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.