The Natural Extension of Who You Are

It’s been a bit of a rush the last month. SO MUCH stuff to do at work and at home. You know, I haven’t cooked a dinner at home in THREE WEEKS. Next Tuesday, baybee. I’m cooking. And I’m cooking for the rest of the week. Hooha.

Tonight is Thor night. The Man and I are going to watch one of my favorite heroes come to life, and I’m hearing all sorts of good reviews. Which is good. I was a little worried about the amount of Asgard we were going to get from the previews, but I hear I won’t be disappointed. Expect a review.


I finished Beggars in Spain last night. Any book I read right now will suffer by comparison. I’ll need a couple more days to figure out why that book had such a profound impact as opposed to the many good books I’ve been reading lately. But I know as a writer, that’s what I want to do. I literally want to take my reader and make them as present in the book as I was in that book. Kress shows me that you can do that with almost any subjects. Other writers have showed me this as well. Scott Lynch, for example, helped me to buy a high fantasy story, The Lies of Locke Lamora, when I would have just as soon not gone there. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War put me in a place that I probably wouldn’t have gone to either, but once I was there, I wasn’t leaving.

So, how do I learn to do that? I could easily, readily move into all sorts of philosophical reflections on talent and hard work. I’m a writer in process, and I will do what I can to buff up my technique. There seems to be a factor in here that involves emotions in character, of getting in there and really knowing them, even better than they know themselves, so you can know what they’re not telling themselves.

I can do that. I am very uncomfortable doing that. It’s risky, isn’t it?

Yesterday, Jim Hines commented in his journal that someone on a panel recently suggested that humor wasn’t hard work. And Jim contested that. And he’s right. You’ve got to figure out what is funny, what won’t fall flat, what is idiosyncratically funny, and what will have mass appeal. There has to be an organic element that extends naturally from your characters. Just like any other emotion. Any other.

I made a conscious decision to be funny to cover up a lot of hard life. Humor became a shield from about the age of 13. In terms of expertise hours, I have my humor time in. It’s easy for me to crack a joke, to say the right thing to make students and fellow workers laugh. I don’t even analyze anymore. I just do it. Jim’s right, though. You can plan it, and use that knowledge. People who do it a lot think of it as automatic, but just like learning anything else, we’ve learned it. And you can hone it, polish it. You could learn to write humor.

My problem? I have to learn to not write humor. Humor has been the insulator. Since I started taking my light anti-depressant, I have the choice to be funny or not, rather than shooting everything I say right from the hip. At first, medication was like woah! I can think about what I say FIRST. It was awesome.

Now, as I try to amp up my writing, I’m finding I have difficulty digging deep and hitting emotions like the authors I admire. I really could crank out some funny books, and yes, I have plans to do so. My middle grade voice and sometimes my young adult voice is funny. But I want to write a full range of emotions in my work, largely for myself. This February in Vegas, the plexiglass sheet I put between my emotions and my characters was really obvious in The Werehumans, where the prose is elegiac and the mood is gothic, but the protagonist seems bored.

I didn’t want to weep when I wrote it, and revisit the places in it that were so painful to be. And the same might be true of the writing that isn’t quite as successful as I’d like. You know, when I get to emotional pieces in the short stories I read, I have to compose myself as my voice cracks. I clearly need to learn how to interface with those deep emotions, use them in my work, and not have them overwhelm me.

Doesn’t that sound more like the need for therapy than writing lessons? :p

So, what can I do with all of these thoughts? Successful writing, for me, takes us through the human experience and makes that memorable. It’s honest in its emotions, whatever kind of emotion they are, and writing in that arena is risk. But writing needs to open conversations about the human condition. It needs to be the natural extension of the writer.

I have to practice that, being honest in my writing, rather than being structural or formalist. I have to find how to get to that emotional truth that will put the reader there. And that will take loads of practice for me, because that’s not a strength.

Well, it will build character. And yes, that was an unintentional pun.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

One thought on “The Natural Extension of Who You Are”

  1. I used to write just to be funny, but ultimately, I found my prose flat. Only when I started dealing with deeper emotions did the humor really thrive. I guess you need a lot of manure to get the reddest roses.

    I still struggle with the balance.

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