Category Archives: 20th Century

Writing Advice, That Which I Rarely Give

Lucy's Writing Advice
Two Cents For Five

I rarely give writing advice. I rarely give any kind of advice and never if not asked. My aversion to advice-giving stems from certain experiences in my youth with which I will not bore you here. Suffice it to say that, when not giving advice in my professional capacity as an attorney, I try to keep my mouth shut.

But I was on Twitter not so long ago and came across a tweet from a young writer who wondered if an author should write about characters whose background he did not share. More generally, he wondered if an author should write about things of which he had little or no experience.

His immediate concern was how he could add “diversity” to his scenarios if he could not write about characters with ethnic and racial backgrounds different from his own. His tweet set me to thinking and I sent him a reply. But his concerns require a more elaborate response than fits in a tweet. Here it is.

First, let me say that “diversity” and I are not friends. I regard it as one of those notions that have become so ubiquitous and elastic as to lack any meaning whatsoever. It is not so much a word encapsulating a thought as it is a club with which to beat people who have the temerity to disagree with you.

Second, I am a great believer in writing about people, places and things you know. Depth of knowledge and an intimate understanding of subject matter are, to my mind, of much greater advantage to a story-teller than striving after any superficial “diversity.” The real diversity isn’t in people’s skin color or culture or even in their experiences. The real diversity is in the choices they make in the face of their circumstances. You can find tremendous diversity in the most homogeneous groups if you are willing to plumb the depths of the human soul.

Having made the case for writing about what you know, let me turn around and argue against it.

Snoopy Types While Woodstock Watches
The Novelist

The real skill of the novelist is in getting into people’s heads. Paradoxically, when you succeed in getting into other people’s heads, you end up revealing more about what’s in your own head than you would have thought possible or palatable, but that’s another story. The story here is that, if a novelist can’t explore what other people are thinking and feeling and deciding, then there is nothing for him to do. He may as well give up.

The greater the difference between character and novelist, the more the novelist will need to stretch himself to understand the character. But it’s always worth the effort, even if it’s not done well. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “[a]nything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Only by exertion and risking failure can you hope to understand other people.

Those who worry about “cultural appropriation” or who believe that you can’t comprehend another human’s response to circumstances you have not directly experienced don’t realize the implications of their attitudes. Ultimately, every human being is unique. If we can’t understand those different from us, we can’t understand anybody and communication is impossible. That’s about as absurd as things can get.

It’s an absurdity that denies human nature, by which I mean it denies the notion that, beneath all the differences, some shallow and some deep, there is at root some things all humans share, something you are simply because you are human. It is the greatest triumph of the novelist, of any author, to reveal these deep unities of the human spirit.

I was once sitting in a huge conference room in a huge investment bank in New York City. I was taking part in a meeting about a corporation’s initial public offering of stock. Dozens of people were attending the meeting and my participation was only intermittently required. At one point, I found myself sitting at a distance from the action next to a young Chinese woman who was an intern with the investment bank.

We chatted during our common downtime. She told me of a conversation she’d had with her grandparents before she left China. They were farmers in their small village. They were afraid of the gulf opening up between them and their grand-daughter, afraid that, coming to America, she would lose her “Chinese-ness.”

I answered that I had, many years before, had a similar conversation with my Italian grand-father. I remarked that, since then, I had met many Americans with Italian names who had little else connecting them to their Italian heritage. She remarked that, in China, they had a phrase to describe their analogous phenomenon: they called such people, “hollow bamboo,” Chinese on the outside, nothing on the inside.

In that moment, transcending our differences of age, sex, culture, civilization, religion, we found common human ground. Unearthing and illuminating this common ground is the calling of the novelist.

 

 

Mr. Lake Is Live And Other News

 

Mr. Lake
Mr. Lake – An Arthurian Fantasy?

Mr. Lake, my latest novel, is now live on Amazon.  As of this writing, it’s only available as a Kindle eBook, but the paperback should be available within the week, so check back soon.

What’s Mr. Lake about? It’s an Arthurian fantasy (that is, “Arthurian” in the sense of Knights of the Round Table), set in the imagination of a grade school boy living in the 1960s. He bears something of a resemblance to myself, but that could be only in my imagination. There’s a sword, some sorcery, a witch, a wannabe motorcycle gang, a brick, a buttinski school principal, voodoo, a modicum of violence, a boy and his dog, a best friend, and a special guest appearance by a vintage Volkswagen, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that King Arthur himself does not appear.

Writing Mr. Lake made me come to grips with a few things, including mortality and change. Listen to me talk about them here.

