Lee and I did have a very intense process while writing this story. There were a lot of craft questions but because the subject matter of this is so intimate and intense — a child’s relationship with abusive and authoritarian parents from whom they’re alienated — that the story is integrally tied into beliefs about family and children and norms and abuse. Lee has a more pessimistic view of some of these things than I do, which sometimes makes me feel like Polyanna, and sometimes feels like just a different background, and which may well be both. I’m also immunized to the artificiality of several literary techniques that are deployed for this subject matter since I’ve been working for so long. Lee did a good job of calling out contrivances, although some remain because literature is still literature. Like Lee, I enjoy how this fell. It was a rewarding collaboration.
You can see the whole thread on Twitter here, and also quoted below.
(paragraphing imposed by Rachel’s evil enter key)
“So here’s a thought about how difficult it is to balance aesthetics, truth, and humanization when writing about abuse. It’s from the experience of writing Compassionate Simulation together with Rachel Swirsky.
Link to the story at Uncanny Magazine. We argued a lot while writing it; nearly over every word. One of the big things we argued about was how bad to make the parenting, and how to express that badness.
The story came out of Rachel wanting to write something based on my game “Island in a Sea of Solitude,” which is part of “Four Ways to Die in the Future.“That core idea drifted over time. Rachel took one of the roads not taken and turned it into her own story, Your Face in Clarkesworld.
But Compassionate Simulation turned into a story about a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. IIRC, I wrote the first pass that included an abuse narrative, and wrote it in a fairly mimetic fashion (drawing directly from the experiences of people I know who’ve cut off their parents). Rachel pointed out that, as written, no one would care about this at all, because Joseph was coming off as a one-dimensional monster. And, although it took me a while to understand, she was right about that.
The truth of it is that in real people, we excuse and dismiss behavior that, in fictional characters, we correctly see as monstrous. A real person necessarily as more complexity than a fictional character, and of course in most real cases we already know the person and have existing social bonds with them. None of that is present in fiction. So while I was writing behavior that I had seen in person described as “complex” or “there are two sides to this story” in fiction it just came across as cartoonishly evil, to the point where readers would immediately disconnect.
Then, in the rewrites, Rachel dialed it back to a single traumatic moment. Which is one of the go-to literary approaches to trauma (and for good reason: it’s good in writing not to unnecessarily multiply the themes or the scenes). But that introduced problems of its own.
There is a problem, in writing, when you portray an abusive man in a sympathetic light, people will sympathize with him entirely, to the point of dismissing and dehumanizing his victims. And the story was beginning to swerve into that narrative: “It was only the one time.” In life, though, it’s never only the one time. It was important to us that the story honestly represent family trauma, and I know of almost no one who has cut off their parents over a single traumatic incident. So having the story revolve around a single incident was viscerally uncomfortable to me. So that was another hurdle for us.
In the end, through a lot of talking and negotiation and planning and reading analysis of estranged parents’ forums on http://issendai.com, we managed to produce the final story.
I’m really proud of the final text. I think we managed to thread the needle of being truthful without overbearing, and of portraying a humanized portrait of a dysfunctional parent without making him the center of the reader’s sympathy. But that’s is a difficult needle to thread. Writing the story gave me an appreciation for exactly how difficult.
Writing something truthful isn’t just about mimesis and it also can’t be straightforward “portray everyone sympathetically.” It needs a conscious balance. Also importantly, in a broad sense, it’s okay to be thinking about fiction explicitly and directly. Writing doesn’t have to entirely be about our first inspiration. Sometimes the right path is to sit down and talk through the goals of the story in an analytical way.
Also importantly, in a broad sense, it’s okay to be thinking about fiction explicitly and directly. Writing doesn’t have to entirely be about our first inspiration. Sometimes the right path is to sit down and talk through the goals of the story in an analytical way.”