Writing Excuses 11.45: Elemental Issue, with Desiree Burch
Key points: Issue as an elemental genre is a bit different. The driver is not so much emotion, but curiosity, let me think about that. How do you avoid being preachy? Remember that the first goal of a storytelling is to be entertaining. Issues raise questions, polemics answer them. Have empathy for your audience! The more specific a work gets, the more broadly it relates to people. To let a character deal with a major issue, consider making the main plot about something else (thriller, romance…). Use multiple points of view to show us the issue in the round.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 45.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Elemental Issue, with Desiree Burch.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Desiree Burch.
[Brandon] Will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Desiree] Sure. So, my name is Desiree Burch. I am a solo performer and comedian. So the things that I write are things that are meant for performance. I have… I guess I have six solo shows now. Only the latter three of which I actually ever want to look at or touch anymore. But… So I’ve written about race and capitalism in America in a show called Tarbaby. I wrote about sex and self-discovery in a show called 52 Man Pickup. And I’ve written about identity and getting the hell over yourself in a show called This Is Evolution. So I tend to center my work on, I guess, identity issues taken from a very personal place.
[Brandon] Excellent. I think… Is this the first time we’ve had a professional comedian on Writing Excuses?
[Dan] Oh, burn. Super burn. Ow.
[Howard] I can deal with that.
[Brandon] He’s a professional comic writer.
[Howard] Yeah. I write comedy. Comedian is reserved for people who do stand up, and that is not me.
[Desiree] Is it, though? I think that people who potentially do sketch or improv are also comedians.
[Howard] It better be. Otherwise, Brandon’s burning me.
[Brandon] We can’t have that.
[Desiree] You are absolutely right, Howard. My mistake. As a professional comedian, I should have known.
[Mary] You should have [inaudible anded] him.
[Howard] What are you talking about? That’s not there.
[Brandon] We’re also on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Brandon] And we are talking about issue. One of which is what is a comedian? Apparently not me.
[Mary] I gave you that one.
[Brandon] You gave me that laugh. I appreciate that. So, issue. Now, this is a little bit of a different elemental genre. When we were brainstorming these a year ago, and I was outlining this idea, one of the things I wanted to touch on was stories that are driven by the author’s desire to tackle this particular issue. Because these are… There are a lot of stories that are like this. Some really great stories are like this. We’ve brought up A Christmas Carol in other places. You could argue that Christmas Carol is partially on issues story. I want to tackle the idea… I mean, it’s really a drama story that… When the author comes in with an idea, and a problem they want to deal with in society, this is our story. Now, it covers everything from what we call teen problem novels, which we’ll talk about, to my characters are dealing with racism. Or I’m going to deal with racism in a way that brings it to the audience and makes them think about it. My first question to you then is, how do you do this without it feeling preachy? Because some of the great stories out there do this. When they fail, it’s that their preachy.
[Dan] So the thing to remember… I think the first goal of any story you’re telling is to be entertaining. You have to do that first. So, as an example, Erin Brockovich has an issues story at its heart. It is about water being poisoned in this town and trying to deal with that and trying to deal with corporate greed and all these other things, but at its heart, it is also a very entertaining story about a woman who is driven to overcome all these problems and the corporations and the people in the town. It’s entertaining first, while also hitting the issue that it wants to hit.
[Mary] I think something related to that is that… We talk about what the driver is for these things. One of the things to bear in mind is that all of the others is I want the audience to feel a sense of rushing adrenaline. With this one, what you’re driving is, you want the audience to think about this issue. [Alysses Spear?] recently, as in like this is… This was a lightbulb moment for me two weeks ago, said that she thinks the difference between an issues story and a polemic is that issue stories raise questions and polemics answer them. So I think that that is one of the keys when you’re trying to write an issue story is that you can raise all of these questions, but as soon as you start giving the audience the answers to it, that’s when you move into preaching.
[Brandon] Or if you only give them one answer.
[Mary] Or if you only give them one answer. Which… But giving them one answer is… If you give them multiple answers, that still leaves the door for them to…
[Dan] Yeah. That’s raising more questions as they start to ask themselves, “Well, which side am I on?”
[Brandon] So how do you tackle this sort of thing?
[Desiree] Well, I would agree with what’s been said so far. I think that having empathy for your audience, knowing that they want to be entertained, they want to be engaged with your story, is really important. Entertaining them and also raising questions rather than answers is a much more interesting line of exploration for both you and them. My work is intentionally personal. I think that the more specific a work gets, the more broadly it relates to other people. The more you want to reach people, the more sort of deeper you have to dig and the more specific you have to be, because people will go, “Okay, that specific thing didn’t happen to me, but something that feels and looks and tastes so very similar did.” I still get to have my private particular moment, while also recognizing that there’s a greater humanity in it because somebody else has felt the exact same way as I felt. So I think that the… Getting them to think about something goes hand-in-hand with them feeling things. I think not entirely on the whole, but for the most part, people don’t do one or the other, they do kind of a back-and-forth of both. So I think that there are different ways to get there. I, because of the way that I know myself, know that I can think about things, but I will really only delve into deeper thought about them if I have a certain feeling about them. If I’m going on a line of exploration of what is that feeling, like… Why does that make me angry, why does that make me feel so wounded, why does that make me feel so giddy? That will make me think about them more. So for me, it’s specificity and trying to connect through that is the way that I get into them.
[Howard] I think that first soundbite, the more specific you get, the more broadly it’s going to be received. I don’t remember your exact words, but I wanted to repeat that because of how important that concept is.
[Mary] The other thing that I was like, “Yes!” I wrote it down and put a big heart to it is that you need to have empathy for your audience. I’m like, “Yeah.” Which is, again, such a live performer…
[Mary] Because when, as fiction writers, we write our work and the audience receives it a year or two later. Or longer. For you, you perform it and you are having an immediate conversation with the audience. I think it’s very easy for a writer to forget that writing is a conversation, it’s just on asynchronous one.
[Desiree] Yeah. It’s like this weird sort of like having sex through time… Where there is a relationship going on…
[Howard] There’s soundbite number two.
[Desiree] And there is a back-and-forth.
[Desiree] But there is a barrier, and in this case, it’s time and proximity. As opposed to like no one can ever truly know anyone else. But I think that, yeah, you’re absolutely right, it’s important to… It’s important to know that your audience is doing you a gracious thing by listening to you, just as you are doing a gracious thing by sharing your unique and very important perspective on some aspect of the universe with them. So like both of you are coming with something that should be respected, that’s really tender and important and generous to do.
[Brandon] I’m still hung up on soundbite number one, because I think that must have been the most brilliant things said on this podcast since the last time we had guests on…
[Brandon] Because really, I have found a way… Tried to find a way to encapsulate that idea to the audience. What’s going on here is by making… Like, when people want to tackle an issue… I see this in my students. They try to tackle it broadly. Because they want it to be like we are going to tackle this in broad. But what works is when you take a character. You make it very individual and specific and authentic to them. You don’t say, “This is how the issue is for everyone.” This is the effects of the issue on one person and their way of seeing the world. I’m not speaking for a population. I’m speaking for an individual who is part of a greater discussion. When you do that, that issue suddenly becomes personal.
[Dan] The reason that that is working is because it’s a show don’t tell thing. You’re not saying, “Look. Racism is bad.” You’re saying, “Look, this guy’s life has been destroyed in these very specific ways by racism.” So you’ve got that specificity.
[Mary] I think it’s… It is… The reason that we use parables and anecdotes rather than statistics when we’re trying to prove a point is because of that connection, that specificity.
[Desiree] I also, I mean, for your part as the creator, it does sort of make your work a little bit more impeccable. Like, you’re not trying… Like you’re never going to be able to say everything, and the more you try, the more people are going to want to punch holes into what you’re trying to say. But this, or this and that. But if you make it very specific, and you’re like, “But no, for this person, this is absolutely true. This is the story of this tiny world of everything.” The more people kind of have to go, “Well, okay. Respect. I will respect the rules of your world because you didn’t try to diminish mine in the creation of yours.”
[Howard] This same principle applies… When we assigned the homework prior to this episode, it was… We called it If I Only Had a Brain. Put a brain in the strawman. Find the other side of the issue and discuss it in a way that’s intelligent. This same principle applies there. If you take, for instance, racism, and you find somebody whose life is impacted by racism, at the other side of it… It’s hard for me to empathize with them, because I don’t like their position, but it is also much easier to understand them when you describe how their life as a racist is affected when race relations change. Until you understand that, until you can articulate that, you can’t tell a story about that changing without being preachy and polemic.
[Mary] That’s exactly the thing that leads to the villain that is completely cardboard and appears to just be there to twirl their mustache, is because we aren’t there for the specificity of the bigotry.
[Dan] Write better racists, is what we’re saying.
[Desiree] But I mean ultimately, like this is an exercise in being kind of like a better human being in some ways. I think that we tend to easily demonize anyone who has sort of fallen outside of the realm of normality. However, everybody is a person. Everybody had a series of actions, of circumstances, that led them to be where they are. Even that villain is his own hero, and has a whole arc in which what he is doing is for some kind of greater good, even if it is just for his or her own greater good. But I think in looking at, let’s empathize with the racist, that we don’t empathize with, or we don’t want to empathize with, I think the scary part is the more that you start to, the more you realize you are pretty much the same in so many ways. That you potentially are a racist for something else, or like that much of a bigot in some other kind of way. Where you don’t understand the person on the other side of the table that you’re pointing that finger at until you take the steps together and go like, “Oh, I can be that person too.”
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Dan, you’re going to promote a book that has an issue to it.
[Dan] Yes. My newest book, that… It comes out next week, November 15, is called Extreme Makeover. It is about a health and beauty company that destroys the world. I worked in this industry for eight years. So while there is a core science fictional idea about a hand lotion that can clone people and overwrite their DNA, what I really had fun with and what I really wanted to dig into was the culture of beauty and the commerce of beauty and how we buy and sell the concept of self-worth and individuality and that kind of thing. So it is the most overtly social science fiction thing that I have ever written. It is also, in my own humble and unbiased opinion, the best science fiction I have ever written. So, Extreme Makeover.
[Brandon] It is excellent.
[Mary] It is a wonderful book.
[Brandon] We are going to Project In Depth it at some point in the future. Probably not until next year, but we will be doing it. So you can get a jump on that and read Extreme Makeover. Is it actually subtitled Apocalypse Edition?
[Dan] No, because Barnes & Noble is a chicken.
[Brandon] Oh, they were worried because…
[Dan] They didn’t want to do it because they thought the audience would be confused and ask for the normal edition.
[Dan] We couldn’t get away with Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition, but in my head, that’s what it is.
[Brandon] [inaudible missed opportunity]
[Howard] This is an opportunity for you to print $6 slipcovers.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to take us a little bit back from the concept of something like racism, which is an important issue and I’m glad we’re writing stories about, but this also topic covers things that don’t have like two sides to them. Such as I want to deal with a kid in school who has bulimia, and how they deal with this mental illness or physical illness and things like this. How do you write a story like that? How do you approach a story where a character is dealing with a major issue, but you don’t want the character to just be defined only by that issue?
[Mary] The advice that I was given by David Anthony Durham was to make the main plot about something else. It’s unfortunately actually to treat the issue as a subgenre.
[Brandon] Right, right. Which we’ll deal with later.
[Mary] Which we will do later. But by placing the character in situations where their condition, where that issue is affecting the way they interact with the world, it is a way to highlight all the problems with that issue without sitting there and going, “Ah. Look. Today is a bad day.”
[Dan] The Fault in Our Stars is about cancer, but it’s actually a love story. If it was just here’s the story of two kids with cancer, well, okay, then it’s kind of a description of a day in the life of a kid with cancer. But a love story that is affected by cancer, suddenly, there’s conflict and there’s drama and there’s all these other things.
[Brandon] When I was a kid, one of our teachers read to us a book that I’m not going to name, but it was a teen… Or a young kid problem novel about being fat. I was a fat kid. That book was so inauthentic. I hated listening to… And it was probably there for me. He was probably reading it because he’s like, “Oh, we’ve got this fat kid in the class. Will read this book to him and he’ll see that…”
[Desiree] The conclusion we find…
[Brandon] The conclusion we can [garbled] read the story about the fat kid. I was so annoyed by that book the whole time, I’m like, “This kid’s everyday life like everything they did was all about being the fat kid.” My life wasn’t like that. Right?
[Howard] So you decided to rise up and write better books.
[Brandon] That’s right. That’s right.
[Howard] That was your moment.
[Brandon] As the 12-year-old, or 11-year-old, or whatever. But yeah, this… I’ve always remembered this as a failure for me of the problem novel. Yet I have friends who write fantastic ones. Which is why I wanted to bring this up on the podcast.
[Mary] I think it is really difficult to do this one as a primary driver. I think one of the ways you can do it is something we’ve already touched on, which is making sure there are multiple points of view represented. So if you did want something that was just about… I’m going to pick a different example, because I think that’s going to be a little triggery for some of our audience members. So let’s say you want to write a story about the love of gerbils, and that gerbils are amazing, amazing creatures, and that you wanted everyone to know and love gerbils as much as you did. If you just write a story about how much your character loves that gerbil, that is flat and inauthentic and dull. But if you have your character, if you have a character that is ambivalent about gerbils, if you have a character that hates gerbils, if you have a character…
[Brandon] Scared of gerbils.
[Mary] Scary gerbils. If you have a character that only likes the silky gerbils and the shorthaired gerbils is no big… If there’s a gerbil breeder. And they all have… If there’s a… They all have different points of view. Then, even if it is all about gerbils, there is something going on in this beyond just gerbils are great.
[Brandon] Yes, the person who is scared of gerbils falls in love with the person who gerbils are the main source of joy in their lives…
[Dan] We have an entire anthology coming up.
[Dan] So when I wrote The Hollow City, which is about schizophrenia, again, it’s falling into this weird niche where it’s not about schizophrenia, but it is also very much about schizophrenia.
[Brandon] I would call that one issue schizophrenia, and everything else subgenre to that one. But you’re hiding it. Right? Kind of weird.
[Dan] Yeah, it’s hidden inside of a thriller. When I started working on that, it was very important to me to do the mental illness right. Because, and we’ve already touched on this, mental illness is always, almost always either demonized or canonized when it appears in entertainment media. It’s always, “That guy’s bad because he has a mental illness,” or “Look at those saintly people with whatever ill…” Like, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest drives me up the wall because of the way it presents mental illness essentially as a life choice rather than a problem that needs to be solved or at least dealt with. So what I learned was that the way around that problem was to treat it as realistically as possible. To really learn, do your research, what is it like to live with this, what is it like to live with someone who lives with this, and show all sides of it. Not try to turn it into a metaphor. But to treat it as a real thing.
[Howard] I am… Oh, I’m sorry.
[Desiree] No, please, go for it.
[Howard] You said Hollow City is… Issue is the principal genre, but we’re asking ourselves with the elemental genres, what is my page turner? What is causing me to turn the pages? I think it is possible that with issue as in elemental genre, if the page turner is I want to learn more about this issue, it’s possible that you’re actually writing nonfiction. If you want your issue story to work, the page turner is it’s a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s… I mean, you can still be turning pages about the issue, but I think the principal driver for the turning of the pages wants to be something else, so that we’re more likely to accept what is being said about the issue.
[Brandon] Thank you for dropping that bomb at the end of the podcast…
[Brandon] And making Mary sit up and want to talk about it for 10 minutes. I’m going to let this one go to a little bit longer to give you a rebuttal chance.
[Howard] I could be wrong.
[Mary] I think that actually, I was like, “Oh, yeah.” No, I think the page turner in an issue thing is wanting to learn more about the issue. I think when we’re talking a pure elemental…
[Brandon] Yeah, I agree.
[Mary] Not as a subgenre. I can think… I mean, Hollow City is a good example of that. That I was very interested in how… Specifically, how the schizophrenia affected the way he was interacting with the world.
[Desiree] I was going to ask, because I don’t know that particular book, is the page turner wanting to learn more about the issue, or wanting to learn more about the character who has this issue? Because I think, even in your way that you described it, you showed this character as being a human with flaws, and sometimes it’s the saint, and sometimes it’s the demon, a lot of times it’s all the things in between. So it’s kind of like, “Oh, this character isn’t the way that I im… Like, initially sort of boxed him in.”
[Howard] We might be splitting a semantic hair here. Because… coming back, Desiree, to what you said earlier, I turned pages because of the specificity. I turned pages because I wanna know about this character.
[Dan] Now, as a fantastic counterexample, I know we’re going long, the new Snowden movie, the Edward Snowden movie, which I have not seen, but which the reviews pretty much all agree ignores the amazing issues of NSA breach of sec… Breach of privacy and all these questions of is it okay to be a whistleblower and all that stuff and focuses very strongly on his personal life and his relationship. It seems like they may have gone too far in that other direction. As a way of getting you interested in the issue, and then kind of forgetting about the issue.
[Mary] I think… I was sitting here going, “Can I think of examples where issue is not paired with drama as we have been describing drama?” Asimov… The three laws… The number of stories that he has that are about the three laws and the way it interacts with society, but it is not about… In the…
[Brandon] It’s not about the characters.
[Mary] It’s not about the characters.
[Brandon] Sometimes about problem solving, a little bit around mystery, but sometimes it is just the three laws are broken. Let’s see how they’re broken. Like the robot…
[Dan] Is that more of an idea story though than an issue story?
[Mary] Well, I think the issue there is very much the what are the ethics of robotics?
[Brandon] Yeah, there are definitely ethical… There are ideas stories and there are certainly ones that are just…
[Dan] You’re right.
[Brandon] Well, I’m going to call this, because we’re going to talk about it in two weeks…
[Brandon] Anyway as a subgenre, so… I’m going to let us go there. Mary, I’m going to have you give us some homework.
[Mary] Right. So what I want you to do is, I want you to get a magazine about a topic that you do not normally read. I want you to read the entire thing, cover to cover. Including the ads.
[Mary] Was that okay?
[Brandon] You just… That’s all you want them to do, just read it?
[Mary] This time, you’re just going to read it.
[Brandon] Take notes on the issues that arise, even if they are issues that come from the ads. We’ll have you do something with that in a later week. All right. We want to thank our special guest star, Desiree Burch.
[Desiree] Thank you for having me here.
[Brandon] We want to thank our Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Brandon] And we want to thank you guys for listening. You are out of excuses. Now go write.