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Writing the Forbidden

At the AWP conference last week, I attended two sessions back-to-back on taboo and forbidden writing. The first was titled, "The Next Taboo: Writing About Illness," and mainly featured authors who witnessed the agony of a suffering relative and incorporated that experience in fiction or narrative non-fiction.There was discussion on the responsibility of writing about illness -- be honest even when it's ugly? write to uplift? -- and the tendency for writing about illness to be sentimental. There was general agreement that such writing still needs a plot: a dread disease is no stand-in for conflict. I attended because my novel, Real Life & Liars, features a protagonist with a fresh diagnosis of breast cancer. I asked the panel if one must experience illness directly or closely -- there was talk of "guilt of the witness" -- to write about it. Poet Dana Levin was the only one to tackle my question head on, and she said in essence: go for it. Do the work, do the research, have empathy. But write whatever you want.

That leads neatly into the next panel, called "Writing Your Passions: Forbidden Topics". All of the writers had written outside the expected in one form or another. Linda Busby Parker for example wrote a novel of a woman trying to hold onto her land, but it wasn't working, so she took some advice she'd heard and wrote the entire tale over again from the perspective of another character. In this way Brewster McAtee took over the story and Parker, a white woman, wrote the character of a black man fighting to keep his land in the Civil Rights Era, called Seven Laurels. While acknowledging a reader's right to believe she had gone too far in writing about the African American experience, Parker said feedback on the novel both as a story and teaching tool has been positive. It won the James Jones First Novel Award, in fact.

I was also privileged to meet fellow Grand Rapids author Maryann Lesert, whose forthcoming novel from the Feminist Press, Base Ten, features an astrophysicist whose career has been on hold for her family. Lesert is not an astrophysicist, or even a scientist. How many of us would dare such an ambitious project? Dare she did, and she didn't give up when an eminent scientist told her, "What you've said in this book would never, ever happen" and her whole plot hinged on it. She kept asking questions and asking scientists until she found out the whole story and saved her plot.

"Go with the character you know," Lesert said. "She doesn't have to be fair, or expected."

Charlotte Rains Dixon is writing about an unrepentant adulteress named Emma Jean who dares to be happy in her sin, no scarlet "A" for her, not even in the figurative sense, and Katy Yocom's novel assumes the voice of an Indian man.

Masha Hamilton's forthcoming novel, Thirty-One Hours, (coming this fall from Unbridled Books) dares to explore the mind of a young man contemplating violence, and she called it one of her scariest books to write.

A forbidden topic, she said, "Takes the form of a question that frightens me to ask." As for her book, she said it's "a story that asks for compassion where compassion is difficult."

"I tried to write as if no one would ever read the words," she recalled of her time crafting the character of Jonas, who is contemplating an act of violence on the New York subway. Her book also delves into the character of Jonas's mother. For this she drew on harrowing conversations in her newspaper reporting days with the mother of a killer.

All the women speaking (and they were all women) approached their projects with courage. I came away from this panel invigorated and confirmed in my belief that fear has no place at the keyboard. Coincidentally, just this afternoon I was reading the current Poets & Writers magazine featuring an interview with four editors who said they see plenty of good, competent writing they reject because it's tame.

Tame? Certainly no one at this panel could be accused of that. And may we all be so bold.


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It's Our Job

I keep being surprised that there is even the concept that any topic is "taboo" or "forbidden". Writing sets out to expose, and nothing is beyond such exposure.

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I know what you mean

It is surprising we're still having these conversations!

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Thanks for the blog. I liked

Thanks for the blog. I liked the way you broached taking a question that is difficult to ask. I tried to do that in my play, it is difficult but rewarding because, in that way, you become the voice of the silent.

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Thank you, Mary


But the credit for that observation goes to Masha Hamilton. I'm just the messenger! Good for you for taking it on in your play.

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Perhaps we should make a distinction between what is

forbidden in terms of writing and what is forbidden in terms of publishing. Glamour Magazine - which has emerged in the last couple of years, along with Seventeen, as a feminist go-to for young girls (go figure) - took a huge risk this month with its story about women who had had abortions, actually including women who were relieved that the pregnancy was terminated! When was the last time you read a story like that? Not in the last eight years, maybe longer. How many books (fiction and non-) are published that are empathetic to mothers who really don't like their children? How many memoirs about reformed 'tramps' vs. women who like to screw around and want to go on screwing around and aren't part of some group of women branded as having low self-esteem?  How many writers are brave enough to expose themselves with complete emotional honesty for fear of not getting something into print?   Exposure may be ancillary to writing - it has nothing to do with publishing. I haven't read anything terribly brave from a mainstream publisher in a long time - and the small presses that have come up are also candy-assed. Nothing else can account for the Bush administration going on as it did.

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Good point, Evelyn

While the writer can write anything, can the publisher accept it, and get readers to embrace it? That's a whole new question.

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Evelyn, I want to recommend the anthology CHOICE, edited by Karen Bender & Nina deGramont. It's brave and awesome.

 Great list you wrote there, and I totally agree. You can send those brave stories to Literary Mama - that's the kind of writing we love.

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I would add

In terms of writing about the character with the cancer diagnosis...if you haven't had a close experience with cancer I would suggest having a survivor read it to ensure there aren't any howlers in the text (e.g. things that don't ring true to the experience). As a cancer survivor myself I have seen and read a lot of other people's interpretations and mostly they are okay, but there are sometimes things they get completely wrong (for example, chemo is not one thing, it is many things and different drugs used not only for different types of cancers, but different stages of cancer. This means that for some cancers you won't lose your hair when going through chemo. In addition, everyone experiences chemo differently so the experience of one person could be quite different from another).

As to the how to write about illness I vote for getting it right and being real. It sucks to be seriously ill and there is no way to sugar coat it without it coming off as being trite and cliche.

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Definitely, James

That kind of research is crucial, and not only when writing about cancer. I suspect the stakes are higher though when an author takes on illness as a subject, which is so emotional for so many people.

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there's a dark side to everything...and i think we should write about it.