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The Ice in a Writer's Heart

#1
In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, Graham Greene famously said that there was a ‘splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,’ which allowed them to contemplate tragedy in a dispassionate way and turn it into art. Such self-possession might well repulse people who don't write.

Ethical considerations must bother many writers: how can we write about tragic and distasteful subjects, without being moved? Are we monsters who exploit unhappiness? Revealing family secrets, even if it's done in veiled fictional form, could be seen as a shocking betrayal.

Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reckoned that, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” In recent years, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has published a series of six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle, which have dissected his relationships with family members and friends, leading to deep hurt and rifts. The morality of what he did is open to question—what price fame?—how far is a writer prepared to go in selling his soul down the river?

An ex-girlfriend who he knew for four years, was referred to by the anonymous name of Gunvor in book five. She said, in a newspaper interview:"It was as if he said: Now I'm going to punch you in the face. I know it's going to hurt, and I will drive you to the hospital afterwards. But I'm going to do it anyway."

He's not the sort of person to strike up a friendship with, unless you fancy seeing your character shredded on the pages of one of his books! :(

Any author writes to achieve a certain private emotional satisfaction, and to take a stance on difficult aspects of life. We hope to produce a reaction in the reader, while not revealing too much about ourselves, which demands abstraction. I've written about some repulsive crimes in my novels, including murder, kidnapping, rape, torture and slavery. I do so, to make points about the state of society, rather than out of a morbid relish for the agony and pain caused by the criminals; some readers may like my stories for those reasons, but that's out of my control.

I've become upset by some of the dreadful atrocities I've researched, so much so, that I broke my big toe!

But, it would be remiss of me to write as if I was upset, for the story wouldn't ring true. My detective protagonist's response to the crime he's investigating may well influence the reader. Enough space has to be left, for the reader to decide how they feel.

I deliberately hold back from giving too many gory details, but I'm sure that I'll offend some people who'll suggest that I'm exploiting real-life victims in a cold-hearted way. As the old saying goes,“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time.”

Nevertheless, there are moves afoot in publishing to make books politically correct, through the use of sensitivity readers:

Authors Are Employing ‘Sensitivity Readers’ To Problematic-Proof Their Novels

This sounds like a great way of producing homogenised writing, where none of the characters do anything that's likely to offend anyone, no matter what their race, gender, sexuality, politics, disabilities or ethics. No story will be 'too hot' or 'too cold', and nor will they be 'just right' (thanks Goldilocks)—they'll just be lukewarm and insipid.

A certain amount of coldness, even political incorrectness and moral ambiguity is essential to bring a chill to the reader, to make them react, to want to know what happens next, to read on....

How cold-hearted are you, when you write?

Do you worry what people will think about you?

Does your conscience do battle with your desire to tell a story?

Have you ever read anything that made you wonder if the author was a psychopath?

 

Amber

Benefactor
#2
This is the funniest post I've ever read from you. I laughed through the entire thing. But i'm not right in the head.

.....and sensitivity readers ... that was the best. ALTHOUGH....

I have a scene where a there's blood in yellow hair and a young woman at a critique group asked me why she had to be blond. Why couldn't she be black? She suggested I have more diverse characters.

The blood in the yellow hair, that's what I wanted, so I was like, "But ... look at the blood in the yellow hair ... can't see blood in black hair.... it'd be WRONG... ALL WRONG."

(I didn't do that last bit. I might have thought it.)

But I considered making other characters black and because she pushed I said, "I wouldn't feel comfortable writing those characters. Getting it wrong would really bother me and I'm not sure I could get it right."

A sensitivity reader could help authors make sure their diverse characters were appropriate. It's still a little silly though. You either know or you don't... maybe a tweak here or a tweak there from someone you know... not a sensitivity reader. Which sounds like a paid position if you ask me.

I imagine I could write diverse characters if their difference and how that may have impacted their life didn't play a part in the story or the character at all. But then, why bother making them different than me. I don't know what its like in other countries. I only know a little. But we haven't healed our wounds -- not at all -- we're not even close to being able to put all of our past sins as a country into perspective and so I would rather avoid the topic.

