The Mary Sue in the Room

During one of the creative writing courses I did at Uni I wrote a short story with a quirky character based on my sister. The little habits she has, her phobias, and her approach to the world … I was very specific. My sister recognised herself immediately.

“That’s me!” she cried – I don’t know if it was shock, amusement, embarrassment or fear that floated behind those words. Nevertheless, her little quirks have appeared in a few of my characters since then … Though not all at once. My teacher informed me that the character was too unbelievable as such a person could never function in the world. No one has told my sister this, so we’ll just leave her be …

You see, there is a bit of a disclaimer writers have to make, and we can wear it proudly if we want to. 

It’s true. No one is safe.

Which is why I am a little bit self-conscious when I write. I cannot write something from nothing – there has to be a seed, an idea, a source of inspiration. When I sit down and write, something feeds me … and I don’t think it’s the Genius in the room. He watches and encourages and draws pictures on the wall (please don’t ask how my Genius has morphed into a petulant child; I don’t know) and somehow things I know and people I know and aspects of myself and my life appear on the page.

Remember the writing competition I entered? The competition was to write a love letter. When I thought about writing a letter I immediately sat down and wrote to the person I have always written letters to … and then I cried a bit, because what I wrote was very real and very honest. Then I got over myself. Then I edited it. I made it neater, clearer, and took out a lot of the personal honesty that others wouldn’t understand and added some extra information to flesh out my “characters”. I made it fiction (sort of), and then I held my breath and sent it.

I won the competition.

Eager to tell everyone, I rang my mother and my grandmother, texted my father, emailed a friend … and they all asked to see my entry.

Crap.

I gulped.

I faltered.

I wanted to tell them a big fat NO. No, you can’t see it because you won’t understand.

Instead, I keep “forgetting” to send the email with the link.

How do I explain to them that, while there is truth, it’s not true? How do I explain that the anger and hurt I put into the letter was true five years ago, but not today? Will they acknowledge that I am different from the person on the page? Will they read it and challenge me? Will they accuse me of falsifying a situation for my own benefit? Will they read the parts that are fiction and assume they’re true?

Will they understand that when I write, I do just that? I don’t think, I just let it flow? Will they understand that I don’t want them to judge me, console me, or confront me based on something I’ve written intended as fiction?

There is a Mary Sue lurking in every writer’s portfolio … Writers seek inspiration from their imagination as well as personal experience, so perhaps it’s inevitable that writers fictionalise themselves and appear in their own work.

A Mary Sue is a character whose role is, in a nutshell, wish-fulfillment for an author. A Mary Sue is good at everything, loved by all, and oddly ambivalent about the fact her many magical talents and abilities set her apart from everyone else – can’t everyone flatten a man with a glance and hurl fireballs when their loved ones are in danger? Let’s face it – who hasn’t wished they could fly loops around a fighter jet while performing algebraic equations in their head and seducing the man they love AND making it home in time for Buffy?

I read my entry again last night. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue. Is she me? There’s a very big part of me in there, but she’s not me. She is certainly not who I wish to be, so perhaps I have – narrowly – avoided the dangers of Mary Sue (for now).

I was awake most of the night wondering how to share my entry without the judgement, the arched eyebrows, the sudden worry that they, too, would be in danger of being in my novel. I’m not ashamed of my entry, but I’m concerned that the people who know me will recognise too much. I’ve written entirely fictional stories and people still claim to recognise me in the narrative, though I can’t see it myself (and I get angry at the suggestion, sometimes, depending on which character they decide is me).

When I woke up I had received a text from my Mum.

I read your winning letter. It makes me ache because I think I know the real names of the characters. Wow. Don’t be afraid to write about everything … Don’t wait for some of your characters to be dead – just write!

I sprang out of bed (despite the aching back and creaky hips) and stood for a moment in the middle of my room. I didn’t know which way to go first. I was busting for the toilet but I wanted to launch myself onto the computer to email the link to everyone. The toilet won, but now here I am, and here is the link.

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9 comments on “The Mary Sue in the Room

  1. This was absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking, Stef. In my opinion, it is a highly-deserved win.

    I can certainly empathise with you on the reluctance to share your work with your family. I often fear their reactions — Will they think this depressed young girl is me? Could they interpret these events as fact, not fiction? And, of course, there’s that ever-lasting fear of disappointing my loved ones with writing that is actually not as good as I hope it would be.

    I commend you on biting the bullet and sharing your success and talent with your family.

    Congratulations again, Stef! Well done, and keep writing.

  2. Pingback: My Weekly Writing Wish for You | dodging commas

  3. Stef! CONGRATULATIONS! I just read your winning entry, and wow. It is simply beautiful. Truly, well done.

    I often struggle to open up in my writing in fear that people will somehow *know* what or who I’m talking about. Sometimes worse, is the fear that people will assume the actual fiction is an adaptation of a real life event or feeling. But your mum is absolutely right. We shouldn’t be afraid to write about everything. After all, someone’s got to do it, right?

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it =)

      I think I’m going to start being a bit more honest with myself and that, in turn, might help my writing be a bit more “real”. It’s true – someone has to do it, so let’s do it!

  4. I had a conversation with a writing friend of mine that I am reminded of reading this post. It was about nonfiction writing vs fiction, and why some people (she is a journalist) find the former so much easier.

    My theory was that it was both more concrete in terms of its structure (you research, you interview, you travel [if you’re lucky], you write what you discover, you fact check) while fiction is more fluid in how it gets done and what it’s supposed to do. Plus, like you mentioned here, there is that pressure of the self. There’s less to hide behind. How much are you exposing? How much should you expose? How well should you hide it?

    You can get a feel for a person through their nonfiction writing too, of course, but it’s the fiction (ironically) that feels so real.

  5. Your letter is beautiful; sweet and sad. I think you capture hidden dynamics of challenging relationships. So many things we never say, but should have? We’ll never know.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you like it. There are so many letters I’ve written to so many different people and never sent. I wonder, sometimes, how my relationships would be different if I had!

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