The Fiction Writer’s Taboos: Are There Any?

Departing for a while from my posts on Cross Training for Writers, I set out to explore the barriers fiction writers must navigate if we’re to tell stories other than our own. So this is less a post about finding solutions than it is about raising questions, the answers to which will be different for every writer.

The concept Write from Truth infers that we write better when we’re inside a particular reality that we know well. This familiarity gives us carte blanche to explore with authority contentious subject matter in arenas that are fortresses of political correctness and/or controversy, for example religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, politics and culture.

Assailing these fortresses from the outside is a whole different matter. But at some point we need to move beyond our own experience and venture into the unknown, the foreign, the imaginary, where any number of experts might easily find irredeemable flaws in our work. For me this raises not only technical, but also moral questions. What right do I have to tell a story about the Holocaust through a first person protagonist? How can a twenty-five year old man presume to write from the perspective of a teenage girl who’s about to make love for the first time? When we’ve never been inside the skin of our characters, how can we legitimately give them life without being presumptuous or offensive?

The more questions I ask, the more present themselves. What kind of writers can we be if we have only our limited experience to draw from? There’s an easy answer to that: narcissistic, insular and incredibly boring. But in wanting to be expansive, how much do we risk?

I have no reservations about writing from a base of thorough research, and imagining realities that were never mine. The mere act of reading takes us beyond our own realities. Historical/sci fi/fantasy/horror, in fact most genre fiction demands that writers become explorers.

So what am I going on about? My reluctance has to do with struggle, poverty and the hurt people feel. It’s here that I’m unwilling to be presumptuous. Yet it’s here, in the arena of hurt, that much of my own work takes root. I have been poor, but I don’t know poverty. I’ve seen it. I’ve gotten up close and personal, but I’ve never lived in a shack or had to steal to put food on the table. I lived in a society that violated human rights as a matter of policy, but I wouldn’t dream of presuming to know what it felt like to be an AIDS orphan living in an informal settlement.

We’re possessive and protective of our pain. We flinch when someone approaches it. We retain the copyright to the secrets and horrors that shaped us, and a stranger who messes with these is a thief or a usurper.

In my novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, I became that thief. I set the narrative in a part of the world I knew nothing about, and wrote my protagonist as a Latino doctor in his early forties. I did enough research to fill a travelogue and explored controversial rituals from both insider and outsider points of view. And I found that once my first draft was done, I couldn’t live with some of my choices.

My solution was to uproot everything and replant my story in a fictitious setting, close to its real origins, but far enough away for me to legitimately impose my own sensibilities, knowledge and experience in such a way as to develop a unique composite I could live with. It was basically an exercise in Fantasy Writing 101: world-building. In fiction I could stretch the truth, reinvent it, as long as I maintained a fine balance between arrogance and humility, remained respectful of cultures and realities other than my own, and was able to lose myself in the characters I wrote. There was irony in this approach, as it was my own authorial judgment and sense of injustice that lay at the heart of the novel in the first place.

I have to be a writer who’s at peace with my voices, even those that belong to my antagonists. I get to know my characters as well as I can. It’s a personal choice that has to do with a sense of responsibility and intention. It also has to do with individual powers of observation and empathy that are unique to each of us. Ultimately, I would never have had the courage to venture so far away from my own reality if I didn’t believe in the world and the people I created.

One of the best things about being an explorer in fiction is that whatever constraints or taboos we have to grapple with, there are few limits. We can explore madness, cruelty, happiness, any state of being we choose; we can go anywhere we want, including places no one has ever been before; conjure creatures, catastrophes and miracles, if we find a way to inhabit, if fleetingly, our own stories.

Next up: Let’s see…



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