Tuesday, June 3, 2008


As a writer myself, I hate to use someone else's words to express an idea when I can very well use my own, but at the same time, the words of Ian McEwan in Atonement which describe what goes on in the mind of Briony, the protagonist, are so exactly what goes on in my own mind, and what went on in it when I was younger, that I feel the need to quote him here:

"A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. In a toy safe opened by six secret numbers she stored letters and postcards. An old tin petty cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath her bed. In a box were treasures that dated back four years, to her ninth birthday when she began collecting: a mutant double acorn, fool's gold, a rainmaking spell bought at a funfair, a squirrel's skull as light as a leaf.

But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. [...] Her effective status as an only child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis house, kept her, at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been found.

At the age of eleven she wrote her first story -- a foolish affair, imitative of half a dozen folktales and lacking, she realized later, that vital knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a reader's respect. But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told. Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know. Even writing out the she saids, the and thens, made her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character's weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have?"

It's so true - writing is scary. It's extremely revealing. It's embarrassing, too. How could I, as naive, innocent, and inexperienced as I am, have the nerve to attempt to write about characters who experience things I could never dream of? How can I write about things that don't exist in my tiny bubble of a world? How can I know enough about people and human emotion to successfully create realistic characters?

And yet writing holds the only escape from an existence where very little of real interest and intrigue happens. I have no secrets. I have no mysteries. By being so ordinary, so uninteresting, I have nothing remarkably interesting to write about. How could I? Any time I try to create characters who don't belong to my own world, I hold back. Because how can I really know them? How can I understand them? Isn't it rude to try and write about people who are more complex and difficult than myself? Isn't it presumptuous to think I can actually understand them? It feels like overstepping a boundary.

This is why I used to be very attracted to writing fantastical stories when I was younger. I didn't have to know about the world, then. At least, I didn't think I did. Now I disagree. But in my mind, I could make up whatever rules I wanted. If I got to create the world, I also got to create the rules. Then I didn't feel like I was entering anywhere out of my league. It was all in my league. The world was mine to write about when it was my own invention.

Now I'm less interested in writing about made-up worlds. I'm much more fascinated by this one. I want to write about real people, real emotions, real situations. I want to be taken seriously. I just don't feel worldly enough to attempt it. I don't feel adult enough in my experiences. I don't feel wise enough. I have questions, but how can I write about resolutions when I don't have any answers? How can I tread on unfamiliar terrain when I have no life experience in most areas? Research is fine - up to a point. A lot of it's got to come from yourself, doesn't it?


Anonymous said...

I don't think fantasy gives you an outlet like that. DWJ characters are every bit as complex as those in "real world" books. And her worlds have plenty of rules too. Fantasy just permits different stories to happen.

But... but... you're a real enough person and you experience the average gamut of emotions, and can probably make an educated guess about how you'd feel in several unusual cases.
Why isn't that enough to write most stories?

Or do you want to write about being the 53rd wife to an Arabian sheik? I could see where that might get difficult. ;-) First-hand research not advised and all that.

There are always published diaries.

But I guess what you really need to do is try to understand the life in its entirety and then walk in the shoes (or sandals) for a mile or ten. "If I was raised an Arabian princess with all the traditions and beliefs, blah blah how would I feel becoming the 53rd wife of a rich oil baron?"

I think most (good) writers just write about what they know about. Jean Craighead George could write about Inuit culture (Julie of the Wolves) because she spent time immersed in it. Kipling wrote about India. Even Gordon Korman just wrote about middle and high school kids until he graduated. (Limited scope isn't bad - it's what you make of it.)

So maybe the solution would be to spend a few months shadowing a 53rd Arabian wife to find out how she feels.

Let me know when you figure it out! If it's a good feeling, maybe we can knock off some of the shidduch competition that way. :-)

Scraps said...

First of all, I think you're more complex and interesting than you give yourself credit for, but that's just my opinion. Second, I don't think you necessarily have to have experienced something firsthand to write about it--as bad4 said, if you can put yourself in your characters' shoes, you can write about them. Maybe you don't see yourself as such a complex person--but you know complex people, and you can comprehend how people are more than two-dimensional. Therefore, I don't think it's presumptuous for you to write about characters who are more worldly, more experienced than you.

That said, if you want to write what you know, maybe you can write some Jewish novels that aren't utter trash. :-D

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah - I second the motion. Write about what you know about so we have something decent to read that's orthodox.