The first worry writers have when they consider working with something like historical events has to do with the issue of authority:  as in, where do I get off writing about that?    Well, here’s the good and the bad news:  where do you get off writing about anything?   Where do you get off writing about someone of a different gender?    A different person?   Where do you get off writing about yourself, from twenty years ago?

Writers shouldn’t lose sight of the essential chutzpah involved in trying to imagine any other kind of sensibility.  And that they should take heart from that chutzpah, as well.   The whole project of literature – the entire project of the arts — is about the exercise of the empathetic imagination.   Why were we given something as amazing as imagination, if we’re not going to use it?

We need to bear in mind, as we’ve been told many times, that we’re working from, but not necessarily about, our lives.   The poet Seamus Heaney had a nice way of putting it.   He said:  “I do not suggest that the self is not the proper arena of poetry.   But I believe that the greatest work occurs when a certain self-forgetfulness is attained.”

And here’s the happy paradox:  such distancing seems to enable a new – and often unexpected – version of emotional honesty and intimacy to be generated within the work.   Both of which are crucial.   Oscar Wilde had a great insight about that.   He said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own persona.   Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

An old student once quoted to me Allan Gurganus’ remark that it was the writer’s job to take the world personally.  I think that that’s true.  When I read about The Who or John Ashcroft, or the disaster at Chernobyl, I’m reading about it because I’m interested in the subject, and by interested I mean to suggest that not only my intellect but my emotions have been engaged.   And when I’m reading, I’m trying to read receptively; that is, I’m beginning, if I’m engaged enough, to pay attention to how what I’m reading is affecting me, and why.   You might say that, if I’m, for example, reading about the catastrophe at Chernobyl, I’m simultaneously storing away the facts about the disaster and keeping on eye on the spectacle of my own ongoing affective reaction to what I’m learning.

Suffering is everywhere.   Drama is everywhere.   Why do some things affect us so much, when others don’t?  Some things we come across and say, Oh, that’s terrible, and go on to the next thing.   Other events, experienced and imagined, stay with us.   The fact that they don’t go away is a hint about how important they are to our psyches.   That’s a hint to which the writer should pay attention.  What’s important about those things?   That’s for us to find out.

- Jim Shepard

14 Responses

  1. Renee Thompson

    Your point is well taken, Jim. As a writer of historical fiction, I sometimes worry readers will call me on a fact (there will always be someone out there who knows more than I do, so this is an inherent torture), but more often I’ve found I’m confounded by the inclination of some readers to apply 21st-century sensibilities to 19th-century stories. To stand up for stories we’ve written — tales that in some way have affected us deeply, does indeed take chutzpah, and sometimes, a good-sized chunk of our hearts. So yes. Pay attention, tell the tale, then stick up for yourself when that voice inside (or some other dope) asks, “Who do you think you are?”

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  2. Kellie

    Very nicely said. I have spiraled into this worry:

    The first worry writers have when they consider working with something like historical events has to do with the issue of authority: as in, where do I get off writing about that?

    so many times, that it’s a wonder sometimes that I manage to continue. But there comes a point where you have to stop questioning, take a breath, and do. Thanks for the reminder.

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  3. HTMLGIANT / Creative Writing 101

    [...] Tibet in search of the Yeti. I attached to the back of the handout Jim’s short essay from the Electric Literature blog about writing fiction based on non-fiction. I hope that it will sort of bridge the gap between [...]

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  4. Rob Mientjes

    I’ve always read this logic in the statement, “write what you know”. It’s trite, but I just read it as, “write about what is in your head or can be perceived by yourself”. Anything above and beyond it is going to suck as a story.

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  5. Jeremy Brush

    Between me and my wife we would have to say this is an awful informative post that should get mentioning elsewhere. This is for 2 types of people: current writers who are considering a other position, and people trying to decide to become a writer.

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  6. Henry Pelifian

    Many excellent quotes and comments on “fiction based on non-fiction. There are many great examples. Melville’s Typee, although fiction, is based on his month(s) on a South Pacific island. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is based on his own observations of Cuban fisherman as well as a newspaper article on an incident of a local fisherman battling a marlin on his small boat.

    I believe in Allan Gurganus’s remark that a writer’s job is to take the world personally, among other things. My own dilemma in writing about my experience in the Vietnam War was that such a novel will be dismissed as just some fiction totally at odds with reality, although I did keep a random diary which was useful in writing the war novella, A Final Quietus.

    An “empathetic imagination” is necessary, but sometimes a major challenge in writing.

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  7. take it personally | RadikalChick

    [...] Suffering is everywhere. Drama is everywhere. Why do some things affect us so much, when others don’t? Some things we come across and say, Oh, that’s terrible, and go on to the next thing. Other events, experienced and imagined, stay with us. The fact that they don’t go away is a hint about how important they are to our psyches. That’s a hint to which the writer should pay attention. What’s important about those things? That’s for us to find out.” — Jim Shepard, from here. [...]

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