When my dad was in eighth grade, there was an art contest at his school. The winning picture would be displayed in the state Capitol in Atlanta. It was only 137 miles from Chester, Georgia to Atlanta, but it was a lot further than that. I don’t imagine very many of the students at Chester School had ever been to Atlanta; my father hadn’t.
Knowing what was at stake, the students worked hard to make their pictures as spectacular as possible. They drew tornados carrying people off. Car crashes. Earthquakes. Pretty dramatic stuff. My dad, on the other hand, drew something he saw every day: an old sow nursing her piglets.

My father’s picture carried the day. The sow and her pigs may not have had the panache of a hurricane scene, but what it lacked in glamor it gained, I suppose, in realism.  The picture was hung on the walls of the Georgia Capitol, and the eighth grade of Chester School piled in a bus and drove to Atlanta to see it. They rode a streetcar too–not anyplace in particular, from what I understand, but just for the sake of experiencing city life. Mr. Ivey, the local bus driver, was passed over for a driver who had more experience on paved roads. “Also, Mr. Ivey was inclined to put boys off the bus if they got to fighting,” my father said. “I think there was concern that somebody might get put off in the middle of Atlanta if Mr. Ivey drove.”

I’ve known that story all my life. I knew it long before I ever heard the advice, “Write what you know.” Every time I hear that adage, I think about the old sow hanging in the high-domed Capitol, smiling her satisfied, piggy smile.

In an essay called “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he can make live.” A tornado would seem a more lively subject than a nursing sow, but only if you can make it live.  If you’re an artist, you do well to ask yourself: what can you make live?

  • Jess
    4:40 PM, 28 March 2011

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been struggling with this sort of thing lately. One of the things I love in writing is the ability to write yourself away into a different place/situation. For a tenth-grader stuck at home but yearning for a little movement, this helps to liven things up and lighten the load. But I often get so caught up in writing myself away that suddenly I find myself in a place that is wholly unfamiliar, and I don’t know how to deal with it. It doesn’t matter how much research I do on something; if I don’t somehow insert a little piece of homeland into what I say, the writing becomes dead and useless. I have a hard time finding the balance between a place that is new and interesting and a place that I am familiar with; a place that is a setting for adventure and a place that is a setting for lessons in the simple wonders of life; a place that is beautiful and exotic and a place that is full of the comforts of home. So thanks again for the reminder and encouragement. 🙂

  • Jonathan Rogers
    4:45 PM, 28 March 2011

    Hey, Jess, a helpful idea for me is the idea of one’s “native tongue.” You may be writing about some foreign or even imaginary place, but are you writing in your native tongue? In a voice that is yours rather than somebody else’s?

  • Jess
    5:24 PM, 28 March 2011

    Here is a related question that has been burning a hole in my brain-pocket. How does one develop his/her voice? I have found my voice and can recognize it when it comes along, but I have a hard time keeping it consistently present. Is this something that comes more easily as I write more and more, or is there a trick to keeping my voice always “there”? Or am I looking at it in the wrong light? Thank you. 🙂

  • Melinda Speece
    7:33 PM, 28 March 2011

    I just finished re-reading O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. I like this from one of the essays/addresses in M&M called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction:” Anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.
    Jess, I think voice is innate (just flows out of the pen, gets better the more you write and gets better the further you get into a project) AND something you have to adjust, edit, re-write on reflection. I think reading what you’ve written aloud helps you hear if the voice (yours or a character’s) has become false, didactic, rambling, too much like the book you’ve been reading etc. Have you read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird?

    oink. oink.

  • Patrick
    8:03 PM, 28 March 2011

    Do men and women live in different countries?
    I was checking out today’s Rabbit Room post and found a man asking “What made you write about a girl?” in curiosity about Pete Peterson’s Fiddler’s Gun.

    I’ve been writing a book with a female protagonist, and it never occurred to me that might be an issue for anyone- that the how or why one might write from a gender other than their own might be bothersome to someone.

    I have some ideas for my reasoning, now that I am thinking about it, but the question seems to assume that fiction writing is just the author turning themselves into a make-believe hero and writing about it. For me, that’s not a broad enough scope. A rich compelling tale often has many characters- in some ways I am each of them, but they can’t just be slices of the author’s personality- they need and develop a life of their own as they are written and become full persons themselves. Several are inspired by other people- some I’ve only seen in public and don’t even really know- but I wonder and imagine about them, especially if I am aware of them struggling against something- there is a story there. My female character was a minor part of a fragment I wrote years ago that became something more as I began to integrate several short story ideas into one fuller story about this particular character.

    Just sharing my thoughts out-loud here, wondering IF gender might be an issue I should consider and why it might actually be an issue. I understand the assumed challenge of authentic viewpoint- but I think I’ve got that part of it- what else?

