*I’m sorry this is so disgracefully late. I was a bad, bad, bad writer yesterday and had dinner with one of the occasional readers of this blog who happened to be in town (and who is a friend.) AND THEN this morning had to unload the SUV and then unpack enough boxes to make coffee. So by the time I sat down to write it was 10 am, and I got sidetracked. And now I’m going to unpack boxes as I’m temporarily in possession of an older son to help me move things up and down stairs.*
Lately there has been a lot of flap in the respectable literary circles to which none of us would belong, even if they sent us a gold plated invitation about how you must not just writing only what you know, but you should write only what you ARE.
I’ve been on record many, many times that you should write what you don’t know, in the sense that you should write what you haven’t lived. (Not can. SHOULD. It stretches your craft and allows you to experience something else rather than the space behind your eyes.)
Writing what you know should mean something different. Once you’ve studied a subject or a set of circumstances, you know it and can then write about it. This is in no way restrictive, and in this sense I FULLY agree with “write what you know”. I.e. for instance, the person who wrote a regency mystery in which — in ENGLAND! — a nobleman could safely shoot someone in a main street in London and there was no outcry, only “well, he was a peasant” didn’t write what she knew, and made absolutely no effort to check her facts. More shockingly, Penguin Putnam published that piece of dreck, once more proving the necessity of layers and layers of fact checkers, and demonstrating of fact checkers. An indie publisher could never have corrected– oh, wait, never mind.
We’ll return to this particular piece of dreck later, for other reasons. (No, not giving the name, partly because I don’t want to start a fandom fight, and partly because, d*mn it, I can’t remember it. I deleted it from my kindle with a loud PFUI and have since forgotten both author and title. This is good. If I ever meet the author I won’t say “OMG, it’s you! How could you be so stupid?”)
However, by the side I entered publishing, there was already a string of crazy-cakes elderly aunts (particularly the men) screaming that you should only write what you’d LIVED. Which suddenly and with enlightening force has revealed to me why their novels could cure insomnia.
Look, I’ve lived a relatively more adventurous life than most, by the definition of adventure where it is bad things happening to someone else far away. A great part of it was through no fault of my own. I’m a fruit of a place and a time and that whole “peaceful revolution” thing was vastly exaggerated. Oh, sure, it was not the French revolution, or even the Russian or the Chinese. But to consider it peaceful you’d need to avert your eyes from several incidents. Which most of the press did, because these happened to people of no consequence. And at any rate, you can’t have a revolution without the public getting shirty about it, on either side or — like me — against both sides (though I wasn’t above assuming one side or the other to piss off the other side. I was a teen.) So there were… incidents. And those could be the fodder of stories, except for a) my wretched memory. I can’t even remember WHEN certain things happened. I retain a memory of escaping through a small window to an alleyway because police were asking for ID at the door (I THINK I was out after the curfew. I THINK it was nothing exciting. Just hanging out with friends. Sweeps were rare, but…) but I can’t for the life of me remember if I escaped through a bathroom window or a warehouse window, if the tip to the guy who showed me that route was extortionate, OR if he did it out of the kindness of his heart. And I can’t remember WHEN. All of which would help write a story about it.
Then there’s the various times I disrupted demonstrations in the school: Which year? What was the price paid? Don’t know.
Worse, all of these memories have become tangled in things I’ve read, things I’ve studied, and other, later incidents.
And while these were exciting, I don’t feel any particular impulse to write them. Also, my LIFE wasn’t exciting. Most of it was boredom, studying, working, and a lot of weekends spent in my bedroom reading, because, you know, I WAS a geek girl.
Since then my life has been anything but adventurous, and certainly not particularly fun to write. I mean, I could write about my early married years, but even if I set it on terraformed Mars, it would still be a “slice of life” novel. Now, if I introduced alien invasion…
But of course alien invasion never happened and I can’t tell you for sure how it could go. For all I know I’m othering the Martians and disrespecting their culture. (Hangs head in sorrow.) At any rate, there will be a lot of crazy Marxists, telling me that I only wrote Martians instead of gays, or women, or the poor, or some race or other. Marxists can’t help it. They’re rather like the crazy people who follow you screaming things in the downtown of any big city. Take my son at 13, for instance. There was a crazy homeless guy in downtown Colorado Springs, who would follow my son around screaming that my son had run over his daughter. Choice phrases included “You think it’s fun to drive your car and run over people.” What had Robert done to bring this about? He existed. He didn’t even look old enough to drive a car. But something about his existence piqued this man into deciding Robert was the man who’d killed his daughter. I can’t even say if he ever had a daughter. I can just say that when Marxists or crazy street people shout this stuff at you, you should understand the problem is theirs, not yours, and just pretend you didn’t hear. (Though when I was sixteen and the guy followed me around downtown Porto shouting “you left me for a woman, you whore” this was rather easier said than done. Never mind.)
However, if I introduce Martians, something I blatantly don’t know in the sense of haven’t lived, into the equation, then I can construct a tale few people have lived (and which might include escapes out of warehouse windows) and therefore interesting to read.
Because the whole point of reading fiction is to LIVE through things you wouldn’t otherwise experience, not to read about other people’s just like yours, humdrum lives.
While I was writing the above about Marxists inevitably saying the villain in your novel must be a placeholder for another race/gender/orientation/nationality, whatever, it occurred to me WHY they are so invested on people writing only what they lived and what they are.
It is entirely possible that flights of imagination are unknown to them.
This is not as strange as it might sound to those of us who whiled away our school days imagining various adventures. There seem to be in the world a vast number of people — possibly a majority — who can’t really imagine anything wholly new, no matter how hard they try.
It has nothing to do with intelligence. Even in gifted classes, you see this effect. The teacher asks the students to write a story and what she gets is a rewrite of the last story read in class. OR you get a mishmash of the last two stories. OR you get a recounting of the last movie they saw, with names changed.
People who write fanfic (have been known to do that) are several steps above that. And people who write completely different stuff from anything existing are… apparently baffling. Which is why — besides assuming that we’re bad people, without any proof but that we disagree with them politically — then tend to pour over our stories in increasingly far-fetched search for allegories and symbolism that mean we’re really, really, evil.
I read because I want to experience being in someone else’s head. I don’t require that the character match the author, I DO require that the author convince me.
To return to the unnamed dreck, this woman was supposedly portraying a tall gentleman, but all of the characters reactions were so wrong, that I kept reverting to seeing him as a small woman. I finally settled on “Extremely effeminate small gentleman” and so was quite shocked when a woman comes out of the shadows and ravishes him. (Yes, you read that right, and THAT was wrong, too. Not that I have anything against a woman ravishing a man, but that the mechanics were …. subtly wrong. It was not a woman ravishing a man, but a man ravishing a woman.)
By which I mean, by all means, write what you aren’t and haven’t lived, but make sure you know it enough to inhabit that space behind the eyes and then sell it to the readers.
And now you’re wondering why there is a writing blog at according to Hoyt instead of at Mad Genius Club.
There is a blog about this here, because this goes beyond writing.
It is, of course, possible that the people insisting the character MUST match the writer are in good faith, and that being devoid of that kind of imagination themselves they can’t imagine anyone else possessing it. It is POSSIBLE, even if it is unlikely, since if you DO write what you are, then they accuse you of MarySuing, but that might just be the “crazy people compulsion to follow people on the road and scream at them” in another venue.
Assuming they are in good faith: WHY in h*ll are these people in the arts, much less are accorded any kind of respect and authority? What has gone so badly broken in our society that their demands aren’t met with the guffaws they deserve?
Another point is: do they imagine everyone is locked in the categories they are born into, unable to understand or work with anyone else forever? No wonder they so much desire for the government to arbitrate everyone’s life and tell everyone how to live in the most minute detail.
But then the important question is: WHO ARE these creatures that constitute the government? Last I checked — the Lord be thanked — there were neither gods nor supermen living among us. So ultimately the people governing us are just humans. And even if they try — they do — to have humans of like hue and sexual preference and whatever represent each population, the more power they have the more they have to interact with people different from them. If they are incapable of understanding everyone else, then injustice is inevitable, unless we confine government to very small units over very small groups. Which might, of course, obviate any sort of common defense or other benefits of civilization.
OR they could tear down that wall in their minds and realize we are all humans and that the hue of our skins, the people we prefer to have sex with, or our socio-economic status are not even the most important things about each of us.
And that the only way to understand the space behind another’s eyes is to put yourself in their places, using sympathy, empathy and, yes, imagination.