Huh... it's a good article and brings up a good point. Why get angry at the author because of what a fictional character does? That makes sense.

I was thinking a sensitivity reader would be good to make sure the character comes across as authentic.... but don't think anyone would need a sensitivity reader for that ... and if I ever need one ... I suppose I know where to find one already... and she's free.

Well. Very interesting.

How cold-hearted are you, when you write?

I'm very cold. Too cold.

Do you worry what people will think about you?

Eh. No. Not in the sense I think you're asking the question. I'm more afraid people will see how I feel but it's not because I'm worried about what they would think.

Does your conscience do battle with your desire to tell a story?

No. Okay. Not initially. Not when I'm writing it. I do have one scene I worry about.

Have you ever read anything that made you wonder if the author was a psychopath?

The Marquis de Sade was really messed up.
 

Carol Rose

Guardian
Staff member
Ambassador
#3
We've discussed sensitivity readers here before. My take on it is to ask who is policing the sensitivity readers? How far can that go? Pretty far - scary far.

If you look for offense, you will always find it. Every single time. I also fear if someone writes with it in mind not to offend anyone, their voice will be gone and the prose will read like a recipe. Um, no thank you. I'll pass on those books.

As for gory, graphic detail, I'm not afraid to write it and I'm not afraid to read it, as long as it fits the story and is not simply gratuitous. Nothing makes me roll my eyes harder than authors who put sex scenes in simply for the sake of fitting in one more, but where and when that scene takes place is utterly ridiculous to the setting in the story. Like, when the hero and heroine are running from the bad guy, fear for their lives, and stop to have sex. Right. Cause that would be on my mind more than anything, too. NOT!

I've also read horror, crime, and thrillers that go way over the top with the details to the point it feels like the author is going more for shock value than because what they're describing is intrinsic to the story or the character. Then again, when someone writes a scene like that, they have no way of knowing what will cause triggers in an individual reader.

And that brings us back to the issue of sensitivity reading. In this respect, they go hand-in-hand because what will offend one person will not even faze another. What feels like over-the-top gore to one may not to another.

We've talked about triggers a lot in the romance community as dark romance grows as a sub-genre, and as some authors test the waters by romanticizing rape. How much is too much? What constitutes crossing the line? There's no real way to measure it because that line is fluid and varies from individual to individual.

When I was writing heavy consensual BDSM in my books as Tara Rose, I had loyal readers who couldn't read some of my scenes because of the type of play the heroes and heroines engaged in. Those were triggers for them. But for others, they loved it. There's no way to determine that when you sit down to write. As individual readers, we have to make decisions on a book-by-book basis. Doesn't mean the author is "wrong" to write it. It simply means you, as a reader, have difficulty reading it.
 
#4
I don't know you need that famous 'ice splinter' in your heart, but some distance helps with objectivity.

Should we write only what we know? I went and looked at Ursula le Guin's Rules for Writing:

As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”

Imagination leads us into unknown places. The caveat of course is that if we write about someone living with a chronic disability or illness and don't know anything beyond Google and have never known anyone in real life who lives with this kind of challenge, we will get it wrong as soon as we get into the nitty-gritty. (The devil is in the details.) We all live in multicultural societies and yet some of us claim we don't 'know' anyone who isn't like us. Really?

Claudia Rankine is quite hard-hitting on this in her response to Jonathan Franzen saying he can't write about people of colour and I come back to her response because it makes me think about how well I know those around me:

“He said something like ‘I can’t write about people I don’t know.’ That, to me, is more complex. So, why don’t you know these people? What choices have you made in your life to keep yourself segregated? How is it one is able to move through life with a level of sameness? Is that conscious? Is segregation forever really at the bottom of everything? When he says something like that, I find that really interesting as an admittance to white privilege: that he can get through his life without any meaningful interaction with people of color.”

