Showing posts with label Fall for the Book. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fall for the Book. Show all posts

10 October 2015

Write What You Know?

by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)

02 October 2015

Breaking Out Of Solitary

By Art Taylor

My first official post as a SleuthSayers contributor—my first big deadline here!—arrives at a busy confluence of events. The Fall for the Book festival, which I've helped run for more than 12 years at George Mason University, is still underway as this post appears (and battening down, scrambling to reorganize as a hurricane looms), and next week, Bouchercon begins down in Raleigh, and just a couple of weeks back, my first book came out (with all the busyness that entails), and on the same day as the launch party, I was a speaker at the Fairfax County Public Library's Book Club Conference and....

Well, the point of all this isn't that it's a busy time, but rather that I wanted to set up a focus on one of the elements that threads through all these various events.

My role at the library's Book Club Conference was to talk about how to moderate a book group—tips and tactics to help keep discussion going, keep the focus on the book (instead of the wine!), and keep everyone involved and engaged. Before I got into specific recommendations, however, I asked people what they wanted from a book club in the first place.

I already had my PowerPoint prepared—the next slide ready to provide my answer to the question—so I hoped that the comments from the attendees would jibe with my own thoughts and expectations, and it turned out they did. "I want to learn something." "I want to read a book I might otherwise not have picked up." "I want to see what other people thought about what we read." "I like getting together with friends." "I wanted to meet new people." Or even as simple as: "I wanted to do something different, and I learned that I liked it."

Here's the PowerPoint slide that I put up at the end of that part of the conversation:



And it's those bolded words at the bottom of the slide I want to talk about now—and not just in terms of reading, but also writing, another solitary act.

In certain circumstances, reading isn't a solitary act, of course. We can attend a reading; my wife and I can read to our son; and in fact, I read to my wife pretty regularly as part of our evening routine, as I talked about in a recent column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. But most of the time, reading is one person engaging with one book at their own individual pace.

Similar, writing can be a collaborative process, of course, but that image of the writer alone with her pen or alone in front of the computer is a persistent one for a reason. We engage with the page—trying to capture in words those characters and stories our imagination has conjured up.

The connection, then, becomes this: solitary writer --> piece of writing --> solitary reader. And in the process, there's also this connection implicit in that one: solitary writer --> solitary reader.

A book club provide the opportunity to expand that solitary reading experience into a shared one. What did you take from the book? What were your attitudes about this character? What did you think of the author's decision to....? And in the process, what emerges is: What did we think of....? —not a decision that will reach unanimity, but a conversation that serves to be bigger than the sum of its parts.

During all my years with Fall for the Book, there have been two types of moments that have struck me as central to our mission—and neither depends exclusively on the actual programming we've hosted year after year. Those readings and panel discussions are part of the larger engagement, of course: hearing authors read from or speak about their works. But what strikes me as more important is when a reader comes in holding a well-loved copy of a book and meets and asks a question of the person who wrote it—making manifest somehow the connection that already exists by virtue of those two solitary experiences I mentioned above, with the book as the connecting point. The other moment is when that reader turns to another person holding another well-loved copy of the same book and says something like, "Didn't you love it when....?"

A book club or a book festival serve to turn the solitary experience of reading into a communal experience, hopefully enriching connections and perspectives and understanding.

And for an event like Bouchercon ahead, opportunities exist not just to connect readers and writers but also to connect people within the community of writer. Networking is inevitably an important aspect of conferences. (How many people will be meeting with their agent or editor next week? How many will be looking for a new agent or courting an editor? How many might ask a writer friend to suggest an agent?) But beyond those more goal-oriented aspects, there's something more important that's gained by being not so alone—by meeting and greeting and sharing anecdotes with others who have elsewhere been toiling alone over those notebooks or in front of that screen, making physical and concrete those connections and that camaraderie that already exist in myriad ways.

I enjoyed your book. I admire your work so much. What you do—it matters, it meant something to me.

I just wanted to say that.