Tag Archives: writing what you know

The Story Analyst: Eat Of My Flesh, Drink Of My Blood

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookOkay, if The Walking Dead would stop handing out such great opportunities to discuss storytelling I could stop mentioning the show. So stop it already. (No, please don’t, I didn’t mean it, don’t be angry AMC, just keep batting em out of the park).

Check this out (not actually a video, just a sad screen grab):

AMC - The Walking Dead - Four Walls And A Roof

Maybe a quick recap first. Picture it: it’s Season 5, Episode 3 (Four Walls And A Roof). The group is holed up at Father Gabriel’s church, which by the way is called St. Sarah (Sara the Black), who is the Romani patron saint of gypsies. Sainte Sarah, who by some accounts stood on the shores of Gaul (France) to await and welcome a boatload of holy refugees of early Christian persecution. Which is why I love this show so much. Isn’t that just so perfect?

So one night Bob steps out for some fresh air and a little manly crying jag when the surviving cannibals from Terminus set upon him. He wakes up groggy in their encampment and is subjected to some loony-tunes hectoring by the icky Gareth. Seems they’ve got themselves a good old fashioned spit-turned open-pit barbeque going on. The lip-smacking, the slurping, the greasy chins, the sinewy strings of pink meat, the chewing. Oh, the chewing. The chewing and slurping and smacking. Seems Bob’s their guest of honor. Slowly, we – and poor Bob – realize how hard it is to come upon any meat other than squirrel and snake in these post-zombification days of apocalypse. Plus, Bob’s leg is missing below the knee. Yep, that ain’t no leg of lamb sizzling and crackling on the fire. FF a bit, hahaha, Bob reveals he’s been bitten and they’ve just eaten infected meat. Idiots! Commence projectile vomiting. Oh, and also the Termites throw up. Welp, that sure oughtta take care of that.

So what’s all this recapping and crazy talk getting to? The screen grab above happens when Bob is returned to the group and ultimately dies. Tyreese spares his sister from having to posthumously rearrange Bob’s grey matter with a hunting knife by doing the deed himself. He has just pulled the knife away when this moment blips by on the screen.

What is it?

Take a closer look:Walking Dead - Last Supper Close Up

That’s a wood-carved plaque of The Last Supper. The Last Supper. I mean, come on people, Tyreese isn’t even centered in the frame! That’s no art-house film technique. He’s nose-to-nose with it. You’re meant to see that plaque. Now, why is this prominently displayed at precisely this moment? Why not a simple crucifix, or a nice little annunciation scene? Why The Last Supper?

Because of what happens at the Last Supper. Christ prepares the disciples for the end by introducing the symbolism of the Eucharist and performing the first communion. Eat of my flesh, drink of my blood. He warns of a betrayer in their midst, and predicts the denial by Peter. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.

Now, I haven’t gone through the episode with a fine tooth comb, but I counted at least three times that Maggie “denied”. Once, when she picked up the bible on the pew, looked at it with disinterest, and set it down again, thus signalling the denial of her family’s previously deep faith. Then after the Termite slaughter when Father Gabriel surveys the gore and cries, “But this is the Lord’s house !”, Maggie flatly says, “No. It’s just four walls and a roof”, as an overt denial of the sacred. Then again, when Abe Ford and his crew start for Washington rather than put Eugene at risk, Maggie along with Glen both agree to leave with them, to abandon – to deny – their survivor family. No wonder, when you look at the absolute horror on their faces during the Termite extermination. Three types of denial, and it’s still night.

In the previous episode, the gang partakes of the church’s sacramental wine. Drink of my blood. In this episode, the sacramental bread is partaken of by the Termites. Eat of my flesh. (Oh, the chewing and slurping and smacking.)

This apocalyptic world is an inversion of that biblical metaphor. It’s a perversion. On some levels it even harkens to social theory about civilization and its fall to barbarism in the presence of irremediable human hubris. But that’s a post for another time.

It is not an accident that all this is also linked to the slaughter of the Termites at the altar of Father Gabriel’s church. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, which required the offering of a lamb in thanks for delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt. Remember that the Hebrews at the time were told to mark their doors with the blood of the sacrificed lamb so that their households would be spared from the Angel of Death, sent by God to punish the Pharaoh and his people for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves go. The letter A had been written, presumably by the Termites, in blood by the door of the church.

