In honor of Black History Month, the February quotes will all come from famous Black authors.
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
— James Baldwin, American novelist (1924-87), Notes of a Native Son
“Given the ways in which race works in this country, and in the West in general, it actually becomes a radical political statement to introduce blackness into the consciousness of the reader without explanation or announcement. In this way, my characters are not measured over or against whiteness, or understood as a reflection of whiteness. They are simply themselves. The hardest thing about writing, I think, is observing properly. But more and more, I think, it’s what makes a piece of writing good.”
—Ayana Mathis, in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (2017)
“We’ve all heard the expression ‘one person, one vote’ used to promote the idea that every human being deserves a voice in the political process. Well, I like literature that’s ‘one person, one truth’ – that each person’s experience, no matter how marginal, has the power to tell us something vital about what it means to be human. It’s true that, in many ways, fiction has not been universal: It’s probably been a middle-class form, and there are definitely forgotten people whose lives have not been chronicled. I don’t think writers should be self-congratulatory. But one of the ideological things that the novel form helped accomplish was to expand literature’s focus. The novel tends to show us that the lives of ‘ordinary people’ are as full of drama, emotion, and even political significance as those of the greats.”
—novelist Tom Perotta in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed by Joe Fassler (2017)
This is a season that is particularly shaped by tradition. We celebrate some of our most important holidays and holy days in the last quarter of the year, as autumn becomes winter and we turn the page to a new year.
But this year, traditions are dramatically changed. Travel is harder, public events are limited in size, individual gatherings and celebrations are being reshaped.
And that has me thinking of the role of tradition in story. Think about it in the story you’re working on. How do traditions influence your characters? How guide or frustrate their choices? How create—or recall—tensions between characters, or within them?
Which character assumes the family will always gather at her home? Which character resents that, resists it, has always tried to change it, and finally circumstances allow the change—but what now? Whose help does she need? Who refuses to give it? What does she feel compelled to do, but unsure that she can succeed?
Who absolutely will not hand over the star that always goes on top of the Christmas tree, because it’s always been on her tree because we’ve always gathered at her house.
Who tries to interject new traditions? Who feels rebuffed, rejected, relegated to the kids’ table?
I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here. Traditions aren’t confined to the holidays and holy days, or to family gatherings, and you needn’t be writing about the pandemic to ask your characters these questions. Think about how your characters respond to traditions and to changes. Consider how the usual ways of doing things have influenced the interactions between spouses, sisters, business partners, or rivals—and how changes in the traditions affect those interactions. What ripple effects occur when one person decides to think or feel about “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it”? What does that character do as a result, and how does another respond?
And if you find yourself singing a particular song from a Broadway musical, go for it.
In a recent discussion in a writers’ forum on how and when police could question a person, a writer made the excellent point that what we’d been saying is how the law SHOULD work, but that it often DOESN’T work that way, especially in communities of color or of lower socioeconomic status. Further, she stressed, we as writers should not “imply an equity that does not exist.”
So when I saw this blog post from the Washington State Bar Assn on a new ordinance in King County (which includes Seattle), I thought the writers among you would be interested — readers, too, but for different reasons. The ordinance requires police to connect any youth under 18 with a public defender before questioning or searching them, except in emergencies where police “reasonably believe the information sought is necessary to protect someone’s life from an imminent threat and the questioning is limited to that purpose.” The post, by a public defender, summarizes the problem, including statistics, and the tragic shooting that led to the ordinance. Kids’ brains aren’t fully developed yet. They often lack the judgment or experience needed to handle difficult situations. They don’t always react the way adults think they should – and it’s up to us as adults and as a society to remember that.
This may already be the law in your story state – although I am a member of both the WA and MT bars, I live and practice in MT, where law enforcement has long been prohibited from interrogating anyone 16 or younger without an attorney, parent, or guardian present. Even so, we need to remember as both citizens and writers that it doesn’t always work that way.
I’ve been sharing thoughts about writing on my Facebook page recently, and thought I should share them here, too. I hope they hit the spot!
Writing Wednesday. You said you liked my weekly comments on some aspect of writing that I’m dealing with at the moment, so I’ll try to share them more consistently.
Several years ago, I attended a Don Maass Break-Out Novel Intensive workshop — which I highly recommend, by the way. He suggested “emotional research,” a phrase I’d never heard but instantly knew was critical for me. I was writing Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, with a main character who was 32 but lost her father in a hit-and-run at 17. My father died when I was 30, so not at all the same. I sat down with a notebook and hand-wrote everything I remembered from observing friends who’d lost a parent when they were in their teens or early 20s. (Handwriting is best b/c of the direct emotional connection it evokes.) I consulted online guides for teachers and counselors on working with students or young clients who had lost a parent. I quizzed a classmate who had two teenagers. And at the end, I was able to see quite clearly not only how Erin would have responded, but how her friend Kim would have responded — creating a central conflict that carried through the first three books in the series and made both women deeper and, I think, more relatable.
Today, I’m doing something similar with my killer. Not that I’m consulting actual killers among my friends, mind you 🙂 but I’m looking at news accounts, books, reports, and articles to help me better understand the motivation, the drive, that led this person to believe murder was the only choice, the right response, to a situation. And I’m following the lead of a once-famous criminal defendant and free-writing my killer’s “If I did it” confession, by hand, using his/her favorite pen.
“[L]ove what you do. If you don’t love it and find it all rather lonely because it is, find something else. Most of all, use what is already there. You cannot reinvent the conditions you are in, but these conditions are your fuel – anger, frustration, despair, revenge, love, silliness, need. and writing is your way to clarity, to understanding what is important. That is its power.
I’m wrapping up two months of quotes from Spark: How Creativity Works (2011) by Julie Burstein, based on interviews conducted with artists of all media for Studio 360, which she produced.
Painter Chuck Close on how he creates his portraits: “I know where I’m going to end up but I don’t know the route I”m going to take. So much is embedded in the process of following that path wherever it leads, and the things you bump into, the ideas that occur to you through the act of painting, through the process of building a painting, are so different from the ones that you sit around and dream up. I don’t wait for inspiration. If you wait for the clouds to part and be struck in the head with a bolt of lightning, you’re likely to be waiting the rest of your life. But if you simply get going something will occur to you.”
So much like writing a story or a novel. I often find that I’m “sparked” by interaction with other arts — going to a concert or a gallery opening, taking a painting class, sitting nearby when my singer-songwriter husband and his friends take turns around the circle with their song. I hope these quotes have done something similar for you.
“Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it – coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.”