” I think we need to ask whether such an act could be considered self-defense. Abuse does not justify murder, but even if Rachel killed someone she may not be the evil and/or misguided character that Philip (who describes himself as feeling a strange compassion for her once he makes up his mind about her guilt) makes her out to be. It might have been more of an act of desperation and fear than calculating malice.
But that’s assuming she’s guilty at all. And there’s no clear evidence that she is. Laburnum (the plant Philip settles on as the murder weapon) isn’t even all that poisonous. The most common symptoms are nausea and vomiting, and that’s after eating several seeds. “Higher doses can produce intense sleepiness, convulsive possibly tetanic movements, coma, slight frothing at the mouth and unequally dilated pupils. … [However] the MAFF publication ‘Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man’, says that all stories about laburnum causing serious poisoning and death are untraceable” (The Poison Garden).
Perhaps Du Maurier believed her chosen poison really was deadly based on the rumors that have made it one of the most feared garden plants. But perhaps she did her research and knew that Philip was jumping to unjustifiable conclusions. Maybe she would have known, as Rachel surly did with her expertise in herb lore and gardening, that most gardens are home to far more reliably deadly plants (like foxglove and oleander). Perhaps Du Maurier meant for her readers to realize that a brain tumor (for Ambros) and a relapse of meningitis (for Philip) are the most logical explanations for symptoms both men attribute to “Rachel, my torment.”
There’s an argument to be made that Philip isn’t really concerned about whether or not Rachel poisoned Ambros at all. He decides her guilt based on whether or not she “conforms to his desires and whims” (from “My Cousin Rachel (2017) and Male Entitlement“). After all, he already possesses everything else that belonged to Ambros. Why not Rachel as well?
The question of whether or not Rachel poisoned Ambros consumes Philip only until their first meeting. After that he’s quite certain she’s innocent until she makes it clear she won’t marry him. All his worry about whether or not she’s guilty of murder covers the fact that his inability to deal with rejection brings out a desire to posses and control her. He and Ambros call Rachel “my torment” because she brings out the ugliest side of their natures and they blame her for their darkness rather than looking to the true culprits. Themselves.
Fiction affects society, for good or ill, often as much or more than real-life situations. If Charles Dickens had lectured about the plight of real-life orphans in London, would it have had the same effect as writing Oliver Twist? Or to use an example I see as very negative, would as many people have been obsessed with an essay about BDSM as they were with 50 Shades of Gray?
Fiction is powerful. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but all in a positive light since I was arguing that fiction has value. It can also have a more negative influence as well, which is why I think both writes and readers have a responsibility to self-censor. It’s not up to someone to tell writers not to write a certain kind of book or discuss a specific topic, or to tell readers what they can and cannot read. But it is a good idea (particularly if you’re a Christian) to think carefully about the reading and writing choices we make.
On March 31, 1750, Samuel Johnson published what has become one of the most famous statements in regards to the potential of fiction. While I don’t agree with his arguments against imaginative invention of the fantastic (I write fantasy, after all), this passage intrigues me:
if the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.”
I think what Johnson is saying is that authors have a responsibility not to use the power they weld to influence their readers negatively. Responsible authors exercise a form of self-censorship, which doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t talk about complex or even “bad” ideas. But fiction can be enormously influential, and authors should be conscious of the fact that what they are writing has the potential to fill their readers’ minds.
Writers of fiction set out to create a story that draws readers in, and once this happens the readers are under the writer’s influence. Johnson thought that, “the best examples only should be exhibited” so that there is nothing “mischievous or uncertain” in fiction’s effect. I don’t think we need to go that far, but we should be mindful of the power we have to influence readers.
As readers, we should also be mindful of what we expose our minds to, remembering that we’re giving our reading material the opportunity to change or influence our thinking. I came across a great article titled “Self Censorship Better Than Book Banning” a few weeks ago about teaching your children how to make good decisions about their reading material instead of trusting the schools or government to ban “inappropriate” books (which will be defined differently for each individual).
This is pretty much what my mother did, though I wasn’t required to talk about every book with her after reading it (I usually did anyway, so she didn’t really need a rule). The only time I remember my mother taking away a book was when I broke down sobbing one day and confessed that I was having trouble dealing with the main character losing her father to cancer. There were a few other books that she strongly recommended I give up, and I usually (eventually) agreed with her. Harry Potter was “banned” in our house when it first came out, and that’s the only book I can remember being specifically told not to read.
It seems to have worked for the most part. There are books I wish I hadn’t read (and a few I’m sure that I really I shouldn’t have been reading), but for the most part I’m glad I had that freedom. It helped teach me to think for myself, which, to reference John Keating from Dead Poets Society, is the goal of good education.
“Why would you write fiction? Isn’t it just a bunch of lies?”
It’s been a while since someone asked me that question, but I can re-play the scene clearly. They look smug, like they’d just discovered a great argument against writing and reading fiction. Fiction is not true, and so therefore it is not good. Why make-up stories when there are plenty of good, wholesome things, people, and events that already exist? In fact, why tell stories at all, especially fantasy stories? They just give children unrealistic expectations of the world, and adults an excuse to ignore reality.
Obviously, since I’m still writing and reading fiction, I don’t buy into these arguments. But why?
