Sunday, July 25, 2010

Write what you (don't) know

This afternoon I watched a most interesting TED talk by a Turkish writer, Elif Shafat, who argued that assuming that writers from other cultures should write fiction that depicts their culture (some of her critics have chided her for not writing stories about unhappy Turkish women); in other words, they should be fictional cultural ambassadors). She observed that this is an unfortunate way of clipping a writer's creative wings.

She also mentioned the old adage that we should write what we know. But if that is the case, how then does a man write from a woman's point of view? Or a gay person lovingly craft straight characters? Or a creator of detective fiction write from inside the mind of a serial killer? Research will only take us so far.

Even more importantly, how do we create fictional worlds (science fiction or fantasy)? How many of us are on speaking terms with werewolves, zombies, or vampires?

When I started writing my first novel, Witnessing the Creation, it quickly became clear that the protagonist was going to be a male painter in his 30s. I've never been male, am no longer in my 30s, and while I do paint, I'm not sure I can describe the internal life of a painter. But Jake, the painter, had clearly chosen me and readers have found him a highly sympathetic and successful character. Similarly, they loved hating my villain, an older male alcoholic.

Fiction, Shafat argued, is fiction. It's made-up, it's created. Maybe there are some biographical pieces. Jake and I certainly shared some emotional characteristics. But it was my imagination at work, my ability to weave story out of the truth and out of some capacity that we humans have to make stuff up.

Whether we're from Turkey or from Kansas, we should be encouraged to write what bubbles up for us, not boxed into genres or subject matter that suits either the marketplace or preconceptions.

If you want to listen to Shafat, here is the link:

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