One of the great and terrifying things about growing up is the realization that society is really just an arrangement of tacitly agreed upon narratives. Usually, the realization comes because your own narrative comes into conflict with the overriding story that society is trying to sell. I got a taste of this as a Jew at Christmastime, but it didn't really come into focus for me until I grew up as a gay man, and as I started creating stories of my own.
I wrote my first novel, Boy Meets Boy, to disrupt two prevalent narratives. The first was the all-too-common portrayal of gay teens in literature as miserable, conflicted, largely unloved outsiders in a constantly hostile world. Fair enough, as that's true for some gay teens -- but not all gay teens. And I felt giving gay teen readers only this story doomed them to repeat it. So I wrote a romantic comedy instead. And that romantic comedy obviously disrupted our society's narrative of romantic comedy -- namely, that the romance part is always between a boy and a girl.
With my new novel, Every Day, I wanted to call more of our storylines into question. Because that's all they are, stories we tell, with very little grounding in any kind of empirical truth. The main character of Every Day is named A. Every morning, A wakes up in a different body and a different life. It has always been this way. As a result of having no set body, A has no set gender, race, sexuality, size, or ability, no set parents, religion, friends, or home. A is purely a self.
So the question in writing Every Day was this: How much do these things matter inherently, and how much do they matter because society makes them matter? I genuinely didn't know what my answer was when I started writing. In many ways I wrote the book to figure it out. How much do we define ourselves, and how much are we defined by others?
Asking these questions naturally leads to an interesting exercise I've been encouraging people to do: Imagine yourself purely as a self, with no body. Who would you be? Would you really define yourself by the same standards by which you are now defined? What kind of person would you get to be if you didn't have to worry about gender or race or sexuality?
For me it felt very knotted. I started with gender. How much do I define myself as male? Answer: not very much. It's not something I take either pride in or shame from. I certainly enjoy its privileges, but I would do away with those privileges if I could. (I realize I can't. We're talking ideals here.) But then, if I didn't have to identify as male or female, what would that mean for me being gay? Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), my first impulse was to feel I would still be more attracted to guys than girls, but the more I thought about it, the more it fell apart. I'd really be attracted to the person, and if I had grown up purely a self, I think that would have already been the case.
It's tricky. But my loosening myself from the constructions, it made me realize how closely I am usually affixed to them. Although A's existence can be extremely lonely, I found myself envying a fictional character's flexibility. A is able to see each and every person as inherently human, in a way that we can't, because of all the stories we've digested.
Usually when we talk about stepping out of our own bodies, it's meant that we are seeing ourselves from above, trying to get an outside view. But it's worth it every now and then to step out of our own bodies and wonder who we'd be without them defining us. As recent LGBT events show, it's very, very hard to get the big narratives rewritten. But it can be done. And when it is, they become much more satisfying stories.