Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

Since the beginning of time, there have been violet-eyed heroines.

So, we've all read Ursula K. Le Guin's denunciation of the Earthsea miniseries, yes?

If you didn't see the miniseries, you can count yourself lucky. If you didn't read the denunciation, you've actually missed something worth seeing.

Today, I'm not going to write about the Earthsea novels, which I adore despite the numerous world-building continuity problems in the fourth and fifth volumes. Nor am I going to write about the miniseries, though I have some wild speculations about what the screenwriters might have been thinking when they went so far astray. I'm going to respond to one of Le Guin's justifiably exasperated asides about racial assumptions and tropes in the fantasy genre.

Why all those heroines with violet eyes?

Having fallen into that error in the first draft of my own manuscript (and fixed that error, months ago now, thank goodness), I got to thinking about that question in a spirit that partook more of curiosity than exasperation. I honestly didn't know why Vaia's eyes were lavender-colored, as I described them in the zero draft, but suddenly it seemed worthwhile to find out. What the hell had I been thinking? And when I arrived at an explanation that satisfied me, it seemed to me that I'd also solved one of the eternal pedagogical mysteries of Freshman Comp.

Back in that other life I used to live--the one in which I taught freshman composition at a fair-to-middling state university--I used to marvel at the frequency with which students began their papers with the phrase, "Since the beginning of time." I gather that this little intro-meme is painfully common among college freshmen and high school students throughout the United States, despite constant efforts by writing teachers at all levels to stamp it out. Why, my colleagues and I would ask, did the students keep doing this?

We would ask ourselves, and if we'd been grading for too many hours we'd come up with obviously wrong answers like, "It's because all freshmen are bad and stupid." When we asked one other, we'd come up with answers that had a lot to do with our own lives as grad students, but apparently not so much to do with the thought processes of undergrads. "They don't feel they have the authority to speak unless they can claim command of the whole discursive tradition they're trying to enter," we told each other, and so we busied ourselves with trying to inculcate in our students a feeling that they had the right to articulate their thoughts even if those thoughts were provisional and minimally informed. Our efforts on that score may have helped us finish our dissertations, but I'm no longer entirely sure that they did much for the frosh.

We'd ask the students why they opened their papers that way, and usually got blank stares in response. Occasionally some brave student would say, "Nobody ever told us not to," or a cheeky one would say, "Why? Why not?" If any student who took Expository Writing at Fair-to-Middling State University ever had an articulable thought process that resulted in a conscious choice to open with the beginning of time, none of them ever fessed up to me or anybody I knew. In the end, I could only conclude that, since the beginning of time, freshmen had been opening their papers with references to the beginning of time, which meant that I (as students did) could give up on thinking about vexing questions of causality and origin.

But then I started writing fiction, and despite the Ph.D., I myself became a freshman again, in the ontological sense of freshman-ness. I made all the classic freshman mistakes at fiction writing. I'm still making several of them, practicing to understand things I won't really understand until I've screwed them up some more. Which is fine, since I'm not in any danger of giving up. Anyhow, mixed in among the other classic blunders in the first draft is the Violet-Eyed Heroine. (Not to be confused with such birds as the white-breasted nuthatch or the greater yellowlegs.)

What's she doing there? Well, not as much as she ought to be, if Vaia's going to be the main hero. Friends who read the first draft of the early chapters universally assumed that some other character was the main protagonist. And it turns out they were right, as far as volume one is concerned, but I didn't know that, and for a while I tried not to learn it. Volume one belongs more to Rildis than to Vaia, and I was the last to know.

Vaia's eyes were purple because I was trying to mark her with a protagonist-flag, to compensate for the fact that her actions did not yet show her to be protagonist material, and I hadn't figured out yet who else was. Rildis was a minor character, Haldur's hanger-on, in my initial conception of the story.

Since the beginning of time, freshman composition students who know that a paper ought to have a thesis, but can't tell which idea in the first draft is likeliest to become the thesis, have used the strategy of sticking a thesis-marker on the phrase they think might serve the purpose. The lame non-thesis needs that marker, because otherwise nobody would ever guess it was supposed to be the main idea. The students don't really think the claims they're advancing have been true since the beginning of time, any more than I really thought Vaia needed to have lavender-colored eyes. The marker is an indication that the writer knows, deep down, that something is wrong with the focus of the piece.

If a writer can learn to recognize in revision which markers she uses instinctively while roughing out the first draft, she's halfway to developing a revision protocol. It's just one shade more subtle than the [FIX THIS] markers one puts in on purpose.

One of my old colleagues from Fair-to-Middling State University used to start all the rough drafts for his graduate seminar papers with the working title, "Bite Me: I Rule." It had the advantage of the mandatory colon that all scholarly works must have in their titles, and it served to put some words on the screen, so that more words could be conjured from the void. All those drafts of "Bite Me: I Rule" eventually resulted in a tenure-track job at MIT, because he trusted his own revision process enough to know that the right words would come to him, if only he let the wrong words precede them.

So let a thousand violets bloom.
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