A busy week; much real life stuff going on, little time for blogging. AONO continues to roll along, and the latest stretch of work brought to mind that old discussion I keep coming back to about how tough it is to be original. This time, a different angle, the one about "write what you know".
You know this dictum: write what you know, because otherwise you're out of your experiential league. Such is the conventional wisdom, anyway, but I always had trouble squaring that up against the way SF and fantasy authors (the best ones, anyway) could project themselves into experiences that nobody had ever experienced at any point before. That contrasted with those who wrote "conventional" fiction, which had at least some connection to things people had done. We have some idea, as a civilization, what it's like to rob a bank, fight a war, or conduct a divorce, and so we have this whole pool of collective knowledge about how those things tend to work and what to expect from them. If I've never done any of those things, I have no end of sources, primary and secondary, I can turn to for the straight dope.
But nobody anywhere, at least not anybody reputable, knows what it's like to establish contact with an alien species. Stray into that territory and you're entirely on your own.
Well, maybe not entirely. We may not know what alien contact is like, but we have a whole plethora of related experiences to draw on that can inform the important aspects of such an activity. We know what it's like for those who have no easy way of communicating to establish tentative contact. We know what it's like to tackle what appear to be intractably difficult problems. The list goes on.
When I was in my early twenties, I knew I wanted to write exciting, wide-ranging stories, but felt hidebound by being someone who lived a boring middle-class life in a suburb somewhere. It didn't seem appropriate, for lack of a better word, to write about anything that wasn't entirely mine. What right did I have?
Well, I had to answer myself, the same right as anyone else who has ever put a pen to paper. At some point anyone who has ever written anything that could classify as a work of imagination had to choke down their anxieties in this regard and sally forth. Assuming they had any such doubts to begin with, that is.
The more I held these doubts of mine up to the light, the more I saw they weren't about me at all. They were implicit criticisms of how other people worked. Clearly, if they hadn't lived the lives they were writing about, what were they doing pulling things out of their, um, hats? And if I could avoid making that mistake by thinking rwally, really hard about it, wouldn't that make me better than them by default? (And all without even having had to produce anything, to boot!)
Stuff like this never sounds as juvenile and sullen from the inside as it does from the outside. But what's worst about such thinking is its insidiousness. You never notice how badly it's poisoned your ability to think about your own work until you realize you're spending a disproportionate amount of time thinking about how inherently superior your approach is going to be, as soon as you can be bothered to do it.
Now to talk about the other, more political half of this issue.
Lionel Shriver recently made news with a speech she gave in which she defended cultural appropriation — in essence, defending the idea that an artist should look to other cultures, other lives, and not feel obliged to be only themselves. But as Francine Prose pointed out, if you're going to go to other cultures and other lives, you have to do responsibly and intelligently. You have to write about those things with the voice and the eye of an insider, not an outsider. You have to be an apprentice to those things and not a tourist of them.
This is difficult stuff, and I don't expect everyone to get it right. I wasn't sure I could write something like Summerworld or Tokyo Inferno despite having spent a dozen-plus years studying Japan from as many angles as I could find. I'd tried to educate myself about life in modern Japan in the way that it's not reflected in popular culture, and allow some of those insights to be reflected in the final product.
I still don't think I got it all right, but I hope I got enough of it right to make it work. Osamu Tezuka clearly didn't know anything about Judaism when he wrote Message to Adolf, but there I forgave him his lapses of research because of the sheer degree of empathy he showed for his subjects. On the other hand, Shusaku Endo wasn't himself Portuguese, but he was Christian, and that gave him a massive leg up in terms of empathy when he wrote Silence.
Side note: I sometimes think people pick a particular story to tell not because they want to live in that story for a little bit and come back from it with treasures to share, but because they want people to pat them on the head for having the audacity go there in the first place. If your real motive for doing anything creative is to have people pat you on the head for it, either find a better motive or a better hobby.
Anyway, my final note is this. Yes, you have to reach out past yourself. No, you are not inherently criminal for doing so. But you have to own, and own up to, what you're doing.