Dan Swensen hasn’t updated Surly Muse much lately — mostly, I suspect, because he’s been busy polishing up his debut novel, Orison, soon to be released by Nine Muses Press. In his most recent piece, he reflects on how flipping the gender of his protagonist helped him grow as a writer and gave added dimension to his story. A central point he emphasizes is that this was done in service of the story, not “to get Magic Feminism Cookies or whatever.” Perhaps the most fascinating part of his post — and the part with which I most closely identify — is that this change was simply a necessary part of the process that helped him get a handle on the story he wanted to tell. That is, despite the external benefits he may derive from having made this particular creative decision, it was inherently an internally-motivated choice that seems to have been more about, well, enhancing his own enjoyment of his work and his creative process. Because Dan is such a gracious and genuinely progressive person, he repeatedly clarifies that there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a conscious effort to be more inclusive or to break out of the often chauvinistic cliches that tend to dominate fantasy; it’s just that, for him, that was not the overriding factor, but more of a natural outcome.
There are a couple of reasons I wanted to highlight his post. First, because I like reading Surly Muse, and I missed it. Second (and more materially), I think a lot of writers forget what a kick they can get out of writing something that challenges them as creators. I don’t mean exclusively fiction authors, either. Even essayists, bloggers, dramatists, poets, you-name-it can find that turning one element of a story (or non-narrative text) completely on its head snaps your perspective into focus in new ways, fresh as a snowball to the kisser. It’s invigorating; an invitation to a game. Playing around can be serious fun, and very good for both the soul and one’s craft. Sometimes this process is a simple thought experiment, or a briefly-entertained notion in a preliminary brainstorming session. If carried through to its fulfillment, though, sometimes it can revolutionize and heighten the work itself. For Orison, the decision to change a character’s gender was necessary, but that doesn’t always have to be the switch that has to be flipped. What’s more, the benefits reaped from being willing to make such a drastic alteration can produce a corollary effect to better craftsmanship: joy. Joy in the work itself. That’s something we can all strive for, and it’s a lesson we often need reminding of from time to time. ☕