Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Insecure Writers: Writing the Unknown

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

Before I get started, I just wanted to say that I'll be doing my first-ever guest post this week, on Friday. So, stop by on Friday for the link and info!

First I just have to say, thank goodness for Shell Flower. I logged on today to write my blog post, and would have totally missed the fact that it was IWSG day if I hadn't seen her post, first. So, thank you, Shell, for dragging my brain out of Ancient Tibet, and into March 2014!

For any newcomers (and hello and welcome to my neurotic ramblings), my current WIP is a journey through Ancient Greece, Tibet, South America, India, London, and Australia. Which means I need to heavily research all of these places (yes, I am insane. As I said, welcome to my neurotic ramblings.)

So, I've had my nose buried in Tibet all week. I'm reading a book called, appropriately enough, Tibet: Its History, Religion, and People, by Thubten Jigme Norbu, a Tibetan monk who also happens to be the older brother of the current Dalai Lama. It's a lovely, if rather dry, read, full of actually useful information (something new for me) about the daily life and religion and outlook of normal Tibetans - not just kings and gurus, but peasants and nomads, too - and I'm very grateful to my local librarian for pulling it off of the shelf and pressing it into my desperate little hands.

It's also a lot. I mean, it's a lot to take in. I'm attempting to understand the world view of a character that's vastly different from my own, and whose culture I am mostly ignorant of - and let me tell you, Tibetan culture, history, and religion are not simple. The country is thousands of years old, with a complex animist religion at the time my character was living (500-600 CE); I've never met a single Tibetan person or been to Tibet; and unlike Ancient Greece, whose culture and mythology form the foundation for much of our own, Ancient Tibet is something I've only barely touched on in my life's learnings so far.

Now, I would never say that writers should only write about their own culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Because really, if I did that, I'd be writing novels full of me, talking to me, interacting with more me. How BORING (not to mention alarmingly self-involved.) I think it's important to go outside of what is familiar; to reach into the unknown, and hope to bring back something to share; something that illuminates, even in the smallest way, what it means to be human. To find not only what makes us different, but also what unites us.

I do believe that. But I'm also nervous. What if I really mess this up? What if I offend an entire nation, for God's sake?

This insecurity, I know, is understandable, but I have to find a way past it. Because right now, it's stifling. Part of what I'm trying to do is find my characters and plot through this research, and the fear is totally stopping me. I have no ideas. I am blank, blank, blank. Every time I try to come up with an idea, my brain starts going, oh my god no I can't make the character a jerk because then people will think I'm RACIST, and all creativity comes to a screeching halt.

So that's my insecurity for the month (year; decade; all known time; whatever.) Next week, I hope I can report back on my plot progress... but at this rate, I may just end up sharing some interesting facts on Tibet. Le sigh

44 comments:

  1. I admire you for taking this on, it's definitely a challenge! I had enough trouble writing about Alaska when I've never been there, I can't imagine trying to capture the ancient world. But I know you will do great with it! I've thought your story has sounded awesome ever since I first read about it.

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    1. Thanks so much, Julie!! I would have just as much trouble with Alaska, too :)

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  2. I understand that insecurity. My main fear was offending my family. Most are conservative Christians and I kept wondering if they'd look down on me because I have different gods and deities in my story.

    And the: Every time I try to come up with an idea, my brain starts going, oh my god no I can't make the character a jerk because then people will think I'm RACIST...

    I struggle with that too. I just remind myself that they are characters, and, just like people, there are heroes and villains in every culture. Best I can do is offset the character with someone with a similar background, but a totally different personality.

    Best of luck with your creativity!

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    1. Thanks, Loni. It's really good to hear that others struggle with this too - one of the great parts of the IWSG. Best of luck to you, too! And I hope your family is supportive!

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  3. I understand your worry. I had the same thing when writing about Native Americans in my HR. I have no problem portraying historical characters as the people they were, not behaving as we would in our politically correct society, but I want to present the Indians in the story fairly and not be cliche. I did a lot of reading and hoped I got it right. Time and reviews will tell...

    It sounds like you're doing enough research that, combined with your sensitivity to the issue--you won't have any problems. I say toss the crippling insecurities and write it, then see what your CPs say. Let your creativity run free until then.

    IWSG #268 (until Alex culls the list again or I goof and get myself deleted. :P)

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    1. Ugh, yes, I so hear you. I hope you're right, that awareness plus sensitivity plus research will add up to a fair portrayal. Thanks so much for the support!

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  4. I think you're going to do a fantastic job. You are doing your research, keeping your ducks in a row and are aware. I'd say you're ahead of the game. Best of luck!!

    Elsie
    AJ's wHooligan in the A-Z Challenge
    co-host IWSG

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    1. Thank you - and thanks for hosting this month!

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  5. I worry about it, too. I had an editor at Random House ask me how I research my 1960s British spy stuff, and I was like . . . "I go to London a lot . . ." Seriously. I don't know how I do it. I write until I realize there's something I don't know and need to know, and then I go find out. And I'm probably doing a terrible job of it, but . . . There's only so much I can do!

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    1. LOL. I wish I could say I go to Tibet a lot. But yes, we do the best we can - and hope it's enough!