And so it happens that the group is indeed spared, because Rick and his squad return unexpectedly and proceed to ex-terminate the Termites. But like the Hebrews, once delivered, we are left to wonder if they too will be cast adrift in the wilderness after proving time and again that they don’t yet deserve the Promised Land. We see this through Maggie’s and Glen’s horrified reactions to – and lack of participation in – the savagery.

With the addition of one innocuous item of art, the writers are telling viewers a whole lot more about what’s happening to survivors of this apocalypse. It’s both warning and hint at the conditions that took the sacred and the divine out of the equation, and thus brought about an onslaught straight from hell. Whether it’s nuclear power, where mankind has finally discovered a way to do to itself what only God could do before – wipe out every living thing – or whether it’s fictionally tampering with the human genome and unwittingly unleashing a zombie virus, our distance from God, the sacred, the divine, has never been greater. We drink of our own metaphorical blood, and eat of our own flesh, and therefore no longer participate in the divine (communion).When humans supplant God, we become monstrous, and the Promised Land remains farther and farther beyond our reach.

The show’s subtle allusions to Nazism and communism are not without reason either. These have been our greatest historical examples of what happens when humanity supplants God in trying to create a Promised Land.

In storytelling, these are the little details that seed a plot with richness and depth. Even if an audience doesn’t consciously pick up on that plaque hanging there on the wall, it certainly will be taken in, somewhere deep in the subconscious brain. And that subconscious brain has a few cells set aside for all the information our vast circuitry has ever absorbed about The Last Supper, which are then set aflutter by the un/conscious perception of that plaque.

Your brain starts telling you to anticipate. All those synaptic zips and zaps are connecting flesh, blood, bread, wine, sacrifice, betrayal, denial, wilderness, Promised Land –

Just from that plaque. The writers are signalling and signifying with well-placed visual cues like this.

Add to that the expression in Daryl’s eyes (that too could be a whole post on its own) at the end of the episode and all your spidey senses should be left tingling: is he the betrayer? Or has he brought the betrayer into their midst?

Now that I think of it, Carol has been behaving strangely. And what was she doing back at the prison anyhow after the Governor ambushed the group, when she knew she would not be welcome? What would we have found out about her activities during her absence if the battle with the Governor had not forced the group from the prison? What was her purpose in being there? Had she been sent by someone? She’d already crossed a line by pre-emptively killing two sick but very much living members of the group, so there’s no telling how this bent in her personality was further warped by isolation and segregation from the only semblance of family she had left. And once they’d all settled into Father Gabriel’s church, you know when Carol found that car on the side of the road that she was going to leave on her own (or meet up with someone else?), and was about to just when Daryl grabbed her to chase down the car that took Beth.

Did she have something to do with Beth’s disappearance? Or that awful, freighted look in Daryl’s eyes when Michonne realized it was him coming through the woods and he glanced back toward the darkness in the trees and told someone to come on out? Is that expression evidence that Daryl – and thus everyone – has been betrayed by Carol?

Writers who use symbolism, metaphor, and recurring motifs can trigger profound subconscious emotional or psychological responses in readers that can keep them turning the page or watching episode after episode for reasons they might not even perceive. But in order to work, they have to be universally understood, or at the very least understanding must be attainable through the story’s context (in other words, never assume they’re going to pause, research it, then return to the story).

For example, a dove suggests something very different from the vulture, or the peacock. In exactly zero ways can you successfully write a horror story involving a dove as the symbol of malevolence unless you intend to be funny or satirical or ironic. Doves in horror will be the first thing to die.

Oh, and hey – guess how many survivors there are left from the battle at the prison?

Twelve.

This is conscious, deliberate storytelling with strokes of genius.

Think about it this way: you can throw a slab of meat on the barbie (sorry, I have to go there, I really do), and yes, it will be tasty all on its own with all that fat dripping down, juices flowing.

