Writing Secrets: Explore, don’t expound

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

You don’t need to feel strongly about a theme or subject to write about it.

In fact, I think it’s a disadvantage. I dislike theme-heavy fiction. I find it heavy-handed and didactic and it makes me bored and rebellious.

Besides, why does that writer feel she has special licence to lecture me? What does he know that I don’t?

As a young journalist, I learned to be evidence-led. Try not to enter a subject with a strong pre-conceived notion. Explore it with curiosity and look at all sides and all aspects of it. Allow the preponderance of evidence to mount, before you present it from that angle.

And sometimes, you can’t. The subject is too complex, too grey, to try to separate it into black and white. That’s fine. Grapple with the complexity, show it in all its murkiness, and allow your reader to make sense of it.

I try to approach fiction the same way. Many of you will know this of me. I believe that writing should be a seeking to understand, rather than a means to grab your reader by the throat and force them to understand what we think we already know. We have no special dispensation, no licence to speak what we see as “truth”.

Complexity makes things interesting. Don’t choose a “theme” or “subject” you feel strongly about. It’s too easy. Choose characters who are grappling with what you yourself are ambivalent about. Explore the grey areas.

If you’re pushing a theme, the chances are you’ll avoid exploring the depths of characters you don’t agree with or whom you disapprove of on certain levels. You’ll present them as caricatures, or unrealistic villains, with no redeeming features. Your protagonist will do all the right things.

And since we surely draw much of our inspiration from our own, and the lives around us, don’t deny the parts of yourself you’re ashamed of. Don’t shy away from making yourself vulnerable.

Embrace duality and complexity. History is forever being rewritten. We know better than we did in our pasts. We disapprove of or are ashamed of things we might have been taught or believed, or the way we lived in the past. It’s inescapable, wherever we grew up.

There’s an ambivalence to our memories and our childhood nostalgia. I think it’s wrong to deny or ignore these feelings. Our nostalgia might be complex, but that complexity makes it interesting. It’s what makes good art, surely.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Writing as a route to understanding’

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