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  6. You always make me smile when you share your concerns even though they're very legitimate. I admit to knowing virtually nothing about Tibet but will they be reading your book? I guess you have to worry about that though because the world is a pretty small place.

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    1. I'm glad - humor helps me, so I hope it helps other people, too! I guess it would be wonderful if someone Tibetan read my book... but maybe not so likely. Good point :)

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  7. Sounds like you are doing enough research to cover. Besides, how many people from ancient Tibet will be reading your book?

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  8. I totally understand. I've been hip-deep in time-period research for YEARS, and I still worry. The writing friends I've known who conquered foreign cultures all found consultants who'd grown up in the cultures to advise and beta read for them. If I were going to write about a completely different culture, I think that's what I'd do as well.

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    1. Hmm, that's a good idea. Thanks, Crystal!

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  9. I know what you mean. I have a trunked novel with a protagonist from another culture. Even though it's a culture I know a lot about--I lived there--I still feel insecure that I might portray it wrong.
    But it sounds like you're doing everything right, going into all that research. Like Crystal, I'd probably look for a beta familiar with that culture.
    Good luck--it sounds like a fascinating story!

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    1. Wow, if you lived there, I bet you did it justice, no doubt. But I still do understand the fear :) Thank you!

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  10. Liz, your worry is understandable, but I think it's exaggerated. Remember, you're writing about ancient Tibet. Nobody knows what it was, except from the books - the same books you're reading. Well, maybe 3.5 historians do, but don't fret about their reaction. I'm sure the rest of the readers would be fascinated by your story, especially because it's happening in such exotic locations.
    I've chosen to cheat though - I write fantasy, set in an imaginary world. Nobody can tell me I'm wrong - it's my world after all. :))

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    1. You're right - except that from the reading I'm doing, it seems like many modern Tibetans are connected to their ancient culture in a way that many other cultures are not. But, I'll take any reason to not worry! Thanks for coming by :)

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  11. That's a huge challenge on so many levels. I despise research so I admire you for taking all that on. And you know what? Your book will be so much better for it because you're putting in this research time.

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  12. This reminds me of some of our e-mail conversations. ^_^ But you're right. As writers, we have to step out of ourselves, we have to live those other lives, we can't just write what we know despite so many people saying that's some kind of golden rule.

    As for worrying about offending people, I think it's worth trying not to, especially when dealing with cultural issues. I also think you're going to offend someone no matter what; sadly, too many people out there are just looking for reasons to be offended. So just do what's right for the book and hope for the best. ^_^

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    1. Haha, yes, I realize I may have imparted some similar advice recently... It's hard to listen to it until it comes from someone else :) Thanks for reminding me!!

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  13. If it helps at all, just remember that no matter someone's culture or background, we're all _human_. We all know what it is to feel joy, fear, anger, etc. I have no doubt you'll do these characters, and their cultures, justice! :)

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  14. Thanks for the shout out. LOL. I guess it's a good thing I hit publish before I set my date and time, because I meant to post Weds. and posted Tues. night. As for your predicament, I've seen a lot of people worry about coming off as racist, but just your willingness to write another culture is a good sign you are not. Also, look at Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. She faced major rejection, but ended up totally succeeding and she's a white girl that wrote from a black POV, so there you go.

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    1. Haha, I'm glad you published it early!! Thank you - and thank you for the good reminders :)

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  15. This is such an ambitious project! I think you should totally give yourself a break here and allow yourself to not know what you're doing for a while. Researching isn't easy so kudos to you for even taking this on. I'm sure it'll all work out in the end.

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    1. Thanks, Quanie! That's good advice :)

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  16. Stop it, stop it, stop it! Take that fear and crumple it up and throw it in the corner (to be unfolded later---during edits). You can and WILL revise whatever you write at this stage, so let the inspiration in and run with it. I'm pretty sure there were and are a lot of jerks in Tibet---in any culture---so if jerk is what speaks to you, go with it.

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    1. LOL. I appreciate the online head-slap - I totally needed it!!! You're so right.

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  17. I think it's great to explore other cultures and lifestyles. It helps you grow as a person.

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  18. Insecurities can be a major issue with writing. I think the best way to do it, is to just jump int and publish you work.

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    1. Well, that's definitely the goal!! :)

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  19. I think just the fact that you care means you're likely to do a pretty darn good job after all is said and done.

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  20. I've stretched myself with some manuscripts, but one day I'd like to really go out there and write something completely unfamiliar to me.

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  21. I've heard over and over write what you know, I don't believe that. If writer's only wrote hard fact stories, how'd we get CassaStorm, Star Wars, Star Trek, Ender's Game...etc. You're writing Fiction, it needs a base of truth, but...it's okay to stretch the lines and the brain into something unique and new.

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  22. I feel your pain! I love historical novels. Love them! So, I decided to write one. I have read books, journals of the time (to try to get "the voice" right), stalked museums, and web sites. And I just KNOW when the book is released, someone will take issue with something in the book. It really is scary. I'd offer a solution..but I fear it myself and h

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    1. have none. (Fighting the laptop today, argh!)

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