Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Don’t write what you know: the power of indifference

with 6 comments

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.

—T.S. Eliot (not Emily Dickinson)

One of the toughest things for any writer to learn is that what you find personally fascinating may not be of equal interest to your readers. It’s so hard a lesson, in fact, that many writers never figure it out. This is the real reason why most political or religious fiction tends to be pretty bad: it isn’t because the ideas are wrong, necessarily, but because the writer’s faith in his own message leaves him incapable of making the tough decisions that fiction requires. And this applies to personal experience as much as to political conviction. Many of us start writing to express ourselves and the things we care about, but we’re just too close to the events of our own lives, and the subjects we find important, to see them with the proper objectivity. David Mamet, in On Directing Film, is harsh but fair:

A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.

This advice is so unlike what we’re often taught as writers that it’s worth emphasizing how strange it is. From our formative years onward, we’re told to write what we know, and implicitly encouraged to tackle subjects that we find personally meaningful. A writer who advances straight from creative writing courses to the standard MFA program and teaching career may never think of fiction in any other way. Yet I strongly believe that the best writing is achieved through a stance of objectivity, and even detachment or indifference, toward the underlying subject. It’s only from such a position that you can make the hard choices to cut a scene, to revise a plot point into a drastically different form, or even to abandon a project entirely.

In short, you’re often the last person capable of judging whether your work is of interest or not, unless you’ve consciously chosen a subject about which you can afford to be objective. A few examples from my own work might be relevant here. My first novel, The Icon Thief, has an important subplot revolving around the Rosicrucians, an alleged secret society founded in Germany in the years following the Reformation. I chose to write about them partially because, in spite of the recent surge in conspiracy fiction, there hasn’t been a major Rosicrucian novel in decades. And soon after I began researching, I realized why: the Rosicrucians aren’t especially interesting. But it was my original indifference toward the subject that allowed me to survey the available sources, pick out the best parts, and come up with a story that is—hopefully—engaging to an outside reader.

And whenever I’ve tried to write about a subject that was actually meaningful to me, the results haven’t been very good. Over the past three years, I’ve submitted six stories to Analog, and they’ve bought five. The five successful ones were written rather coldly, almost from scratch, with an eye toward finding an interesting subject and turning it into a salable story, while the sixth was inspired by a topic that I find personally fascinating—the concept of deep time, as symbolized by Yucca Mountain and the Clock of the Long Now. Not coincidentally, it failed to sell at Analog, or anywhere else, and an anthology in which it was supposed to appear unexpectedly fell through. And while I can blame a number of other factors, I suspect that by starting with a subject I wanted to talk about, and some ideas I wanted to share, I wasn’t able to shape the narrative with the ruthlessness required to tell an interesting story.

So does this mean that a writer needs to work without passion? Not at all—except that the passion should be focused on the act of writing itself, and not the underlying subject. There’s plenty of room for irrational enthusiasm in a writer’s life, which isn’t a career that a truly rational person would ever attempt, but that exuberance needs to be set aside once the time comes to consider the work in progress. It’s a difficult balancing act, but a crucial one, and the easiest way to achieve it is to seek out subjects for their storytelling potential, not their inherent interest or importance. And the biggest surprise? Over the course of writing a story, you’ll grow to love these subjects, too, and they’ll ultimately become part of your life after all—but at the end, not the beginning.

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2011 at 10:42 am

6 Responses

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  1. Good advice, and definitely something interesting to keep in mind. I’ll try to do this as I work on my own writing.

    Ariel Price

    October 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

  2. Thanks—glad you liked it!

    nevalalee

    October 6, 2011 at 11:13 am

  3. One of my favorite parts of writing a novel is the research process. I love learning about something new and that passion for learning seems to translate to my writing. It gives the story a little spark that hopefully will appeal to readers. :-)

    C.B. Wentworth

    October 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  4. @C.B.: Agreed. That’s why I wanted to be a writer in the first place!

    nevalalee

    October 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm

  5. This is shocking, but really useful advice. Your blog is honestly my favorite on here. :)

    Tatiana

    October 8, 2011 at 2:51 am

  6. I aim to please—and sometimes shock. :) Thanks so much!

    nevalalee

    October 8, 2011 at 8:22 am


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