Friday, July 18, 2008

My Reply to Jen's Reply to Amanda's Comment . . .

Wow, my humble little blog hasn't been this intriguing for a while! Feels good!

In replying to Amanda's question, Jen said:

What an interesting topic for a book, given your current personal relationship with the church being that you don't believe in it. How do your personal beliefs affect your ability to write a book about someone who feels drawn to return to the church? In other words, is it a return to the church out of testimony, or a return out of need for community & support while grieving an approaching loss? Or something else entirely? If its more the community angle, why a return to LDS vs filling those community needs elsewhere?

Most, if not all, LDS fiction books I have read carry at least an underlying testimony, whether specifically stated or simply as a theme. How would you approach that cultural expectation as an author who doesn't believe in the LDS church, without it coming across as simply a financial appeal toward an added market niche to the one you are already writing for? Intriguing.

Amanda then replied:

The stories that I write are beyond me. Characters come to me and ask for their stories to be told. They are who they are, I don't create them. That's my take on writing. I have no illusions about ever making money with my writing, nor would I ever sell out in order to publish a book. I would never manipulate a market to sell a book - the idea makes me shudder! My character is LDS because that's who she was when I created her. And, as an author, I separate myself from the book entirely, so that my feelings on issues are nonexistant. My relationship with the church doesn't matter - only my character's does. I can step into her shoes and feel her conversion back (which IS based on testimony) and be okay with that. On the other hand, sometimes I worry that the process will be seen as dishonest, because I do not feel that conversion myself. It isn't, though. It's fiction. In order to say it's dishonest, a person has to assume that the author is part of the book, and I'm not. It's been a very hard book to write because of that worry, to tell the truth. I don't want people to think I'm lying or advocating one way or another. As the author, I have no opinion - I just want their story to be told.

They both make excellent, valid points. So excellent, in fact, that I decided to address them.

I've always been a believer in writing what we know. I believe that we can bring a depth of understanding to the story and to the character when we infuse our own emotions into the story and show our innermost selves.

That said, my first book was written from the first person viewpoint of a Japanese American young man. What do I know about being a Japanese American? Nothing. What do I know about being a man? Even less.

However, because I wanted to learn about the different cultures involved and because I wanted to tell my story in a certain way, I chose to take on a persona totally foreign to me. I don't believe I could have accomplished what I did with "Nothing to Regret" in any other way. I've been critically acclaimed for my work on that book, despite the fact that I'm a Caucasian woman. The experiences of my character were unfamiliar to me, but because I was willing to learn, I was able to pull it off.

The question of religion is broached -- should a person write a book about conversion to a religion they don't personally believe in? Fascinating question.

I'm not Jewish. Yet, I have a tremendous respect for their culture, their faith, their history and traditions. I believe I could write a book, convincingly, about the Jewish people and talk about their beliefs in a way that would be compelling and realistic to the reader. I don't have to be Jewish to accomplish that -- I have to be willing to learn, to use my imagination, and to have respect for the things I'm writing about.

I agree with Jen in that we do find certain authenticity when we write the things we know. Our words have power when we speak from personal testimony.

I agree with Amanda in that we can use the writing skills we've been given to create a story about anything, whether or not we have personally experienced it or believe it. If we only wrote about the things we know for a fact, the world of fiction would be very limited.

So, now it's time for you to weigh in, commenters . . . what do you think?


Amanda said...

I do want to put in that, like you say you have a lot of respect for the Jewish faith, I do have a lot of respect for the LDS faith. I may not believe in everything in there, but I certainly respect it. And I do know a lot about it. I think the book's been a little easier to write because I AM writing what I know. Writing what you know and writing what you believe in are two different things.

Karlene said...

Men can write about women's experiences, and vice versa. Some people write about murder and violence without every have committed those acts. It all depends on how well you write. If it rings true to people who have been in that situation, then you're a good writer and that's what counts.

Anne Bradshaw said...

This is an interesting post. As long as a writer puts the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth into the mouth of a character, then I'm fine with that. It's when he/she throws in the occasional half-truth, or untruth that I object and feel betrayed on behalf of other readers who might not know the difference.