But a great master barbequer knows that a particular kind of wood and a hint of very specific herbs and spices depending on the meat – but not so much to overwhelm all that sizzling and crackling barbeque deliciousness – makes the meal oh-so-much more satisfying.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Writing Quote: Rainer Maria Rilke

SC Blog - Rilke - go into yourself quote“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose…

…Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

1 Comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

“Word Crimes” – Great Fun For All You Wordmeisters Out There

As only Weird Al could do it, and the only version of this song worth listening to:

1 Comment

Filed under Editing, Professional Editing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Advice

No Great Mischief – Loss and Pain

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThis is a student video presentation about the immigrant experience, and the themes of loss and love in the late Alistair MacLeod’s stirring – and only – novel, No Great Mischief. Quotes from my essay Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario, published in the Globe & Mail a while back, were included as part of the presentation. Interesting synchronicity that the students couldn’t have known: MacLeod not only taught me, but was the first person to offer encouragement about doing graduate work, an astounding idea considering I had a business degree and one mediocre English course credit under my belt.  About a decade later he sat in on my thesis defense, which I didn’t realize was unheard-of until it was over and my defense committee commented that they’d never seen him do that before.  It’s humbling that my name even came within glancing distance of his when it comes to writing, even in a student presentation, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Dr. MacLeod was one of the loveliest men you’d ever meet with a fantastic sense of humor that got me through Jane Austin without going postal (sorry Austinites, but I’m more of a Frankenstein kind of gal). Thanks, students, whoever you are.

Click on Video above, or this link:

http://prezi.com/6n6dyjx7uwnu/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

Leave a comment

June 12, 2014 · 1:12 pm

Staring Down Ghosts

(Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario from the Globe & Mail 03/10/2012. Note: The paper’s editing preferences, while not reflective of the choices I would have made as an editor, have not been altered from the published article.)

Little is left of the old nickel town of Victoria Mines: a few metres of crushed slag that once formed a road; sunken foundations, bits of wood.

Now a ghost town in Ontario’s Sudbury Basin, it is where my family’s Canadian story began, around the turn of the last century.

Since my father’s death, my heart has been balled into a fist. I thought that coming to look at this place might ease the grip.

As we exit the car, we spread out and take measure. Granite tumours bulge: unwelcoming, treacherous for my elderly mother and aunt and uncle. My husband and I keep our little boy close.

Occupying this ground demands an almost sepulchral reverence. It is a haunted space, even if its ghosts exist only in my awareness that life once burgeoned here and then was gone.

Scattered in the scrub are morsels of ore and the occasional verdigris shock of copper-cobalt. Evidence of the living – broken jars, a wooden cross, shards of metal – lie hidden within a hissing ocean of weeds and grass.

Where the mine and the smelter once thundered and murky smoke drifted across the years, while a thousand souls fought for survival, there is silence.

Wind shushes through the leaves, a parched, papery sound, and I swear I can hear the murmuring past: the clatter and tinkle of the dinner table, men’s voices, occasionally women’s, the distant wailing of a baby.

The sky is cloudless and almost pure indigo. Chirring grasshoppers and the ravens that haw from time to time form a bleak antiphony to the ghost-echoes of women dying in childbirth; the barking and hacking of tuberculosis, silicosis, cancer; the low and terrible moans of hunger and disease in brutal winters.

My father’s death has unnerved me, even though it was expected. Through him I was bound to my ancestors, but I was coldly severed in that instant when his world went black and disappeared. Ever since, I have felt as much left behind as these places that formed, and deformed, our history.

When the past is unknown, the individual lives caught up in those shadows can become unknowable. This was my father, and in a way he was lost to me long before his death. I thought that maybe, if I picked through our shared past, I would find my dad and feel connected to something I never really had.

The oldest family photo of my grandfather shows him in 1914 on the newly built porch of his general store in Coniston, about 60 kilometres west of Victoria Mines. Another spoke in the Sudbury hub, Coniston was born out of the ruin of Victoria Mines, whose operations dried up like dozens of others dotting the ore-rich Basin. My grandfather’s prospects moved in an almost organic synchronicity with the mining fortunes in the region. In that photo, his Hollywood-handsome figure exudes attitude: Arms folded, he gazes on some unseen point beyond the camera. Sporting a great handlebar mustache, his expression is pure swagger. He has the world by the tail, and it shows.

How different from the old, prattling man who died 40 years ago, his eyes long emptied of vigour.

