Who, or what, have you been?

A highly acclaimed literary author was speaking to an auditorium full of published and wanna-be published writers who had paid to be taught by her.

“Think of all you have been in your life,” she said.  “The obvious ones–daughter or son, student, sibling, confident, friend.  You’ve been hundreds of things.  If you’ve ever boiled an egg you have been a cook.  If you’ve ever pulled a weed, you’ve been a gardener.  You, at this point in your lives, have been hundreds of things.

“Point of View,” she continued, “relates to something that must be inside you and hence relates to what it’s possible for you to put inside your character’s lives.

“First person point of view is always interior and always gut-level honest.  It must always be something you yourself have been.  Third person interior must be the same.  Don’t write inside anyone’s head that you can’t be.  You can’t cross the sex line.  A woman can not write from a male point of view, for example.”

She continued in this vein, but I was already lost, thinking about what she’d just said.  Can’t write thoughts for a male character?  In my own field, mystery, what about Agatha Christie and Hastings?  What about Dorothy L. Sayers and Lord Peter?  And, of course, what about Radine Trees Nehring and Henry King?  And, even if they don’t cross a “sex line,” what about the many, many people who write historical fiction?

At the first break I did approach the speaker and ask her about historical fiction.  True, I have boiled an egg, but in my handy-dandy electric egg cooker and not over a wood fire.  Should I attempt to make the transition to a woman cooking at a fireplace  in the 17th century?  The speaker had no ready answer, only repeating that bit about boiling an egg making me a cook.

The rest–getting water, pouring it in the iron pot, putting logs on the fire, dodging sparks, timing the egg with what…an hour glass?–would have to be the product of my imagination and research.

Ah ha!  Imagination and research?  Aren’t both of those an essential part of the writing life?  And can’t they allow me to, at least occasionally, be what I could never be in real life?

Then why can’t I (especially with the help of men willing to read what I write and comment) be–at least in the pages of my novel, and using imagination and research–a man?

I didn’t remind her that I write mysteries and never in my life have I killed anyone though, in my novels, I have committed–let’s see–at least six murders.

What are your thoughts on this?

Radine

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23 Responses to “Who, or what, have you been?”

  1. jenny milchman Says:

    Um…at the risk of sounding harsh and un-humble, I think that’s silly. Not because I am so wonderful about dipping into the head of a purple ten foot rabbit, but because authors much greater than I could surely do so. Stephen King wrote in the POV of a rabid St. Bernard.

    “Write what you know” is like THE axiom, but I’ve always heard it translated as, Make sure you know what you’re writing before you write.

    So, yes, if we intend to take on the voice of a male biker dude, and we’re a dowdy female mom of ten, we should make sure we can truly empathize with the character, understand his reasons for and experience of being what he is. But only write novel after novel about the ten kids? That sounds pretty limiting…

  2. Larry W Chavis Says:

    The first short-short story I ever had published was written from the point of view of a young mother, wholly unprepared for the demands of a new born. Her feelings, emotions, and subsequent actions (off-scene) were the whole story. When it was written, since I could never be a mother at all, and young is many years past, I showed it to a few of my female colleagues at the school where I teach. Their comments encouraged me to submit it, and it was eventually accepted for publication.

    Isn’t being what you have never been a great part of the writing process? While I do not have the credentials of your speaker, I believe I’ll just politely dissent from her position.

    • radine Says:

      Interesting to note that, in the lobby, during a break from this speaker’s presentation, the reaction was, to put it politely, “Phooey.” She’s spoken to this group twice, and I just wonder if she’ll be asked back.

  3. Auntie Knickers Says:

    I posted a reply on DorothyL so won’t blather on here, but I agree with you, not the Famous Arthur. Examples: Susan Straight, Kris Nelscott, Deborah Crombie, Donna Leon — just to name a few. Vicki Lane’s main protagonist seems a lot like her, but she also includes POVs of other characters who aren’t.
    Of course I am mad with curiosity about who this literary author may have been, and wondering if I would like her books or find them dull!

    • radine Says:

      Well, at least she doesn’t write mysteries, and, as she is someone I need to associate with frequently in the Arkansas literary world, I have to publicly “make nice” and not reveal her identity.

  4. carl brookins Says:

    She may have been trying to make a point. If so it escapes me at the moment. Hard to believe she really meant it in such a flat no compromise stance. Because of course, it isn’t true. People write about all kinds of things and existences and events they aren’t and won’t ever be. It’s the genius of good art.

    • radine Says:

      I am, frankly, perplexed by what she insisted on, and she went at this point while”teaching” POV all morning. I admit that she once awed me. Lots of credentials and advanced degrees. But, maybe, no common sense, and no knowledge of Peter Rabbit or Raggedy Ann to shape her POV views at the beginning of her life?

  5. Steve Liskow Says:

    “You can’t” may be the most damaging words you can tell anyone in any of the creative arts. If you can’t imagine something, what’s the point of writing fiction?

    Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights through Lockwood, a man, who quotes other narrators of both genders. Joyce Carol Oates often uses a male POV successfully. Many other writers in history have also used the opposite gender, although I tend to find more women successfully posing as men than the opposite. If you can only write what you have been, no novel about the future should exist, so I guess a lot of SF writers are up the creek, too.

