I never actually met Hamish (*), but God did I hate him, and that wasn’t from a personal prejudice.
Martin (my husband) was working for a previous employer but still as a clinical nurse specialist. I know that I am biased, but Martin is very experienced at his job and he knows his subject. Hamish started working at the same trust. He had no clinical experience or qualifications and was working as a manager for a non-clinical service; he managed the trust’s buildings. But this didn’t stop Hamish. He very quickly began telling Martin how to do his job and what he “really” should be doing. Hamish’s suggestions were deeply wrong but this didn’t deter him. He was pushing himself into Martin’s role, trying to override Martin, constantly trying to bully him and generally making his working life hell by making doing his job so difficult.
So many evenings, after he got home, I would hear Martin’s complaints about how again Hamish had made his working life so taxing and how Hamish just refused to listen to complaints about his own behaviour and wouldn’t agree to any suggestions that weren’t his own. He was making Martin’s working life unbearable and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt so useless because I couldn’t help Martin, except by listening to how Hamish screwed-up his working day.
Then the idea came to me, I could use my writing to get some revenge on Hamish for Martin.
I was writing a story was about a man who was being homophobically bullied by a work colleague, and I decided to call the work colleague Hamish. The man breaks one evening and ends up killing Hamish in a very bloody attack. From there the plot twists as the man reacts to his crime. My interest in the story was writing about perceptions and how easily we believe anyone can be keeping a secret, even if it goes completely against what we know about a person. When Martin read the story, he took gleeful pleasure in Hamish’s murder. It was so nice to see his stress eased, if only for a short time, by something I had rewritten.
(Hamish left for a “better” job soon after, though he had no idea what I had written. The story remains unpublished but it is on my list to be revised for a planned collection.)
To want revenge, especially when we have received unjust or prejudicial treatment, is a very natural human response, but it is never satisfying. Whatever that other person has done to us, we can never make them suffer the way they made us suffer, most of the time they are not even aware of how much suffering they caused; often it us who are hurt as we are eaten up with the injustice done us and the desire for revenge.
I spent so much time, too much time, plotting how I could get my own back on those who had hurt me when I was a teenager, the homophobes who hurt and rejected me. All it did was eat me up with anger and bitterness, I wasn’t even able to put into context what had happened to me.
Then I wrote a story based on a very traumatic event from when I was a teenager. Writing it I found I was able to take a step backwards and look at what really happened, how I came to put myself in such a position, that it wasn’t my fault, and to begin to understand why those people had behaved so appallingly. Rereading that story now, I see that it is overwritten, with far too much unnecessary backstory, too long and too slowly paced. It will never see the light of day. I was just learning how to write then, but it did show me the power of writing, how writing could open my eyes to why something happened.
That short story also had another big flaw, it was easy to identify who the characters were based on. I’ve since learnt there is no need for anyone else to be able to identify who a character is based on; I actually do not want readers to stand any chance to. So now I take all steps to prevent this (see my blog about writing about real people).
Writing fiction about things that make me angry or events that have caused me pain has become very liberating. Doing so, I have to look at a situation, what caused it, what led to it, the effects it caused; I have to analyse the entire situation. This can give me insight and understanding, it is amazing how the negativity of a situation is diminished by understanding it. I do the same thing with attitudes and beliefs that I don’t agree with and that make me angry. Understanding an attitude doesn’t mean that I will agree with it, but it does mean I can understand where it comes from and the harm it does. Writing against it I can explore the human effects of it.
I have a relative who has very conversative and Evangelical Christian views. Her views are very black and white, no shades of grey, and very simplistic. She bluntly doesn’t engage with any challenges to her views. She is also someone I have known most of my life and, as such, I have been able to study why and who she is. She has given me so much opportunity and understanding of why someone would hold her views. Her attitudes have appeared so often in my writing, giving me the opportunity to explore them and the harm they cause.
Saying all that, this approach isn’t easy and I do not always get it right.
Years ago, and several jobs ago, I was subjected to a rant by an Evangelical Christian colleague. She objected to the Equality Bill, claiming wrongly that it would give LGBT people more protection than Christians and that Christians would be persecuted under it. She claimed that Christians were the most persecuted minority in the country (not true). When I tried to reply to her, she bluntly refused to let me speak, refusing to listen to any view that didn’t match her own. I was so angry at her. Through my anger I began to wonder why someone would take such a blinkered and untrue view and the harm such views were doing. The result of this, after much thought, was the short story “Easter Witness”, which was published in my collection Case Studies in Modern Life. I am very happy with this story because I was able to show the negative effects of those views as well as punching holes in that argument.
But I don’t always get it right, especially if I write too quickly about it.
During the Marriage Equality debate here in Britain, there were a lot of untruths and downright lies told about what would happen if same-sex couples could legally marry (all of which have not come to pass). I was so angry that I wrote the short story “To the Heart of Marriage”. Unfortunately, I wrote it too quickly and I was too angry when I wrote it. Its arguments are simplistic and it tells the reader what’s wrong, not showing the effects of these negative untruths. It failed. Revenge does need to be written with a cool mind.
But also there shouldn’t be a wish fulfilment element to this, we shouldn’t be using fiction to rewrite history so that we win, so we come out on top, to enact the revenge we were never able to do in real life, because that is so hollow and untrue, and what service are we doing to our readers?
Many years ago, I was a member of a gay men’s writing group. One of the members was writing a novel in which he rewrote his unhappy and repressed childhood. His novel made him, as a young teenager, the winner and always coming out on top of his family’s fights and wars. He had created a thirteen-year-old boy who had the debating and arguing skills of a thirty or forty-year-old man; this child was impossibly wise for his years. That novel made me feel uncomfortable because it was so untrue but he, the writer, couldn’t see that. He was actually taking deep pleasure from it. I realised the discomfort I felt was the discomfort a reader would feel and that it would make a reader stop reading. My fiction has to be honest about human emotions and reactions, otherwise how can I ever hope to hold a reader’s interest? After all, they are the ones giving me their time to read my writing.
Art is the best revenge but only if it’s done honestly, not to settle old scores but to explore the events.
(*) Not his real name.