Monday, June 30, 2008

Writing Taboos?

Earlier I was struck by the Wright Morris quote that Andrew Wingfield shared with me in our interview, "Writing is finding out what you don't yet know about what you know," as well as Wingfield's take on that. Then I read this excellent nonfiction piece by Bill Donahue in the Washington Post about larger-than-life American Indian activist Russell Means and the subsequent discussion, which I found to be one of the best WaPost online discussions I've read in a long time (despite my inane question). A quote from Donahue in the discussion: "I think that anyone should be allowed to write about anyone." This made me think of the PBS film "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property," which discusses how Nat Turner's story has been told and retold since the 1831 revolt and how William Styron's 1967 The Confessions of Nat Turner lit an angry intellectual debate (Styron wrote about it here). Then I read this T.C. Boyle story in a January New Yorker (I'm catching up) that takes on three perspectives, including those of a Japanese couple. Read at least one of these things, but come back and tell me: where we are with all this today?


  1. DH!
    I skimmed the title article in the magazine this weekend (I have to admit I was more enthralled with the follow up to the Joshua Bell piece in Gene Weingarten's column), but one thing I did pick up from my skimmage is that the subject was not the usual compliant, ready-to-disclose profilee. In fact, he's quite defiant, and the fact that the author maintains a calming tone throughout the piece really helps me see what Means might be like in real life. It was a great contrast to the usual pieces I've seen in the Post mag - like the one a few weeks ago about the woman whose brother had murdered the entire family.

    Anyhow, I'm rambling, but I agree that the article is a great testament to the author's quote about writing about whomever/whatever you want to explore. I think, so long as you do your homework and know your stuff, you should be able to explore those options that might seem far-fetched or totally removed from your own life. Aight, off to read the Boyle story!

  2. This was a silly title. I am sure someone read it and thought "that is a silly title." Or "this is the wrong question." What is the right question, I wonder?

    Anyway, I thought there was some kind of similarity between the way Boyle wrote his story and the way Donahue approached his subject.

    I think it has to do with the tone--they just lay it out plain. Donahue was calming, but he also chose a real even amount of what to put it there--as he says in the discussion, neither hagiography nor a hatchet job, getting at the gray areas.

  3. i think this has a lot to do with the 'write what you know' mantra that gets thrown around so much.

    there's a similar discussion right now in Fiction area of the Poets and Writers forum - can a woman write a man and can a man write a woman? etc.

    dh, i dont know if its the 'right' question, but it certainly isnt a wrong one, right?

  4. "What is the answer?" Gertrude Stein asked Alice B. Toklas on the way to the operating room, just before dying. When Toklas was silent, she asked, "In that case, what is the question?"

    Actually the Wright Morris quote came up exactly because I brought up the "write what you know" cliché. Wingfield's response was interesting.

    But partly I asked because Donahue mentions in the discussion how after Ian Frazier wrote On the Rez, Sherman Alexie said only Indians should write about Indians. And I have enormous respect for Alexie, but . . .

  5. oh, right, yes you did bring that up.

    i am a moron.

    wingfield's response is interesting because he doesn't follow the stock 'write what you know' phrase as its been taught in some undergrad workshops.