Each successive grief – the loss of two daughters in infancy, his wife’s defection under the pressure of his expectations, and finally the double blow of his second-born daughter’s death along with her unborn child – took its toll. And just as he’d imposed his supremacy and demands for perfection upon his family, so too did he impose his brokenness.

His descendants carried this with them, a kind of permanent hurt passed on like a gene nobody could decode.

The past became veiled in shame and silence, breaches in the narrative that stopped the story dead. We didn’t know how to ask our way past them, to isolate those metaphorical chromosomes and the memory-material that defined our familial angst.

At Victoria Mines, birch trees reach from thin soil like sun-bleached bones and the lank forms of Jack pine and white pine have filled the emptiness. In the old, sepia images of the town there were no trees. This place, too, is an erasure.

All this goes together: These lost towns and lost stories and lost relationships are the defining features that create the landscape of our lives, then vanish without a trace. It’s what’s in between that’s missing, borne silently among us like a genome: the when and where and why of them and of us.

The curve in the slag-banked road, if you catch it at just the right angle, mirrors the curve of the main road visible in one of those misty old images. It takes a while, experimenting with perspectives, to see the lay of the land through the eyes of all these ghosts. But see it we must.

My father’s death was not just a door slammed between life and afterlife: It was the breaking of a DNA narrative. To relate our experiences is to breathe life into words, to give power and expiation to our brief presence.

Something about who we have become mutates when a parent dies. Maybe it’s the discovery that we have never really been ourselves under the weight of all those pasts, known and unknown. Maybe what changes is that their deaths are not only a severance, but a freeing. It’s the dissonance that is so hard to navigate.

What has bound up my heart so that I can barely breathe remains. It will likely be there, in some part, for the rest of my life. It’s what loss is.

As we return to the car, I take one last look around. No voices have whispered their answers.

Then I realize: There is something I must say, too. Every day.

Leave a comment

Filed under Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Writing

Banning Books … Yours

Are writers involved in book banning before their manuscripts even reach the final word?

One of the most complex responsibilities weighing on a writer is honest engagement with life and ideas, and history. This is probably a concept that barely resonates in a world where it’s impossible to know whether Lady Gaga is a feminist icon or a feminist disgrace, and where the moralizing force behind every stripe of argument is enough to make anyone completely disconnect from the debate.

Gender, race, religion, and politics have become equally polarizing over the last century or so, when the velocity of change has swept away most social certainties, leaving opposing factions to duke it out for ownership of our brainspace. The silenced grey areas between seem to have become so fogged in by agendas as to thwart critical thinking altogether.

A few years ago a group of writers, all of whom were highly educated and at various stages of their writing careers, were sharing their work. The majority were men. After a while the women in the group began to recognise a pattern in the men’s writing: it was frighteningly misogynist. In almost every story the characters – both male and female – bowed unquestioningly to women’s roles as idiot, sexual object – mostly sexual object – whore, slut, stupid, fat, ugly cow, hot babe. Not once were women presented as fully human. This wouldn’t have been an issue if it were an intentional misogyny, written to allow the reader into an important debate about gender attitudes and the failure to raise generations of better men. To have male writers involved in such social critique would have been welcome, because the critique is not just about how men treat women or what they think about them, but about what women exemplify as well as what we think of ourselves.

How did the women recognize the difference between writing about misogyny and being mysogynist? For one, the writers could not understand how their work could be conceived as misogynist. There was no conscious grasp on the message they were writing. Their characters were a stark expression, not of an ugly social reality but of their own unmediated attitudes (and obviously those of most men they knew) rather than a mirror in which readers could evaluate social attitudes themselves. Intelligent readers can’t be engaged by writing that is not greater than the writer’s ideas. Otherwise it’s just a screed.

I use this anecdote to illustrate the conditions of modern literary discourse, which is becoming reflected in the final product: how do writers define when they’ve crossed the line between a social-historical context portrayed with integrity and one that screams inadvertent or malicious bigotry?

This is so brutal a subject to engage in openly and honestly. In my own experience with writing and teaching difference – how difference informs the way we write ourselves and what we write – the predominant reaction to the very topic, before any critical theory had even been presented, before anyone had begun to engage in the discourse, was deafening silence and a physically palpable discomfort.

