Monday, November 14, 2011

What Are We Qualified to Write?

Most of the time, when I write, it begins with a character. A whisper leads me forward. I sit and listen to the story.

For my current novel, however, it all began with a place. I knew not a soul when I started. And, slowly (very slowly) people filled the space. Every one of them, when they came, when they walked the grey sidewalks and tread across the grass, surprised me.

To be honest with you, they marched in with histories that frightened me. Mostly because they were so far from what I knew. And for a while, I danced around many of their issues because I did not know how to deal with them. I had convinced myself that I was not qualified to tell their stories. That no amount of research could lead to an authentic telling.

What stilled me, what gave me pause, was this idea that I could not write what I did not know. That, as soon as a situation that I did not understand crept into the story, (and there were many) I was immediately held responsible for portraying it as accurately as possible. And how could I do that if I hadn't lived it?

There is no way we can know everything as writers. But I do feel there is an idea, when someone takes on contemporary fiction, that the writer must be qualified to write what he or she writes. I see it in examples of successful query letters, in interviews with published authors. A story about drug abuse is immediately followed with, 'I spent two years working at a rehabilitation center.' Even something as simple as a story that takes place in Louisiana is quickly qualified with 'I grew up in Baton Rouge.'

As if to say: I know all about this. Trust me.

When I look at my novel (still in revisions, still in the state of being nothing and everything all at once) I can't think of anything that qualifies me to write it except that I'm human. I'm compassionate. I tell the truth as I see it. But if I really stepped back, I could not find any qualifier like the examples I noted above. My main character is in a terrible situation that many young people experience but I have only been able to imagine. I do believe, however, that her hopes and fears are my own. That, I know. Deeply.

I always, always, think writers should write the story they want. Not the story they know. In my mind, those hopes and fears connect a reader to a character, and not the issues or situations the character is dealing with. But there is a part of me that wonders, do I know this? Can I ever really? And how does it affect the story when I don't?

What do you think of all this knowing and not knowing? What makes us qualified to tell a story?


  1. Our humanity qualifies us to tell a story. I also think that people can have the exact same experience (like death or divorce) and have VERY different reactions to it. The nice thing about that is there in no right or wrong way to react to a problem. Anything can be true and authentic. Great post!

  2. I like how you describe exploring the characters in your story. The do sometimes seem to pop up out of the blue...but that's half the fun:)

  3. Yay for writing what you don't know!

  4. If we only wrote what we know, we'd have no sic-fi, fantasy, etc. This is what makes a great writer-writing the world and story you can only imagine.

  5. Excellent, provocative post. I agree re writing the story you want. As for what qualifies us, I think that's a tough one to answer. Of course, if we had to know everything, then women authors would only be able to write female characters, and men would only write males. And my God, if everyone who wrote horror were writing from experience, there would zombies all over the place!!! Imagination is a good thing.

  6. We find our way toward knowing, you first among many.

  7. Oh, I love this. "I'm human. I'm compassionate." ---YES! That is an excellent qualification.

  8. I think it all depends on how well we know our characters.

    If we know what THEY'LL do in any given situation, we're qualified to write the story.

    Unless you're daring to do the obvious and writing a story in a place or time you know NOTHING about.
    But it's never anything a bit of research can't fix...

  9. Vision and empathy are my big qualifiers, along with experience and imagination. Those all open the doors to the characters and the story.

  10. so interesting.

    i don't know how author's do it, really. seem to know so much about a character they've made up. as i reader, i forget they aren't necessarily experts in the field they are writing about.

  11. What qualifies you IMO is your passion for the story and your characters in particular. I love this blog post.