I’ve got to get back to writing. I’ve got a couple of new stories I want to work on, one of which I’ll post here within a day or two. Also, I’ll be heading into a deep edit of the completed first draft of my latest Snarkey & Putts paranormal lawyers adventure, The Case of the Unchained Immigrant, but more on that later.

Ra And All That

Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl, courtesy of Wikipedia

Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), Norwegian adventurer and ethnologist, became famous in 1947 when he and an international crew sailed from Peru across the Pacific to French Polynesia in a home-built raft called the Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl’s aim was to demonstrate that, since he was able to do it, ancient Peruvians could have done it, too. Thus, they did, he claimed, and Polynesia was settled from east to west from South America and not west to east from Asia as standard anthropology had it.

Archaeology, linguistics and the new science of DNA research have subsequently failed to support Heyerdahl’s claims. Conventional scholarship has weathered his assault. But he told a damn good story and helped create the field of experimental archaeology, in which people learn about the past by getting out there and doing it. His theories may have leaned toward the preposterous, but he sold a lot of books and riled up a lot of people.

The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl
The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl

One of those people was me. I remember quite vividly reading his The Ra Expeditions, recounting his 1970 voyage in a papyrus boat from Morocco across the Atlantic. This time, Heyerdahl and another hand-picked, international crew wanted to prove that the ancient Egyptians could have crossed the Atlantic in papyrus reed ships and made contact with pre-Mayan MesoAmerica, inspiring the natives to build their own pyramids, as those that now dot the jungles of Yucatan and Guatemala. I came across the book when I was a junior or senior in high school and devoured it. It made an impression on me which persists to this day.

No, I didn’t run out and build balsa wood boats and sail across Buzzards’ Bay. Here’s what sticks with me from Thor Heyerdahl.

Painting of Egyptian Papyrus Boat
Painting of Egyptian Papyrus Boat, courtesy of ducksters.com

As The Ra Expeditions recounts, Heyerdahl modeled his papyrus ship on paintings of such craft he and others found in Egyptian tombs. Some of these paintings showed the vessel’s rigging and construction in great detail. Heyerdahl saw to it that the craftsmen he employed for the ship’s construction followed these drawings faithfully. He constantly inspected their work to ensure their reproduction was accurate. It was.

Despite all the care that went into building the ship, at the last moment Heyerdahl had to make some considerable changes. Before they would allow the ship to sail, the local port authorities demanded that Heyerdahl equip it with a shortwave radio. Heyerdahl had followed strict weight limitations in the ship’s construction to guarantee the papyrus’ buoyancy would be sufficient to carry the crew. The authorities’ last-minute demand threw his calculations into the waste basket.

So Heyerdahl went back to the drawing board. He scoured the Ra for every possible piece of excess baggage he could jettison. But, even when he had stripped Ra down to her bare essentials, she was still overweight. He had to find something else to get rid of.

His eye fixed on a hawser, a thick rope, that extended from a fixed point  on the rear deck up to the curled-over tip of the Ra’s scorpion-tail stern. Here was a feature that was on all the drawings. But when Heyerdahl tested the hawser, he found that the tip of the scorpion’s tail stayed put without it. They did not need the hawser to keep the tail down. In this detail, at least, the ancient Egyptians hadn’t known what they were doing. A few quick chops with a handy ax and the hawser flew overboard. Ra lost a quick 50 pounds and looked as ship-shape as Marie on Nutri-System.(c)

She sailed.

About two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic, Heyerdahl noted that the ship seemed to be foundering. Close inspection revealed that the rear deck was depressed directly beneath the tip of the stern’s tail, at the exact point where the hawser had been fixed. Ra’s structural integrity had been compromised and she began to take on water. Heyerdahl realized to his shock that the hawser he had assumed had been there to keep the tail down had actually been there to keep the deck up.

The ancient Egyptians had known what they were doing after all.

Despite the crew’s herculean efforts, the Ra foundered east of Barbados. Ironically, the radio enabled them to call for help. Water over the gunnels, they were rescued by a private yacht.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this parable: government intervention made the crew less safe than it otherwise would have been; the radio was simultaneously the cause of Ra’s demise and the instrument of her crew’s rescue; and it was private action that saved them in the end.

But most salient, I think, is this: some things can work so well over such a long period of time, that succeeding generations can forget why their ancestors put them there in the first place. They can look like they are there to keep something, or someone, down. But in reality they are in place to support a structure that sustains us all, a function they perform so well that we can no longer imagine the structure capable of foundering.

But it can.