In pre-WWII life our parents and grandparents would have taken a Sunday drive to the beach on a sultry summer day. Towels and picnic baskets and kids and umbrellas in hand, they would have stepped from the pavement of a parking lot or curb onto a sandy stretch and quite possibly passed a sign reading “No dogs or Coloreds or Jews allowed” (actually, some of the nomenclature was worse, but we all know that). The sign would have hardly begged a glance. Unless, of course, you were a black or Jewish family. With a dog.

When was the last time any writer brought such signs into a story where the characters (or the writers) weren’t deeply and personally targeted by them?

When was the last time any writer portrayed that world, here in the West? What does it do to historicity if that world is forgotten? How will we understand ourselves when it is?

Here’s where the writer comes in. Writers are taking the easy way out. We’re bowing out of the responsibility of recording life with historical integrity. Characters are no longer occupying a real time and place where ugly, painful realities and Otherness are part of the air characters breathe. How do we write about a racist society without always making the protagonists enlightened, compassionate, colour-blind? How do we write misogyny without writing misogynist literature? How do writers portray – honestly – the world as it really was, and still is?

The truth is, it just isn’t happening. Writers are creating stories that turn a blind eye, erase, edit, and reinvent reality, just as the moralizing book-banners are trying to do. If we forget that the world of Huckleberry Finn really existed, we lose our grasp of what our society once was. We risk denying that the pandemic rests dormant within us still. The society that no longer understands the past nurtures the viral nature of ideological and social disorder.

We must write the world in all its complexities; to do otherwise is to risk writing caricature or idealizing, demonizing, or infantalizing either a majority group or a minority. Otherwise we’re no better than those who ban Solzhenitsyn or Salman Rushdie for doing exactly what writers should be doing – writing toward an honest social discourse. To write ignoring fact or reality denies us our reasons for needing change and action – in terms of how and who we enfranchise and disenfranchise, and in terms of how groups rethink themselves.

In essence we’re banning the book we should have written.

Make a choice to write courageously, to say something important about life, it’s glories and its disgraces alike, right from the seat of the powerful to the very bottom of society. Make readers think and engage. Fire up our critical thinking faculties. Make us rage and cheer and doubt. Change us.

Animal Farm. Brave New World. Candide. All Quiet On The Western Front. Diary of Anne Frank.

All banned somewhere at some point.

In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex the protagonist’s grandmother Desdemona, a Greek immigrant, goes into Detroit’s Hastings Street, the heart of what was then Paradise Valley where the majority of black citizens lived. It’s a moment that would make any reader’s mouth go dry (is he a racist for remarking on such a thing? For writing it? Are we racists for reading it or because somehow Desdemona’s eyes saw what our eyes have seen? Is it okay to make a critical observation about a minority? Why does it make us feel all weird inside?). It must have filled Eugenides with deep self-doubt and discomfort to write.

In the hands of a lesser writer the scene would have unfolded as a slightly disguised rant against racist America, or described in the tradition of the noble and downtrodden. But Eugenides sidesteps that ugly nowhere land. Here’s why he nailed it:

1. He remembered his character. A European immigrant at that time had no meaningful concern about America’s race history, or that segregation was at all odd.  Cultural groups huddled together for comfort and survival. Nothing more, nothing less. The immigrant’s whole being is focused on their own survival, not someone else’s. You worry about your own problems, I’ll worry about mine; and if you fail at solving your problems – well, that’s your problem. To inject a sudden social consciousness into Desdemona’s mindset would have played false and smacked of pandering.

2. He remembered his characters’ cultural group. You work hard, you succeed: the immigrant credo. That’s the lens through which the character’s reality is filtered. So Hastings Street to Desdemona is framed up on the timber of dichotomy: hard-working/lazy, smart/stupid, moral/immoral. Eugenides knows cultural history, and as readers we know intuitively that there’s an internal integrity to the scene because of it.

2. He remembered the time. The characters’ attitudes reflect the attitudes of the day. Them. Us. That’s how the world was divided. Eugenides infuses his narrative with the consciousness of the era, not his own.

But in the end, Desdemona’s observations do not dehumanize because Eugenides writes that society in the same normative tone as he does the Greek culture. Desdemona’s perception is not the writer’s perception or the only perception.