    I asked these questions over in the RR too. Is it too difficult for a male to write a female? Do men have trouble getting into the story if the protagonist is female? Am a I fool to believe I know how to write a female? Is that a foreign country male writers should avoid writing about?

  • Jess
    10:44 PM, 28 March 2011

    Patrick: First of all, I could write a whole book about this topic, although I doubt I would want to because it would require “scientific” investigations. Anyway, I’ll try to stick to what’s most relevant for me… I find it funny that this question always comes up in the “male writing/reading about a female” format–never the other way around. I have no trouble getting into and/or writing a story with a male protagonist, in fact many times it is, for me, easier than when the protagonist is female, but I have no idea if it works vice versa. I’m guessing that a guy would be able to tell me.
    If it were too difficult for any male to write about a female, there would be much less good literature in the world, The Fiddler’s Gun included. But then if a male thought it too difficult for himself, maybe it would be. We all have our different abilities, after all.
    If you are a fool to think you can write about a girl, then you’re not the only fool in the world. If that is comforting at all. 😉 But, from my experience, guys don’t do such a bad job writing about us girls. Perhaps the struggles that girls face are much the same as what guys face (I wouldn’t know). Or perhaps we are better at seeing each others’ troubles than we realize (and also better at seeing each others’ than our own).
    Another thing. For me, writing in a different gender is easier. Too often, my own struggles are over my head and I can’t even remotely understand them, much less write about them. So I start to write about a boy who seems to have nothing in common with me. And then, magically, the struggles that I couldn’t have named if I had tried to write about them directly show up in realistic and understandable ways in my little boy. A hint of advice: if you are writing about a girl, don’t try hard to “be” the girl. Don’t try to understand what makes a girl a girl and how her struggles are different from boys’. Trying always wrecks it. Just write, and somehow the character will become real, beautiful, and understandable to you and to readers.
    I have to stop. I’m making myself feel very silly by offering advice and opinions to my elders. *blush*

  • Patrick
    3:43 AM, 29 March 2011

    Thank you, Jess. Your feedback is always appreciated. I agree with the advice and opinions you’ve offered, and when it comes to writing fiction I doubt I’m any more experienced than you are. Perhaps you should write the book on this subject. What would be the scientific experiment? Maybe I could help with the science part of it? 😉
    I tend to more easily identify with female protagonists- which seems like a confirmation of your hypothesis, except I’ve always had the impression that I was abnormal in that way, so my opinion should probably not be generalized to the male population. Any other opinions out there willing to contribute to this experiment? Next?

  • EmmaJ
    4:35 AM, 29 March 2011

    Patrick,I just scribbled down a few of my thoughts on that matter over on that RR thread, but one more has just occurred to me. Or rather, not a new thought as much as a picture/metaphor to go with the thoughts I already had.

    Are you familiar with Amy Walker of viral video fame? ( As I myself am fascinated by analyzing dialect differences, I watched a few of her tutorials on how to pick up and reproduce speech patters other than one’s own. She made an important point that I think applies well to this matter: one key element in making your mimicry of a certain dialect believable is that there’s more to it than just getting the pronunciation of the vowels and consonants correct. Without applying the corresponding differences in vocabulary, attitude, etc., it comes off as disingenuous.

    In a similar way, you could create a character who has some surface elements right, but strikes some discordant tone. I think a man can certainly be successful at creating a female character who is true to life (and, of course, vice versa for female authors). I think the key thing might be gaining an understanding of the underlying concerns that motivate a woman, and thus how men and women often perceive things in distinctly different ways. A female character might do a lot of “manly” things and still be true to life (as in the case of Finn Button) if her concerns and motivations are consistent with the kinds of concerns and motivations that the average woman finds in her heart. I love a good Jane Austen as much as the next girl, but I would venture to say that many of the male heroes of romantic stories written by women don’t necessarily act like men, but more like women would like men to be. Ah, but do I really want Mr. Darcy to act in any other way? I rather think not – apox upon veracity and realism. Ha ha.