Tristi Pinkston said...

I sensed that, Amanda -- the way you've desribed your plot and spoken about the Church conveys a lot of respect and I think you could write a very authentic story because of your knowledge of the Church.

Weston Elliott said...

I would never try to write something about a religion that I did not understand, or necessarily believe. I don't care how good I am at writing, I could never capture the nuances of, say, being a Catholic priest. There are too many things, little things, that fill in all the corners of life when you believe in something like a certain religion.

I have read fiction about Mormons, and there is always at least one little thing that trips me up. I just shake my head and lose a bit of respect for the book because they didn't get it right.

Kimberly said...

I was writing a scene the other day and a new character was introducing himself. And I didn't know what his name was yet. But he did and it just came out.

I totally understand the characters telling their own story concept.

But I didn't like the name and I changed it when he wasn't looking. Tee hee.

Some intriguing points here. I especially like Karlene's. I don't have to be a villain myself to write a bad guy's part. There might be more poignancy to a matter of faith, but we don't have to be our characters to write about them.

Marcia Mickelson said...

I think that you can write about a character's testimony despite not sharing that testimony. When you create a character, you create his/her belief system, and it does not always reflect your own. If all my characters had my belief system, they would all be the same. My characters don't always believe the things that I believe. That is where the fiction part comes in.

Nichole Giles said...

The thing about writing is that not only do we have the opportunity to dig more deeply inside ourselves and share our emotions with our readers, but we also have the opportunity to dig deeply into another side of a situation.

In order for us to have antagonists in our stories, we have to be able to see things through their eyes, whether or not we have ever actually possessed supernatural powers and used them for evil. And without that ability to see another side of things, there would be no story to tell.

Seriously, I highly doubt Stephenie Meyer ever met a real vampire or werewolf. James Dashner never jumped between realities, J.K. Rowling has never really been to Hogwarts, Tiffany Trent probably hasn't spent her life running from evil faeries, and Shannon Hale has probably never met a real dragon, or spent three years locked in a tower with a spoiled princess.

If not for the author's abilities to look at other situations, to believe other things, and put themselve into the shoes of a fictional character, none of these stories would exist. That's the glory of creativity.

I think the same thing goes for religious belief. You can write about something as long as you know it well--whether you believe in it or not. To tell the truth, I have found that in some cases, the people who research a religion in which they are not a member, often know more about that religion than some of it's members.

Besides, who are we to judge another's feelings, beliefs, or innermost thoughts? If the writing is good and accurate, that's all that matters.

Amanda said...

Weston Elliot - it's not like I'm writing about a religion I'm totally ignorant about. I was a very faithful active member for a long while, my husband's family is LDS, and I've studied the religion since missionaries first showed up at my door when I was 14. My cousins are LDS. A great chunk of my family and friends are LDS. I've read the scriptures, written talks, held callings, listened to conference, been through the temple with my family, and everything else. If I'm uncertain on any point - and there ARE some, I'm no expert - I make it a point to ask and research.

I also, having grown up catholic, could write a convincing and authentic novel about a Catholic. I couldn't, however, write anything about, say, a baptist, because I've never even attended a baptist ceremony. I don't know the first thing about their faith. It wouldn't matter how much research I did, because if I'd never lived it, I wouldn't be able to portray it accurately. But I have lived in the LDS faith and community. And here, I'm portraying a girl who has been away from the church for a decade and has to be re-converted - I myself went through that conversion as an adult, so I imagine I can portray the feeling quite accurately.

Jen said...

Just wanted to pop in & say thanks to Amanda for her taking the time to reply, and Tristi also for her thoughts. I hope my question didn't come across negatively, I do think its a very interesting topic and I'm enjoying hearing the ensuing discussion also.

Framed said...

As an avid reader and non-author, I think the book sounds very interesting. I would like to read it when it comes out especially in view of all the comments I've read here. Great discussion.

Anna Maria Junus said...

I have never lost a child, but I wrote about a woman who did.

I was worried that I wouldn't get it right.

I've been told, that I did get it right.

I understand about the characters taking over and telling their story. That's where inspired writing comes from.

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