If we write about someone who has lived through the bombing of Aleppo and know nothing about what war is like, or what has happened in Syria beyond CNN podcasts, our ignorance will be glaringly obvious. If we write about someone who is vegan and has fallen in love with a cheerful omnivore, we need to know more about veganism than a quick wiki glance. If my main character has run away from a closed Hasidic community, how am I going to do justice to her experience? If I have a posthuman dystopia set in 2085, why do the male and female characters sound like cliches who never made it out of the 20th century?

We fall back on stereotypes and offensive assumptions when we don't know enough, when we rely on imagination rather than firsthand observation and relationship, when we haven't examined our own prejudices and assumptions. There's research, and then there's imaginative empathy and creative power, and then there's insider knowledge because you've grown up living with this; you understand schizophrenia because a family member has been hospitalised again and again; you work with refugees and asylum-seekers; you helped nurse a friend going through trans surgery; you spent three years working in Kabul. That kind of insider knowledge is often what gives writers the edge and authenticity. For me that is often the starting place for what I choose to write about. I know enough to stand a chance of getting it right.
 
#5
@MaryA Completely agree about this daffy idea of writing what you know. That would lead to a very dull world of fiction.
I also have to say that I don't really get the idea of being uncomfortable with what we write. Its made up, after all. And as shaky as my sanity is, I think I can still tell the difference. Mostly.
 
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#6
It depends in part on whether you're writing commercial realist fiction, doesn't it @Howard? 'Made-up' is a question of perception and if you want to keep a smart reader turning pages, she or he will want to feel you know what you're talking about. Accuracy matters.

Even if you write about alien lifeforms, the reader is a human who wants to know how you communicate with those life forms and that you as a human writer know how to communicate with your reader. Your disabled rocket scientist and his queer partner might feel 'real enough' to you but if the editor/ reviewer finds them thin and stereotyped, there's a readership out there you won't reach.
 
#7
'Made-up' is a question of perception and if you want to keep a smart reader turning pages, she or he will want to feel you know what you're talking about. Accuracy matters.
Details and believability matter, but that isn't what people talk about when they say 'write what you know'. Bringing an element of your personal knowledge into your writing is what we're talking about there. Its like when morticians or crime scene investigators take up writing and stick to their field. Its fine, but most of us don't have that.
 

Amber

Benefactor
#8
As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”


This is about the smartest thing I ever heard someone say about 'writing what you know'. It's so brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Imagination leads us into unknown places. The caveat of course is that if we write about someone living with a chronic disability or illness and don't know anything beyond Google and have never known anyone in real life who lives with this kind of challenge, we will get it wrong as soon as we get into the nitty-gritty. (The devil is in the details.) We all live in multicultural societies and yet some of us claim we don't 'know' anyone who isn't like us. Really?
Yes and sometimes people do research and still get it wrong. Sometimes people do all of the research and their depiction of something lacks integrity -- which I don't mean in a moral sense -- but in the sense of wholeness and parts matching and probabilities making sense.

Claudia Rankine is quite hard-hitting on this in her response to Jonathan Franzen saying he can't write about people of colour and I come back to her response because it makes me think about how well I know those around me:

“He said something like ‘I can’t write about people I don’t know.’ That, to me, is more complex. So, why don’t you know these people? What choices have you made in your life to keep yourself segregated? How is it one is able to move through life with a level of sameness? Is that conscious? Is segregation forever really at the bottom of everything? When he says something like that, I find that really interesting as an admittance to white privilege: that he can get through his life without any meaningful interaction with people of color.”


Well. Yes. I don't think you were responding directly to what I said. You may not have even read it. But my parents purposefully moved to a neighborhood without any people of color. Which is to say, they moved into a neighborhood where they were guaranteed there would be no people of color. I never saw people of color. Partly as a way of rebelling ... and for other reasons ... I went to a University where those who attended were mostly colored ... and I've worked in places where the employees were mostly colored ...

I'm pretty terrified to write about people of color and it's probably something left over from when I had to lean my head out the window to get a glimpse of a colored person. I was fascinated by their hair ... and so curious. I learned years later .. hands off the hair.

Getting it wrong would devastate me. I'm pretty qualified to write about being the whitest girl alive and what that's like. I think about the differences in how people are treated, and what accounts for them, a lot.

I very much enjoyed your post.
 
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