    That’s what I think right now, anyway. Maybe I’ll think something different tomorrow 🙂

  • Jonathan Rogers
    11:25 AM, 29 March 2011

    Thanks for the link, Amy. My boys have been wanting to take accent classes, and they are going to love those. I was exceedingly impressed with Amy Walker’s accents…but then she got to one that I actually knew by heart, and I realized that she was really good at doing the TV/movie version of accents from around the world. Her Charleston accent was dead-on for a movie Charlestonian, but in my four years in South Carolina, I didn’t run into anybody who talks like that. I don’t quite know what I want to say about it yet, but I’m going to ponder this in my heart.
    I’m loving this discussion of voice and writing men and women. I hope you’ll carry on, but I may not be able to contribute much today. I’m covered up…

  • sally apokedak
    2:02 PM, 29 March 2011

    I love the lesson in the picture of the pigs. This is what Gilbert Blythe had to get across to Anne, too. Write about Prince Edward Island and the people you know and give up Percival and Penelope (or whoever it was Anne was writing about).
    Love that link to the Any Walker videos, too. One thing about TV accents. The kids and I went to see an animated movie years ago that was about robots. The starring robot was given a voice by the kid who played Anakin Skywalker, I thought. The kids told me I was wrong. They couldn’t remember who did the voice, but they were sure it wasn’t Hayden Christensen. I insisted it was him. It sounded just like him. We looked it up later and found that it was Ewan McGregor. And that made sense. He’d been copying Hayden’s accent, which was a little unfortunate because Hayden has such a distinct voice and accent.

    The ones I think are really funny are the Japanese Godzilla films that have been dubbed into English and you have these actors with their lips moving out of sync with the words you hear, which come across as Japanese men speaking with a John Wayne accent. Hysterical.

  • Jess
    3:12 PM, 29 March 2011

    Patrick: I am skeptical of your proposal not only because you admitted (when I asked you about Biology) that you did not do so well with science in school, but also because it sounds to me like you want a percentage of the profits. 😉 I always shy away from writing non-fiction, though. It’s another of those voice issues. It is ten times harder to write non-fiction (non-fiction as in research-based facts and theories as opposed to a true-to-life narrative) in your own voice than it is to write fiction (or a narrative/memoir) in your own voice. It doesn’t help that the school system suppresses the use of individual voice when writing research papers, persuasive essays, and really most of what they requrie us to write.Melinda: thanks for the advice. I haven’t read Bird by Bird yet but I’m planning to (I was waiting for my sis to finish it). 🙂
    Anybody: Do you think that writing about a character with a different gender than your own does/should/should not affect your voice? If I am writing about a boy, will/should my voice be different than when I am writing about a girl?

  • Jess
    3:14 PM, 29 March 2011

    *require. Not “requrie”. 😉

  • Jess
    3:17 PM, 29 March 2011

    Also, if I am writing fiction in a first-person point of view, should my voice be the main character’s voice and not my own? Should a reader be able to tell that two books, both written in first-person but about different characters, are written by the same person?

  • Estelwen
    3:28 PM, 29 March 2011

    As to the boys writng girls and vice versa, I have noticed that books written by girls about girls tend to strike closer to home. Now I’m generalizing and there are exceptions to this, but girls tend to capture better the insecurities and whims of us girls better than most men do. Saying that I can’t write girls at all, they either end up as useless, flirt girls, or they end up tomboys and sometimes you wonder if they even are girls. It’s kinda ridiculous considering I am a girl I should be able to write a girl, but I can’t.
    Jess, when you said that you would start writng and suddenly find your characters are living your problems and helping you solve them, I was really surprised I thought I was the only one who did that. I’ve worked through so many things through my characters. Often I have a conversation between two characters about what is bothering me. It’s my way of having a conversation with myself without being accused of being insane. 🙂

  • Dryad
    7:41 PM, 29 March 2011

    I am a girl, and I find it very difficult to write in the male perspective. I can, for the most part, predict what a fellow will do in a given situation; wirting male characters is not an issue. However, when it comes to getting inside someone else’s brain, I understand women’s motivations and logical foibles more readily, having lived through them myself.I may recognize that some men feel the need to attempt bike jumps that land them in a wall, but I will never understand why. On the other hand, when a woman cooks a three-course meal and then cries because her husband comes home late, I understand the entire dynamic there.

  • Dryad
    7:42 PM, 29 March 2011

    And I just noticed, estel-wen–Hope maiden? Clever.

  • Jess
    7:55 PM, 29 March 2011

    So it seems that it all depends on the writer. Some are happier sticking with their own gender and some find it easier doing the opposite. Dryad, I’m afraid that I might be an oddball when it comes to this sort of thing, but I can understand the need to do things like bike jumps much more than I can understand the need to cry over a cold meal. And I’m not even a tomboy. 😉 Like I said, it is becoming clear that generalization is impossible and it really depends on the individual. Hurray! With this evidence we can dispute the “women are from venus, men are from mars” thing. 😉

  • Patrick
    1:26 AM, 30 March 2011

    We are all from other planets. Stereotypical Earthlings are a myth. Write your characters however you want- they will ring true to one of us aliens regardless of their identified gender. LOL

  • Jess
    3:12 PM, 30 March 2011

    Well said, Patrick, well said. 😉

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