My fellow readers I just finished watching a fascinating interview on “60 Minutes”
featuring writer, Colson Whitehead. It gave me an idea that I hope helps you understand my motivation for writing in general and developing the characters to my books I’ve published thus far and to continue down the road. So here it goes.
The main person on is the interviewer, John Dickerson, a white-haired reporter for CBS, Colson Whitehead, an African American writer, and his wife Julie Barer who sits next to Colson throughout the interview.
John Dickerson began by introducing Colson: The club of writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize twice for fiction is small. It contains just four members. The club of those awarded the prize for consecutive novels is even smaller. Colson Whitehead is its only member. He won last year for his novel, “The Nickel Boys,” about the Jim Crow south. In 2017, he won for “The Underground Railroad.” Through historical fiction, he has illuminated the past to tell us something about our present. But his work does not stay in one place. He has written about elevator inspectors, zombie hunters and the World Series of Poker. His next book is a heist novel. One of the other four members of the double-Pulitzer club, John Updike, said of Whitehead’s style: “His writing does what writing should do. It refreshes our sense of the world.”
I only wish that one day my book whatever it is is even considered as a Pulitzer nominee, but of that Dickerson continues by starting the interview with passages from his two books: “Can I ask you about your first lines? “Even in death the boys were in trouble.” “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said, ‘No.'” “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails and it’s not built to fall this fast.” “I have a good poker face because I’m half dead inside.” Those first lines… they’re all crackling. Tell me about the process of the first line.”
Colson Whitehead: I’m very fond of them. And I think, you know, I’m doing the outline–
John Dickerson: For good reason.
Colson Whitehead: I’m doing the outline and– and lines are coming, and scenes are coming. And I think there’s a point where I do enough research, and I’m so excited to start writing because I’ve written this first sentence two months before, and I’m like, I gotta put this sentence in the file so I– I can start the book.”
Now I’m a certified pantser. I tend to avoid outlines and begin page one with what my main character tells me is in his or her heart.
I see where he’s coming from though. While I may not put out a formal outline per se, I do plot my stories in my head, which is quite advantageous in my day job as a janitor. My mind is constantly working and filling the void of tedious labor by enacting scenes, putting together plots and dialog that may or may not work out.
In my case and this is where I’m indebted to the Spokane Fiction Writers Club. The lines were never what created the book, but the action. In A Man’s Passion, what motivated me was a 60 Minutes segment featuring the Peace and Justice Museum in Montgomery Alabama back in 2016 when it opened. It started out as an idea of a young girl witnessing the lynching of an African American man. I wrote out the first draft and let my former editor read it aloud to the group’s meetup. She hadn’t read it before and didn’t know what she was getting into. Naturally, she hated the concept, the idea, and the premise, and promptly quit as my editor. It took five rewrites before I got it to a place I felt confident enough to submit it to Austin McCauley for their consideration.
Dickerson goes on a bit of a filler exercise by describing various aspects of Colson’s life, his library of fiction and non-fiction books and the process of his two books, then he asks: “Do you write for yourself or do you write for the audience?”
Colson Whitehead: “Really for me, which sounds very selfish. Should I have written a zombie novel? It made perfectly good sense for me. I grew up loving horror movies and then horror fiction. Is that something I should be doing as a literary writer? I don’t know. And there’s no handbook. You know? And it gives me great pleasure, if its exciting you know, our time on earth is pretty short. I should be doing what I—what I feel should be doing.”
We are both in complete agreement on this, as I believe 99 percent of all writers are. WE write for ourselves first. If for no other reason than the pure pleasure of seeing words materialize on a page from my own hand. In those first phases, it is a pure and selfish act of self-enjoyment. When the real work begins, deleting scenes that don’t fit, character development that needs refinement and overhauling an entire plot because it just doesn’t work out, is the frustrating part of writing that I believe is more geared toward the audience. Hattie, as well as Mark Marteau of my self published Four Seasons series, they are characters I developed around an idea that became the basis of a novella.
Finally, Dickerson asks: “There are a lot of aphorisms about writing, you know? “Write what you know. Write your heart.” Do you all agree on all of those aphorisms?
Colson Whitehead: We don’t talk about things on that kind of level.
Julie Barer: Yeah, I mean use one that Colson, says. “You can do anything if you’re– if you’re good enough.”
Colson Whitehead: You know the current debate’s over who can write about what, and writing across race and class and gender. And it’s only when the – you know you screw it up that people get angry and I think rightfully so.
Julie Barer: But I hear people ask him sometimes at readings, you know, “Is it hard to write from the point of view of a woman?” And he’s like, “I’m a writer. That’s my job… is to write from…”
Colson Whitehead: Or “I’m a human being.”
Julie Barer: Right.
Colson Whitehead: You know.
John Dickerson: You’re saying, “I’m a human being, this is what I do as a human being.” But you’re also doing it as a writer, which has– it has this secondary benefit, which is that it works really well with your audiences.
Colson Whitehead: What was very heartening was the realization that if it’s true for me, it must be true for at least one other person. And so what I’m saying won’t come off as crazy. And if there’s one person, there’s a dozen. And then why not a thousand. And if I can find the right combination of words to express my inner truth, then other people can see it the same way. And so, I think we’re all in this together. And if– and if I can find the sentences and words arranged in the right way, where people can recognize that, then that’s, you know, I’ve done my job.
While it is true that one should write what they know; from the heart, it is also true to understand human nature enough to be able to write whatever they want from any point of view.
My characters are not me. I’m not a mixed raced woman, an elderly white woman and certainly not an FBI agent. They are though, characters in my two books.
While I don’t particularly know or understand the precise truth of man or woman I like to think that since I’m human and understand the frailties and vanities of the human soul I should be able to write from my heart what I know. Thus I feel I know my characters’ feelings and egos quite well.
I feel my writing style as well as those of most writers is based upon reaction more than action. My characters react to a given situation. That is the complexities of the human experience that lends itself credit for a realistic outcome.