Writing and Stories

Ok.  We are taking a break from my interviews for one second.  This is a topic I have wanted to address for some time.  I love writing and have always enjoyed creating stories (not as much as my sister but I still like it).   Growing up the advice to writers was always ‘tell what you know’ (think Jo March, Anne Shirley etc).  However, if this was the standard we would never have fantasy, magic or imagination (unless there is a mystical world out there I am unaware of).

Lately, I have heard a different vein of this old school writing advice.  Not only should you write what you know but that is the only thing you have a ‘right’ to write. If you venture away from your world than you are accused of stealing the voice of others.

For example, many have criticized Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, for telling a tale about black household workers in the 60s.  She even admits to being ‘nervous’ about it in an interview:

Q.  Were you nervous that some people might take affront that you, a white woman in 2008–and a Southern white woman at that–were writing in the voice of two African-American maids?

A.At first, I wasn’t nervous writing in the voice of Aibileen and Minny because I didn’t think anybody would ever read the story except me. I wrote it because I wanted to go back to that place with Demetrie. I wanted to hear her voice again.

But when other people started reading it, I was very worried about what I’d written and the line I’d crossed. And the truth is, I’m still nervous. I’ll never know what it really felt like to be in the shoes of those black women who worked in the white homes of the South during the 1960s and I hope that no one thinks I presume to know that. But I had to try. I wanted the story to be told. I hope I got some of it right.

I have also heard the same criticism of Sue Monk Kidd’s writing in The Secret Life of Bee’s.  In Utah some are mad at Stephanie Meyer for writing characters that do not uphold her Mormon faith.

I take issue with all of these arguments.  Are we really saying that Stockett can only write about Southern white women, that Stephanie Meyer can only write about Mormons, that Sue Monk Kidd can only tell stories of girls from small towns in Georgia?  (I don’t even like Meyer’s writing but I will defend it on this level).

Nobody enjoys a good memoir more than I do but I also love creativity and vision.  Who cares if a character may not be perfectly historically accurate?  If it works within the world of the story that’s all I care about.

These types of exclusions and criticisms are another example of how we preach diversity while becoming more isolating every moment.  We are no longer a melting pot of ideas and cultures but a scattering or clustering of those ideas.  Any break from cultural autonomy is seen as bigoted or an affront.   It makes it easier for most of us to stay in homogenous groups such as exemplified by Utah (where I live) or Portland (great book on this topic is The Big Sort by Bill Bishop).

Getting back to writing,  if a book is well written I shouldn’t even be thinking about the author and his or her story.  After all, when I’m reading Jane Eyre I’m not wondering how a clergyman’s daughter who didn’t marry until she was 30 could write such sexy, romantic prose? No, I’m enthralled with the story and then only after do I ask those questions.

To me it is sad that we are making authors ‘nervous’.  That we are forcing them to ask those questions and perhaps abandon a powerful story.   I like how Sue Monk Kidd describes her writing process:

“It took me a little over three years to complete the novel. The process of writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon Surmelian referred to as “measure and madness.” He suggested that writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous “measures,” such as character studies, scene diagrams, layouts of the pink house and the honey house. I had a big notebook where I worked out the underlying structure of the book. I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure “madness,” which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into the work.”

How can such madness and vision be tempered by thoughts of what is appropriate for them to write?  How about we just let them write and enjoy the results?  Maybe we would get better books if we encouraged true creative freedom.  That’s one thing I appreciated about The Book Thief is it has an unabashedly unique voice and perspective.   Nobody said, “Markus Zusak you are Australian, you can’t tell a story about WWII Germany” and thank goodness for that.  It is a perfect example of an author embracing the ‘madness’ and it working so thoroughly.

So, yes as Professor Bhaer says in Little Women “You must write from life, from the depths of your soul! “, or…maybe not?  Write whatever your soul tells you to write and even if it is a fairy story or about pygmies in Africa, it will become your story because you wrote it.  Look at Alexander McCall Smith.  He wrote about a spunky female detective in Botswana and he’s a stodgy old man from Scotland but it works.  There are so many examples.

All I’m asking is that we give people a little more room to breath outside of their life experience.  This doesn’t weaken any culture but adds a new voice and how can that be bad?

3 thoughts on “Writing and Stories

  1. I agree! One of my favourite authors, Louis de Bernieres, almost always write abroad – I think 7 of his 9 books are set outside his native home of England. And yet those books are amazing, evocative, he certainly had a right to write them, and I think the world of literature is much better for having them. It helps to write what you know, but there’s nothing wrong with allowing imagination and perhaps a bit of research to help spice up what you know into a truly powerful story.
    Great blog!

    1. Thanks so much. I haven’t read Bernieres but want to. What’s your favorite? I like how Sue Monk Kidd does the research but also has the madness. I think it is a great way to write. Maybe this is why so many authors are strongest in their first novel? They are uninhibited by these type of cultural restraints because they don’t even expect to be published (as Stockett says).
      We do have to watch out for caricatures of cultures we don’t understand; however, Tyler Perry has proven that stories told from within a culture are not free from exaggeration, stereotyping and shallow observations.
      Thanks again for the comment.

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