Friday, 15 March 2013

Mind Your Bits

Last week I asked you to give me three parts of yourself.  Your responses blew me away.  If I’ve not answered your email, I’m working my way toward it.  It’s not too late to give me one if you haven’t yet.  It would be lovely to read it.


Now.  If we collect readers as we do friends, then we must acquaint them to us in the same way.  How would you introduce yourself to someone who isn’t you?  A writer must know herself before she can be authentic with others. 

To know yourself better, begin with the obvious bits, as I called them.  While I suggested nationality, region, gender, genre, and topic, don’t confine yourself to those.  Think of aspects that you relegate to tick boxes on application forms, but generally take for granted.  When you have that list, which one would be the first word you use to describe yourself as a writer?  To illustrate, let’s start with nationality. 

Hello.  I am an American writer.

You know your nationality, but what type of nationality is it?  You could always have lived in your country of origin, currently be exiled from it, have returned home after living abroad or have never lived in your own country.  You could be well travelled inside and outside your country or have stayed in a thirty mile radius.  You could be seventh generation or the child of immigrants.  Any of these possibilities affects your relationship with your country and your expression of nationality. 

In the Writing Closet, we consider things outside our door to be equally important.  Staying with nationality, a writer from South America, for instance, faces different challenges in forming a relationship with a European reader than a North American writer does.  To know your specific challenges, investigate how the world looks at your obvious bits.  Don’t ‘imagine’ how the world sees you; research it.  Listen to the misconceptions, biases, negative and positive opinions.  Look into the murky pool dividing who you think you are from what the world considers you to be.  Identify what’s living in there.

Something as simple as nationality turns out to not be so simple after all. 

Add another bit to your first one.  If we use regional attachment or ethnicity, is your subgroup in conflict with your country’s dominant culture or are you part of the hegemony?  When you’re living at home, which outweighs the other in your identity – nationality or region?  When you’re living away, be it inside your country or overseas, which do you present to the other culture?

Now that we have two bits, let’s use myself as an example of what a writer can do with this self information.  Although I’m American, I see myself primarily as Appalachian.  This subculture is not well understood inside the US, even less so in the UK where I now live.  My regional identification is probably why non-Americans see me as atypically American.  Being a minority makes me not-what-they-expect and I should never forget that.

If I go all Appalachian on my reader, there’s an immediate distance between us which creates tone.  The exotic, dark, bizarre, menacing (Deliverance) or farcical, homespun, foolish, naive (Beverly Hillbillies) or traditional, steady, secure, moral (The Waltons).  So same writer, same bits but starkly different tones.

‘Going all Appalachian’ doesn’t mean I only write regional fiction.  In fact, I rarely set my work in Appalachia, yet inevitably Deliverance, the Beverly Hillbillies and The Waltons make an appearance whether I want them there or not.  My rewrites never fully eradicate any of them.  What never shows up in my writing is Sex in the City, no matter how hard I try.  I can write about New York, but it will always be as an Appalachian writer. 

The obvious bits add depth and colour to your writing.  And you’re not just nationality.  Are you sure of your gender or your genre?  How well do they fit you?  Do you want to be confined to either?  Do you express them in traditional, experimental or totally idiosyncratic ways?  Or do you suppress them?  How do they fare in your country of origin? 

As a writer, it’s best to be forewarned about these aspects of your writer’s voice because your reader always hears them.  You can put on any costume you choose, but you cannot become a coloratura soprano when you’re a contralto.  It’s rumoured that all God’s chillen got a place in the choir, so be a goddam contralto and proud.

Write if you have questions.  Next time, archetype and hopefully, the core of your psyche.  Go forth and know your bits, hon.


  1. Nationality is, to me, merely an introductory statement, a broad brush stroke that may spark interest. Every country, even the small ones, has different regional variations in traditions, dialect, culture and these are the more appealing facets of a person. However to introduce oneself using a subculture definition may put potential readers off either because they don’t know what you are talking about or they feel the piece is going to be “too local” to have any pull for the general reader. This has now caused me to think is nationality important to draw in the browsing reader? “I am an American/Australian/Russian writer” or “I am a writer”? I think I have actually now confused myself so if anyone would like to comment and help this “stupid reader” work this out I would be grateful

    1. This is my second attempt to reply, so I hope it's not duplicated. I agree that categorising ourselves can lead to a writer being considered 'regional' & lessen the appeal for some. However, even if a writer doesn't identify as a northern, southern, Asian, female writer, someone else will say she is such & such writer, confine or relegate her to that type writer.

      The exercise here is to help the writer understand & exploit her own heritage, with the hoped for result of a fuller, richer, deeper & more authentic writer's voice.