    The logic is similar to the trap actors can fall into when they try to find an experience in their own past to help portray a role on stage. If you follow the thought process to its logical (fallacious) conclusion, only someone who has actually committed suicide can take on the roles of Hedda Gabler, Juliet, or Jessie (Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother).

    The only reason I would want to know the identity of this “highly-acclaimed” author is so I can avoid her books. Obviously, they suffer from a dearth of imagination and a surplus of literalism. I hope the victims of her comments didn’t pay very much for the privilege.

    • radine Says:

      Hoo boy, do I agree with what you said about the danger of “no options” statements, especially when talking about writing. I didn’t have the nerve to bring up any of my objections to what this woman was saying but maybe I should have.
      Radine

  6. Steve Brown Says:

    I don’t think the speaker had a clue as to POV. The old adage, write what you know is what she was saying, I guess, yet still, but if I want to use a pig farmer as a character in my novel, it doesn’t mean I have to have been a pig farmer. And then not crossing the sex barrier. Well, I admit, I don’t have a clue as to how women think. But I do get into my female characters heads but when I do, I often ask a female to help me out with the thought process.

  7. Tim Hallinan Says:

    Phooey is a mild reaction.

    This is just an anti-creative screed. The speaker should be kept far, far away from young writers. She has obviously never experienced that amazing moment when characters take on their own life, and you feel like you’re watching them, just trying to get it down, rather than moving them around like hand puppets.

    Maybe this speaks to a limitation in the speaker’s imaginative process.

  8. radine Says:

    Seems all replies so far believe as I do…that the author was making statements that could be refuted in a number of ways and–as far as I am concerned–could cause a lot of problems for beginning writers. I am still perplexed as to how on earth she formulated her “must do” ideas!

  9. Linda Faulkner Says:

    Hello? Are we writing fiction? Are we writing to entertain? What about creative license? What about imagination?

    Seriously, there are many ways to know something and to experience it. I wonder if the Literary Author has ever written about something she doesn’t know… I wonder if she knows everything… I wonder if she might have been repeating something she heard and that, at the time, sounded good…

    Her perspective doesn’t sound so hot to me. But then, I’m a neither highly acclaimed nor literary writer.

  10. Sarahlynn Says:

    I concur with all above: I think it’s ridiculous.

    And it suggests an unnaturally rigid acceptance of gender roles. I am unconfusedly a woman and a mother. But there are ways in which I’m more “male,” and ways in which I am more “female.” I think most people are like that: a mixture of characteristics commonly assigned to one gender or another. Why shouldn’t our characters be likewise?

    Wally Lamb did such a good job inside a woman’s head in She’s Come Undone that I kept checking the “About the Author” section with disbelief.

    • radine Says:

      I wish I could stand up in the next meeting of the group that hosted this speaker and simply read all your comments. Thank you all so much. You have brought enlightenment to all and, to me, solace! I am not alone.

  11. Kaye Says:

    I agree with all the above, and therefore firmly decree what the woman said was “Hogwash.”

    so there.

    If she can speak her mind with that much certainty, well – so can we.

  12. Pat Marinelli Says:

    Gee, this author should have told my editor about my POV problem. My first nationally published short story was written in first person and my character was blind. Now I know I wear glasses but I can certainly see. I had raves about that story. Other writers wanted to know how I knew so much about a blind person. Well, I do know two people who were blind. Is that write what you know?

    Since then. off the top of my head, I’ve won awards and been published in the POV of a little boy, men, women, a cat, cops both male and female, a pychic witch, a widow, and I am non of those. I will admit to being a little girl at one time and I am certainly a woman.

    • radine Says:

      Whooo, Pat, you are not only all those characters, you are funny, and I admit I laughed when I read your comment. Of course, it sure made me want to read your stories…then meet you to see what part you might be playing on that particular day.

  13. Tony Burton Says:

    The kindest thing I could call this woman’s comments is “grossly mistaken.”

    You know, some people think that their OWN weaknesses are everyone’s. I suppose if a person had grown up all his or her life being colorblind, it might be difficult to understand how others can differentiate between the red light and the green light on the street corner.

    Maybe this woman simply doesn’t have the ability, the capacity, to think outside her own gender and experiences, so she thinks EVERYONE is incapacitated in that fashion. Sad, really.

  14. radine Says:

    Y’know Tony, it is sad. I hadn’t thought of it in quite that light. I wish I could ask the question I posed here initially of the couple of hundred people (most of them wanna-be published) who were in her audience. I HOPE most of them took her long talk on this with a grain of salt. If they didn’t, well that is really, really sad!

  15. Colleen Says:

    I’ve been so many other people in stories, I can’t even imagine what this writer’s comments mean. I’m a PI, and my current protagonist is a male PI, so I’m writing what I know, but I’m definitely crossing the gender line (which I’ve done in most of my books anyway).

    • radine Says:

      Since I (and most of the posters here) write adult mystery fiction, I am not hearing from children’s authors. BUT can you imagine how awful this woman (the speaker) might think writing from the POV of a bunny or pig, or spider is? And, back to the adult mystery world. What about Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, Tucker, Simon, etc. in Rita Mae Brown’s novels? Sheesh! The world this woman demands for writing would be mighty colorless in my humble opinion.

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