Nikki Giovanni, Flannery O’Connor, The Dalai Lama, James Baldwin, and Me by Nora Raleigh Baskin
This is the speech Nora gave as a Key Note Speaker at The Wamogo Oratory Invitational on March 22, 2019.
“Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience you’d get maybe one book maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”
I love this quote from the poet, Nikki Giovanni. She tells us we can write our story, in our own voice, directly from our life, though that will be limited. And artists are not limited.
The author Flannery O’Connor said:
“Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his life.”
These may seem like two contradictory sayings, two opposing philosophies.
But they are not.
When we write as someone else, or about someone else, we are at the same time discovering ourselves on the page. We are all different, so different that our similarities are that much more relevant and profound.
Another quote, this time the Dalai Lama in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“…we are all basically alike: we are all human beings. Maybe we have different clothes, our skin is of a different colour, or we speak different languages. That is on the surface. But basically, we are the same human beings. That is what binds us to each other. That is what makes it possible for us to understand each other and to develop friendship and closeness.”
The Dalai Lama wasn’t talking about books, or literature, or writing, but about life itself, about living on this earth with the other seven billion, seven hundred million, five hundred thousand, nine hundred and twenty-three people. But he might well have been.
Other than actually living another’s life, there is no better way to find compassion for those outside your own experience, perhaps those that make you uncomfortable, maybe even those you are not particularly fond of, than to read fiction. And by extension, to write it.
The great goal of any fiction writer is to create characters and stories with the depth and reality of an actual individual life. Fiction that reads as deep and real as memoir.
Why has the story of Anne Frank has endured, transcended all language, and stands as a symbol of the holocaust?
Because most of us find it easier to feel the acute pain of one person, and are overwhelmed to the point of apathy for six million. Why do Nelson Mandela’s words and his memory, speak more to the horrors of institutionalized apartheid than do forty-six years of numbers and statistics?
Because we care about people when we realize they are like us. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
So if you want to see with the eyes, hear with the ears, feel with the heart of someone who is not you, you have to read. And if you want create the voice, imagine a scene, evoke emotion in someone else, you should write.
And that takes study, research, interviews, sometimes travel, but always listening, always keeping your heart and your mind open to whatever emotion may wash over you. Being willing to go wherever the story takes you. The writer changes during this process, so that the reader can as well.
When I wrote 9/10: A September 11 Story I created four different characters, boy to girl, black to white, Jewish to Muslim to Christian, California to New York. If I couldn’t become all of them, if they hadn’t come alive to me, I couldn’t have written the book. If I hadn’t been able to shed the external and slide inside the internal, I couldn’t have written the book. And if I hadn’t fallen deeply love with each of them, I wouldn’t have written that book.
Then, of course, it is up the reader to decide if it is a success or failure. Not based on present day dogma, reductive generalizations, or stereotypes of what you think and believe about who or what, that character should be, or whether it fits or adheres to your opinion, but rather whether that character becomes real in your mind and reaches deep inside your heart. The measure of a good fictional story is when it takes you outside of yourself, when it allows you to feel like you are someone else, and awakens empathy in an emotionally resonant way.
Writing is not complete until it is read.
Until the images are created in the mind of someone else and interpreted through their experience where that story can take root and bloom.
How many times have you talked to someone about a book you loved and they saw it in a completely different way? Had a very different reaction?
That is what is supposed to happen.
Good writing does not preach, or teach a lesson, or force an opinion. Literature does not have an agenda, which is not to say that a writer’s values and perspectives do not enter the book. Of course they do, but that is the dialogue between writer and reader. That is what makes literature, art.
So write from passion.
Write from fear.
Heck, write from vengeance.
Then put it away, then take it out and write it again. From clarity.
Good writing makes you think. It might make you uncomfortable. It might make you angry. It might reduce you to weeping. It might illuminate something you knew nothing about, validate something you did, or articulate something you never before realized you felt too.
I will end with, what else? Another quote from one of the greatest thinkers, writers, and activist of our time, James Baldwin.
“Any event, any event, any person occurring in time is the property of any novelist ..my provenance for example, speaking of myself, is the provenance of all human life, and no one can tell a writer what he can or cannot write.”
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the award winning author of thirteen novels for middle grade and young adult readers.You can find her at Norabaskin.com /@noraraleighb
Video this talk is available on YouTube: