The Good Girl Writer

There’s an early chapter in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that relates how, in first grade, young Stevie had an infected eardrum lanced. The ear doctor assured him the first time–and the second time, and the third time–that it would not hurt.

This was not true. Having a needle stuck into his infected ear to puncture his eardrum did indeed hurt young Stevie. A lot. If you read the book, you can tell it still hurts Stephen King, though perhaps not in physical pain so much as psychic pain.

Two lessons can be learned from this: Ears are sensitive pieces of equipment, and a kid will remember it forever if you lie to them.

When I was about the same age, I spent a Sunday afternoon at my grandmother’s house, playing a game with my cousins. We took turns running down her long front porch and leaping into the yard. It was an on-the-spot challenge, and we had a good time racing back and forth doing our version of the Olympic long jump competition.

I don’t remember crystal clear details—I was five years old–but I recall it was very windy that day. I remember landing and feeling a pop in my ear. I don’t know if I told my mother. I don’t remember that it hurt a whole lot, but I recall it hurt enough that I quit playing.

The next day, I woke up with an earache. I was taken to the doctor, who diagnosed a ruptured eardrum. I don’t remember the doctor visit or any needle insertion, but I do recall the at-home, follow up treatment: My mother (who was a registered nurse) poured warm alcohol (I think) in my ear each morning. It wasn’t painful, but the alcohol ended up in my throat and made me gag, so I hated it.

The alcohol treatment went on for a week. My mother would lay a white towel on the kitchen counter and I would rest my head on it while she poured the alcohol in my ear. Well, that’s how it was meant to happen. What really happened after the first day was, my grandmother held my head down against the towel while I howled and kicked. I wasn’t the kind of child who fought my mother, and I sure as heck didn’t kick at my grandmother on a regular basis, but this was very unpleasant. The decades-old sensation of alcohol running into the back of my throat still makes me shudder.

There was no excruciating pain, however. No one lied to me. Even though I fought, I was hugged afterward. Knowing my mom’s M.O. whenever we were sick, I was probably rewarded with a toy or treat, or both, when it was all over.

My recollection of running off the porch—the fun part of the story—is pleasant in a vague, remembering-my-childhood way. The image of the white towel set on the kitchen counter is as vivid as if I saw it yesterday, and so is the dread that rose up when I saw it.

Images from childhood are burned into a person’s psyche. So are lies, trust, and deceptions.

Some time ago, I scoured my personal writing in preparation for applying for an artist grant. Much of my work comes from family stories. I noted that, in the majority of my stories, the mothers were warm, consistent and loving. The grandmothers were strong, tough, and caring. Dads were reliable and faithful, but they worked a lot. Doctors didn’t deceive little kids with the “It won’t hurt” lie; policemen were honest and brave; teachers were patient, unless they were nuns, who were stern but not scary.

I was a good girl from a nice reliable family, and I wrote like one.

It was an illuminating moment. My stories were still engaging, I believe, but I was stuck in the realm of my own experience full of trustworthy adults. Which made the stories limiting, and which in turn limited me as a writer.

I decided to change that.

In the last few years, my characters have grown more flaws. My dads got a little lazier. My women had a couple of affairs. Everybody lies more, deceives more, makes more mistakes. Some of my narrators are completely unreliable. As a result, there’s more trouble in my stories. My characters’ lives are more challenging, and they take more walks on the wild side.

A whole new world of iffy behavior, sketchy places and dodgy characters opened up before me and my pen, and I embraced it.

I am still a good girl from a nice reliable family, but I no longer write like one.

Do you have patterns in your writing? Are your main characters always trustworthy? Your men incapable of holding down a job? Do all the aunts drink? Are all the uncles charming and handsome? Does anyone lie for what they believe is a good reason? Does anyone lie just for fun?

Have you ever examined your work and realized the goodness, the badness, or the in-between came from your own life? Are you limiting your writing by being a good girl, or boy?