Probably the simplest reason for writing fiction is to escape. Much of fiction — both good and bad — falls into this category. Sometimes life isn’t any fun, and reading and writing fiction gives us a way to escape for a while without actually leaving our location or situation. This can be as simple as diving into Middle Earth while waiting for the clothes to finish drying at the laundromat. Would you rather stare at your t-shirts spin, or canoe down the Rauros with the Fellowship of the Ring?
In a New York Times article, ‘Why Write Novels at All?’ Garth Risk Halberg talks about the idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” Now we’re getting closer to the reason I write fiction. Escape is all well and good, but what are you escaping to? It’s not enough to just take off for Narnia — we have to find Aslan there or the journey means nothing.
We write to share who we are and what we think, and we read to connect with something outside us. Usually this is a new world or characters, but if we’re very lucky we’ll also sense the author as they bleed through the pages of their work. This connectedness is one of the chief arguments for reading and writing, since it carries over into “real” life: people who read fiction are more emphatic than non-readers.
Let’s say you have something you want to say about a controversial topic. We’ll use abortion as an example, and say you’re on the pro-life side. If you write an article telling people that abortion is bad, only the people who already agree with you are going to like it. If you tell a true story about a baby who survived an abortion or a mother whose life was ruined by an abortion, it will affect more people but you’ll still lose a large number of your readers.
Now suppose you write a story where you climb inside the head of a character and show what they are struggling with as she decides whether or not to have an abortion. You don’t just put your words in the character’s mouth – you imagine yourself in her shoes, and realize that she has real reasons to consider both options. You sympathize with her, and whatever your readers believe they sympathize with her too. Your ideas will filter through in decisions you make about how see feels when she sees the baby on an ultrasound, or whether or not she keeps the child at the end of the story. You can let readers know what you think, but you don’t shove your ideas down their throat. You give them a chance to feel with you, and let them think for themselves.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.
Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment. ” – Susan Sontag, from a speech at the Los Angeles Public Library
This sort of literature may or may not be an escape for your readers, but should definitely let them connect with something or someone. It should make them think. It should give them a chance to “meet” types of people thy might never come in contact with in their real lives, to question ideas that they take for granted, to consider what is and is not moral. Fiction lets us talk about things that are uncomfortable to discuss in real life, or give a new perspective on issue too charged in reality to have a dialogue about. It lets us ask “what if?” and run with the potential answers before actually changing the world. Yet.
I’m sure I read somewhere that David Keirsey originally called the INFJ personality type “The Writer” instead of “The Counselor,” but I can’t find the article now. Nevertheless, it does seem that quite a few INFJs are attracted to writing. Even if they aren’t working as writers or typing away at a novel, they probably keep a journal/diary and are often more comfortable with written communication than they are with speaking. I’m a fairly typical example of INFJs in this regard — I write a blog (obviously), keep a journal, work as a writer, prefer writing e-mails to taking on the phone, and write fiction.
Speaking of writing fiction …
I won NaNoWriMo! I’m particularly pleased with myself for conquering the 50,000 words a day early in spite of having pneumonia in November. Anyway, back to INFJ writers.
There’s an INFJ profile written by Dr. A.J. Drenth (which no longer appears on his website, but you can read it here) that has this to say about INFJs:
Although INFJs are commonly drawn to music, visual arts, design, or architecture, writing may well be this type’s signature creative talent. Adept at channeling their right-brain creativity into a fluid and engaging left-brain storyline, INFJs are unmatched in their feel for and creative use of the written word.
This creative aspect of our writing talent seems to be tied to an INFJ’s primary function — Introverted Intuition (Ni). Intuitive types prefer possibility to actuality, future to the present, intuition to fact, and improvement over the status quo. When intuition is introverted, as for INFJs, the focus is mostly on an internal world where our minds tinker with “ideas, perspectives, theories, visions, stories, symbols, and metaphors” (Dr. A.J. Drenth, Introverted Intuition).
Even INFJs who don’t write typically have an affinity for stories and a “rich inner life.” We tend to live in a world of possibilities, and I find that one way to keep my fantasy life anchored in reality is to turn those ideas into stories and write them down. It’s weakness/temptation for INFJs to never move their ideas from possibility to reality. With creative writing, I can set my imagination loose and tell myself there’s a practical application for it as well.
INFJs as Writers
It’s hard to type people when you don’t know them, but there are some famous writers that we can guess were INFJs. Keirsey lists Emily Bronte and Emily Dickenson as “Counselor” types. Another list of famous INFJs adds writers like Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A forum discussion suggests Madeleine L’Engle, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Lois Lowry, Ursla LeGuin, Franz Kafka, and several others could be added to the list.
Now, the fact that many INFJs gravitate towards writing doesn’t mean that it’s always easy for us. I’m not sure how many stories I started and abandoned before finally finishing my first novel in 2011. It was for NaNoWriMo, and I needed that deadline to keep myself writing. It’s so easy to build the story in my head, and then lose interest in writing it down once I think I know how it ends.
Though knowing the end makes me lose interest in the story, I also need some kind of outline to keep me on track. I’ve discovered sticky notes on the wall is my new favorite way to plot-out novels. They can be removed or rearranged as needed, and you don’t need to have them all there to start writing. For my NaNo novel this year, I began with only half the plot laid-out, and added more scenes as I wrote and the direction of the story became clear.