Write what you (don’t) know

I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to view the Ron Mueck exhibit. As I walked in, there was a piece by another artist that consisted of an LED panel scrolling text like you might see in Times Square. I don’t know who the artist is or where the phrases showcased come from, but as I passed, the phrase “A MAN CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE A MOTHER” scrolled by and I had a multitude of visceral reactions that stuck with me as I went on to the Mueck exhibit.

  1. Identification. There are many times where I think and feel like my experiences as a woman or as a mother are something I can only share with other women or mothers. It can be isolating when your experiences are not part of a mainstream dialogue, or when policies about your health, your body, your rights, your opportunities, your support systems are being made by people who do not and never will share your experience. I may be able to communicate those experiences and a man might intellectually be able to understand and perhaps find points of correlation, but he will never understand or know in the same way. This identification, this finding your tribe, is an amazing, cathartic, life-affirming, connection to another human being that is absolutely necessary to one’s sanity, to making friendships, to finding love, and being able to continue on this human journey.
  2. Rejection. Even among other women and mothers, I do not share the same experiences. Our upbringing, education, religion, race, socio-economic level, just to name a few, can be crossroads to very different places in life. Sometimes, I don’t understand another woman’s point of view, decision, feeling. So if even I don’t know or understand the experiences of other women and mothers, then it’s not any more foreign for a man. Just because we share genitalia does not mean a shared experience or a shared perspective. I point to politics again as an arena where women and mothers champion things I whole-heartedly reject.
  3. Frustration. This type of thinking strengthens if not creates division between people. In an increasingly non-binary world, thinking in dichotomies is superficial and unproductive. There are already so many barriers between people, so many differences in experience that really the only person that knows what I’ve experienced is me. And even that changes with time, reflection, loss of memory, and new perspective. As isolating as that may feel, it’s the reality. It’s not inherently bad, and the more we can accept this reality of the individual experience, the more we can practice empathy and acceptance of things we don’t understand or can’t relate to, and then maybe we can generate policy that truly approaches equality. But everyone has to be on board in this exercise.

As a creative person, I’m further frustrated by the limitations I see other artists place on themselves due to this tribal way of thinking. There’s the old adage “write what you know.” This is a very powerful, important, aspect of writing because by writing things that you’ve experienced and things that you know, you have a good chance of writing something true, something that reflects and approaches the complexities of reality. There’s an inherent paradox here: the more detailed and unique and personal a story is, the more relatable because it connects with universal themes of the human experience.

The problem with this adage goes back to my point #3 above: I would only be able to write a character that is me, in my timeline, and I wouldn’t even be able to effectively write people I know like my parents or friends because I don’t truly know what they are experiencing and therefore cannot accurately portray them. Plus, as I stated above, my memory is faulty. If I’m writing about my childhood as an adult, am I truly capturing that child perspective or am I infusing it with my adult perspective? Am I remembering my own memory or a story my parents like to tell?

It’s a black hole of nonsense.

Even in memoirs, there is usually a disclaimer that events or conversations or whatever have been changed for “narrative effect.”

So stop thinking that “writing what you know” means “writing me” and start thinking about writing characters that are complex and flawed and full LIKE you. Use your experiences as a template to explore the whys and the hows to extrapolate what’s going on in other people’s minds. Research and read OTHER perspectives to fill in the gaps of your knowledge and experience.

Recently, I was giving notes to a friend on his screenplay and I commented that the female character seemed flat and just convenient for what needed to happen to the male character. His response:

I’m a man, so yeah, my female character is flat.

To which I say: Bullshit.

When you put yourself in a box creatively, you won’t be able to get yourself out. First and foremost, you are HUMAN and you’ve chosen a creative profession where you need to use your IMAGINATION. Do some research! Ask a friend!

Another friend told me she watched 20TH CENTURY WOMEN and recommended it highly with the punchline:

I can’t believe it was written and directed by a man!

Now, I need to address the obvious counterpoint, especially in the media/entertainment world: there absolutely needs to be more diversity of perspective in the people we see on screen and the people behind the camera. This goes back to my point #1: Identification. Trying to figure out who we are and where we fit and what we want is a life-long journey and identifying with others is part of how we do that. We need to SEE people that look like us and feel like us and do the things we do AND we need to see people that don’t look like us and don’t feel like us and don’t do the things we do to practice that empathy and open up our world and maybe find identification where we didn’t expect it.

Having people behind the camera from diverse backgrounds means that they can bring their perspective, use what they know from their own experiences to lend truth, detail, and complexity in the hopes that the end product will accurately reflect the human experience in some way. One way to get people ON the screen with different perspectives is to hire people with those different perspective behind the camera.

But in that quagmire of a discussion, we’re really talking about basic fair hiring practices, equal opportunity, and equal representation from an HR standpoint, and the oppression Hollywood has waged, which is really ironic given how conservatives always complain about how ultra-liberal Hollywood is. NOT.

As I walked into Ron Mueck filtering through my reactions to this text, I encountered further proof that the artist who crafts the mirror, the artist who holds the mirror up to society, does not necessarily need to belong to a particular race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation in order to reflect truth of the human experience (yes, I know this is not necessarily true in terms of being SUCCESSFUL at getting your work exhibited, but again that’s a different article).

I can look at Woman with Shopping and I can FEEL the identification. I don’t know what Mueck’s intention is with the piece, what he feels when he looks at it, but it stirs something in me that speaks to my experience as a woman and as a mother, both of things I am pretty certain Mueck is not. Yet, Mueck holds up a mirror and I see myself. I see truth.

Yes, the sculptures are incredibly life-like with pores and hair. The toenails on the enormous baby sculpture are imperfect and look like the toenails I cut on my own children. There is a realism there that is uncanny. I want to touch them, to feel what looks like skin. Is it soft and pudgy the way it looks, or is it hard from the materials used?

No, I never forget that they are NOT real. I never forget when I’m watching a movie that these aren’t real people. It’s not a problem of suspension of disbelief because I’m the type of viewing who actively suspends disbelief. I WANT to believe and I will try to find ways to identify and engage and understand. I find this human experience overwhelming and unmanageable at times, so I consume as many perspectives as I can not just to understand my own but to accept the things around me. But at the same time, these are always going to be representations, approximations, modified for narrative effect.

In discussing his own work, Mueck discusses how he strays from “real life” in making these life-like sculptures.

Even when I have had a model, however, what I have to do in the end is to consciously abandon the model and go for what feels right. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in duplicating something. Sometimes what feels right is not what actually is right. With Big Man, his feet were too large for his body. I ended up distorting the work in order to enhance the feeling of the piece rather than to make it look precisely like a particular person.

See? Accurate life representation is not actually accurate! There’s artistry and imagination and creativity involved that’s necessary and creates that wonder when we see something created out of things that speaks to us of humanity.

There’s a bleakness, an unromanticized version of life that Mueck presents that I love. On the description at MFAH for Man in a Boat, the final line reads:

Like all of us, the man is thrust into the ocean of life without oars or protection from the elements.

This is my identification. My version of life experience. But in connecting with it, and knowing that others connect with it as well, I feel engaged to a larger humanity.

So go out and connect and create and keep experimenting. Keep striving for something true. The first step is to acknowledge how nebulous that word is.