Tell me about it.

 Ramona

39 thoughts on “The Good Girl Writer

  1. Ah…great minds and all that.
    I’ve noticed a trend in heroines lately in my recent purchases: they’re all messed up in a big, f*ing way. Like you, I have to try harder to pull that out in my characters, but it’s much more fun to read. And write.

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    • Pamela, I just wrote a woman who is kind of a psycho stalker, though a relatively harmless one. I had such a good time making her mind wander off to wondering what various guys would be like in bed, or lying to her boss, or putting her ex’s belongings out on the curb. Bad can be fun, that’s for sure!

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  2. True and true and I tell young playwrights that nice doesn’t make drama, but then I think of your family stories which sound appealing and I remember the breathtaking THEY CAME LIKE SWALLOWS by Wm Maxwell and I long for novels with that kind of kindness.

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  3. Ramona, great post! Sometimes I feel this way about my writing. I am reading Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series now, and there is a lot of deception and distrust among the adults. It really adds to the suspense because as a reader, you don’t know whom to trust, and you get a sense that none of them are entirely trustworthy. So you have to navigate the shades of trust to determine which you want to side with. I’m trying to learn a little about the conflict and world-building here for my current project, which you know well.

    I’m also a nonconfrontational person, which I tend to impose on my characters. Obviously, that is a problem! So, there is the good-girl syndrome and the nonconfrontational, good-girl syndrome. Both are bad. Very bad. 🙂

    Thanks!

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  4. We can’t help writing from our own lives, can we? My first book was non-fiction, a collection of 100 case histories of people who had certain kinds of businesses. When it was finished I sent it to a friend to read and her first observation was that so many of the businessowners’ spouses “supported them in their business”. At the time I was going through a particularly challenging time in my marriage, and of course my writing was colored with what was happening with ME. It was funny, but I had a lot of revising to do!

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    • Karen, how interesting that you wrote from the non-fiction POV. I think any career requires support from a spouse, if you have one, but it must have been an illuminating moment for you, when you saw you were focusing on that. Seems natural to me.

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  5. Great post, Ramona!

    I SO identify with the “good girl” who writes like one, and like you I have had to make a conscious effort to embrace my characters’ dark side–and mine as well.

    I’ve also noticed how much FUN it is to write “bad girl” characters. You know, the sexy, vampy, uninhibited females who are so much not me!

    Love the Stephen King story. I think that’s my favorite book on writing.

    Thanks for the good words!

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    • Nancy, my bad girls don’t hurt other people intentionally–not yet. Maybe I have to move over a little more to the dark side to do that, should I so desire.

      I find my characters make murkier moral choices. Sometimes they are riddled with guilt, but sometimes not! My psycho stalker was a ball to write. I made her crazier and crazier, and got a real charge out of it. She never hurt anyone and I wonder, given the chance, if she would have or not.

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  6. Ramona,
    This is an interesting way to review my own writing. It made me giggle a little because I write like a bad girl, but I had/have a wonderfully supportive family. I’m sure I must be drawing from the many people I’ve met along the way in life. My characters might be fractured, but they have interesting problems and they believe in something. So….I don’t think I’m writing like a bad girl, but rather a girl who has encountered and dealt with a wide variety of people.
    Great article. It really made me think about my life and my focus this morning. Thank you!
    Diana

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    • You’re welcome, Diana! I think we are as often influenced by people we encounter as we are by our own experiences. This is why it is dangerous befriending a writer–you never know what they will steal…borrow…interpret from you.

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  7. Hi Ramona! This struck home on many levels. I didn’t have a “nice” childhood so much as a boring one. Like Tamara, I am not a confrontational person, mostly because confrontation was strictly forbidden when I was growing up. No matter what hateful things my father said to us, we had to say, in essence, “Thank you, sir, may I have another”! I really have to work at making scenes where people argue instead of sit and simmer or acknowledge their anger in any way. Don’t want to make my characters boring.