If you want to read another gulp-producing take on a polarizing issue, read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s an unflinching look at the Vietnam War and the young men who served, and probably the best war novel ever written. Bring Pepto. The author never takes the easy way out.

On the other hand, Franzen’s Freedom tries, then flinches and backs off. Maybe he didn’t know how to write Otherness without revealing something about himself.

Great writers face the tough stuff head on. This is the integrity that’s needed in writing today, not to service agendas or to hang a festoon across a book’s pages. The narrative has to be bigger than the writer, more intelligent, more open to possibilities than the most iron-clad of a writer’s beliefs. For great storytelling a writer has to rise above him or herself t0 depict even a world they despise. Storytelling has to be honest to character and experience and place, to bring about a squirm factor rather than run from it. This is the only way we, as readers, can be transformed by the written page. We squirm in that discomfort, then we examine exactly what it is that makes us squirm – our own notions about the world, ourselves, others. If writers fail to engage the reader this way, then we must finally acknowledge that contemporary  writing is a mere confection meant to go down easily. But beware: when it’s all confection, we perish from malnourishment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing

The Truth Behind Writing What You Know

If you are middle class and took piano lessons and went to your high school prom with a 26 year old closeted gay enfant who wore a waiter’s monkey suit borrowed from his crack-addicted friend (true story), does that mean you should only be writing about a middle class character who …

You get the picture.

Write what you know. What does it mean?

The divide on this debate is razor sharp. Either writing from your life alone is legitimate or it’s an imaginative free-for-all. Post-Modernists completely divorce writer from writing. So what’s the truth?

The list of Literary Greats is populated by thinly disguised autobiography. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tolstoy. They cannibalised their lives for literary fodder. Even Dickens built his fantastic and wacky and unforgettable literary world upon a framework of autobiographical studs.

Let’s not even get into sci-fi or fantasy. Okay, just a little. Because Tolkien’s nearly all-male roundup was a reflection of the social and intellectual life he knew and lived. Same thing with CS Lewis and his blatant Christian allegory. Not that I mention those particular authors together for any particular reason.

Think Douglas Adams and his life experience had nothing to do with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?  Think again.

What if you don’t want to write about your life, or base stories on your life? What gives writers the right write about whatever they want?

Here’s the thing.  You can write about anything you want. Really. But if you don’t understand what you’re writing about then the jig is up.  You need insight. There has to be truth and authenticity behind every word.  If your nice life with nice parents and nice friends just doesn’t hold enough interest to form the crux of a narrative, don’t even attempt to write about abusive alcoholics if you don’t understand that world. If you don’t know what you’re talking about the reader will know instantly.  If you don’t know what you’re talking about but still have a burning need to write about it, then research, research, research.  For every page of written material there should be a background database ten times that amount – character bios, history, climatological nuances, economic and historic influences. Even when the background material never makes it to the written page, it’s there. This point will probably be repeated several times across various posts. It’s important.

Remember that your storytelling must convince even your expert readers.

Integrity must flow through your creation.

That’s if you want to be a writer.

If you want to be an author, history has already cast the vote. The best use their experiences and perceptions to help create an imaginative world.

The Greats, well, that’s something else.

Great storytelling is spurred from deep within – who a writer is, where he or she comes from, and the way they perceive the world. Greats are formed by Place, and place informs their narratives. Faulkner wrote Yoknapatawpha County to stand in for Lafayette County, the site of his upbringing; Thomas Hardy called his Dorchester origins Wessex and wrote masterfully about the microculture of its inhabitants. Nothing of Albert Camus was not touched by his French Algerian world view and the intimacies of his upbringing and family history.

In the finest fiction, particular observations about place, time, and people – behaviours and character and human nature – underscore every sentence, paragraph, and chapter.

How your mind processes your world can’t be taught, and this is what separates writer from author, and author from the Greats. All the talent and skill in the world will never make up for the deficit if there is no magic in the way a writer’s mind works.

If your narrative is going nowhere, it may be because it’s not coming from you. Go back to the constructs of your family life, the dynamics of the culture and society and history that bred you. Go back to who you are and why you are. It doesn’t have to be the story, but it can be the framework or the insight for the story. Let your imagination do the rest. Then maybe your writing will start to shine.

2 Comments

Filed under Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing