I once had the honor of spending an afternoon talking to writing guru Len Berkman. He said he’d never met an artist who hadn’t had the experience at some point of being displaced from their own culture, and made to feel an outsider. Thus, the sense of looking on the world without being entirely a part of it is an element of what makes one an artist.
I grew up in Switzerland, and then in Holland as my father worked for an international firm. As part of the expatriate American community I had a strong sense that the country I was living in was not my own, that their ways were not our ways. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night because an American Western was playing on television, and we kids were brought in to watch it because it was part of our culture, not to be missed.
I was nine when we relocated to the U.S., by which time I had a very clear vision of America in my head. It had drinking fountains that dispensed orange juice (my teacher at school in Amsterdam told me this), everyone spoke English, and everyone acted and believed like “us.” My first day at school I parked my bike in the boy’s bike rack, and discovered that I was still a foreigner. The fuss they made!
If that sense of displacement, of being an onlooker, is an element of what makes us write, then perhaps creating cultures that are not our own is a means of reconciling the worlds we dwell in within our minds, with what is most uncomfortable in the real world.
Robert Johnson, the Jungian psychotherapist, in his work on analyzing dreams instructs us, rather than picking out the chief actor in the dream to represent ourselves, to think instead that every element of the dream represents an aspect of ourselves. In a Johnsonian dream diary, you recount the dream from the point of view of every character and every element within the dream, in order to explain to yourself every possible message the dream is trying to convey to your consciousness.
So, just as every character we write is an aspect of ourselves, so, obviously, every culture we create is a reflection of our own vision of the world.
Doing it well, now there’s the rub. The freedom of a fantasy writer to envision a wholly different world is balanced by the sheer amount of work it takes to think through a culture in its every aspect. Though, of course, we don’t do it like that. We lift parts of our own culture, or borrow distant or historical cultures, or strange mores we’ve come across, and tell stories with that wash as the background. Extensive research adds verisimilitude, and provides those precious details that can be so compelling. A tribe in Thailand believes that when twins are born, one of them is a demon. Since they can’t tell which one is the real child, both must be put to death . . .
I’m presently reading The Black Opera, by Mary Gentle, another Night Shade author, who delighted me right at the start by promising to use “the source material regarding the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with the same careful and exact attention to detail” as the composers of bel canto opera of the period in which she writes. She adds, “. . . Gaetano Donazetti once set an opera in Liverpool, and described it as ‘a small Alpine village outside of London.’” A world where Liverpool is an Alpine village, and Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo, and especially one where desire and effort and craft can create real magic, is certainly an attractive one to inhabit for a time.
It may be our sense of being onlookers that creates in us the compulsion to report back, to write, to explain what we see when we look at the world. Thus, we create worlds where our sense of what things really are, is the way the world works. When the reader enters into the story, if we write it correctly, for a little while they experience the world as we do. If our craft – our story, characters, writing, world-building – is strong enough, that vision becomes a part of their minds. And so our world expands. With every additional inhabitant, it becomes more acceptable, more real. And thus we make the world more like ourselves.