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    • Genie, I think conflict between characters is difficult for many reasons. When you personalize it, that can make it more realistic, but also more emotionally difficult to write. I realized some time ago that I’ve never been hit by anyone–not really, other than breaking up a few kid fights. I had to write someone getting punched up, and I had nothing to draw on. This is good for me as a human being, of course, but it made writing it hard. Painful words between characters need to sting, and the sting needs to show. It’s not boring, that’s for sure.

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  8. Great post. I am definitely a good girl who comes from a good family and I write like one.

    For some reason though, I’ve never had a problem creating terrible mothers, even though my mother definitely was not. I think its because in order for my heroines to get into the trouble they get into they need to be isolated socially which makes them vulnerable which starts with weak ties to family which leads back to–terrible mothers!

    The mother in my short story Key West in Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers is in many ways the mother-from-hell. MY own mother says, “That;s the only one of your stories I don’t like. I can’t quite put my finger on why.”

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  9. A while back I suddenly noticed that everyone in my WIP was too NICE. Interesting, considering that my mother was sharp-tongued and angry. My sister and I ended up being nice to stay off her radar. Now I’m trying to mind her for some bad dudes.

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    • Terry, “nice” can mean so many different things. Does nice mean good-hearted? Sweet? A little simple? Not too bright? Blah or sarcastic, as in “Isn’t that nice?” when you mean just the opposite.

      We remember sharp words. I’m sorry you have this in your background, but using it to better your work gives you control of it. Maybe through your characters you are talking back to your mother in a way you never could before.

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  10. Hi Ramona,
    I know just what you mean. Growing up, my Mother told me to be good girl, act like a nice girl, etc. Today, as a result, my writing is stunted. I tend to write as if she or someone else in my childhood authority were looking over my shoulder. Those scenes you had us write – is probably the first time I have stretched myself to write “like a bad girl.” I had so much fun bursting out of my comfort zone. Great blog post, Ramona – thank you for sharing your memories with us. I just loved Stephen King’s “On Writing.”

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    • Mary, your comment makes my day! You wrote some good stuff in our course. Part of the fun,and the challenge, is to let yourself try something new. I was really pleased that so many people shared scenes with the whole group, esp. since we only had a day or so to pound them out that first week. I think you can safely try to knock whoever is perched on your shoulder and look ahead at the reader in front of you. Move forward! You are not stunted anymore.

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  11. I studied the Method in college drama, and the worst memory I could draw upon was the death of my puppy a few days after I’d received him on my birthday. Otherwise my life felt quiet. The puppy experience didn’t fill the emotional well, so to speak, so I never found my voice as a young actor. But later, after some life experience and subsequent self-examination, I have been able to draw on the method techniques for writing. I thought Mary’s use of the word “stunted” was interesting. We good girls may feel stunted sometimes, but maybe it’s repression. Or oppression. Both emotional states worth exploring.

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    • “Stunted” has stayed with me, too, Nancy. It is difficult for some writers to write action, others to write biting dialogue, others to portray emotional pain. I think one lure of the bad guy character is that the writer can let loose–this person is bad, so being hurtful is expected. But when a “good” character does something hurtful or stupid, that’s an entirely different challenge. If you are a good girl, you draw out of yourself for a simple bad guy. If you’re a good girl and want to make a good girl character do something bad, where do you draw that from? I like the repression/oppression consideration, too.

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  12. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but I love, love, love writing despicable people. I had a very happy, normal childhood. I grew up rather poor, but it didn’t affect me badly as a young child. I think it toughened me in good ways when I was older. Someone else, reviewing my short story collection, noticed I wrote a lot about doing in men, especially boyfriends and husbands. I’ve been happily married for a long, long time, so I’m not sure where that comes from either, but I made a conscious decision to murder other people after reading that.

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    • LOL, Kaye, that’s hilarious! I am curious if your husband was the person who made this observation. 😉 Actually, I have an idea about this. A long time ago, someone told me that only a child secure in his parents’ love would say “I hate you” to them in a moment of anger. That’s because a secure child knows Mom or Dad won’t say, “I hate you too.” A child who worries this might happen would not open that door. So in a convoluted way, a child screaming “I hate you!” is also screaming, “I trust you!” Maybe your repeated killing of lovers and husbands shows you are secure in the fact that you’d never do it in real life?

      You do write good meanies, and it’s obvious you have fun with them!

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      • Well, maybe that’s it. It’s a good sounding theory! I like it. No, it was a genuine reviewer who said that. My husband hardly ever reads my stuff.Hm, I wonder why?

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  13. My life definitely rears its head in my writing. I’ve also learned more about my life and beliefs through what turns up on the page. My brother actually pointed out similarities I’d missed after reading my first novel—fascinating stuff. Thanks for this lovely post!

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  14. What a great post and so many fabulous (and funny!) comments. I also have to darken my characters on second pass – I grew up in a truly functional family with a lot of love. Like others, it’s fun to write people with issues, with craziness. Plus, I had a rather rowdy youth, so it’s easy to draw on some of my risky-behavior experiences for certain characters.

    Reading all this, though, made me realize something. My mother was a huge mystery fan and the origin of my love for the genre, but she was also the definition of a good girl, and would not read books or see movies with bad language or other undesirable behavior (think sex!). I think I might have held back in my writing just a little in past years, thinking she might read my books. She passed away in April after a long life, and I wonder if that will free up my subconscious.

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    • Edith, I am sorry for the loss of your mother. I know you and your sisters were close to her.

      It’s funny about how we hold back so as not to shock our families. I hope you will let loose with some of your rowdy behavior stories. I have to make my stuff up, so you have the edge of real experience, but also retrospection. As they say, it’s all material!

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  15. Great topic. I grew up a ‘goody two shoes’ and hate conflict. Hubby and I joke because one of our kids loves conflict. “Where did she come from?” we ask each other. Our daughter, who doesn’t even live here now, called the Dept of Sanitation and demanded them bring us new trash cans for the ones she saw the trashman take on a visit. We’d been trying to get them to take the old things for weeks. We got two shinny, new trashcans thanks to the girl who loves conflict.

    It took me years to give my characters conflict. Conflict was my writing weakness, but now I toss them all kinds of conflict. Why? Because an editor said I didn’t have any conflict in my story, but she like the characters. Now conflict is the first thing I plan when starting a new short story.

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  16. It’s fun to write characters with flaws and failings nestled deep in their psyches, but what’s also fun (and something I’ve really loved doing on occasion) is watching characters develop flaws and failings in situations they’ve never needed to worry about before. What does the average, happy character who doesn’t make waves do when suddenly she’s faced with something that’s going to upset that average, happy life? How deep do unexplored faultlines run? How do they try and reassert normalcy? How do they react in a difficult situation versus someone who’s more damaged going in?

    That said, I’m doing a lot of writing/drawing for whimsy right now, so there isn’t a lot of opportunity to explore these kinds of dramatic angles. It’s too much fun being goofy and happy all the time. ^_^

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    • Trevor, great questions! My current WIP features a person who had a lot of conflict in her past, put it behind her, and became a calm, even tempered person with a peaceful life. Which I’ve shot to hell, to make a good story!

      I like the phrase “unexplored fault lines” – like that a lot. Once you face a conflict, you are never the same, so there’s character growth and the new normal to throw into the stew pot, too.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Whimsy sounds like fun, too.

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  17. Great post, Ramona. It really made me think why I ALWAYS write flawed characters. I did not have a rosy childhood, but it wasn’t a tortured one either. Yet my characters either cross ethical lines, make poor life choices, or have suffered terribly in their pasts. Anyone familiar with my books would think someone else wrote one if they found a cousin to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms as a main character. I’ve never found a pure character interesting. Gee, what does that say about me?

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