Writing What You Know vs. Writing What You Want to Know

YARN is psyched to have this essay by veteran novelist (but YA debut-er!) Liz Fichera, who has something important to share with all of us about writing, diversity, revision, and finding the humanity in your characters.  If you haven’t already, be sure to check out her first YA novel “Hooked,” about … well, read the essay and you’ll find out!

 

Image © Jimmy Emerson (https://www.flickr.com/photos/auvet/8517183448/_

Image © Jimmy Emerson (https://www.flickr.com/photos/auvet/8517183448/_

In my debut young adult contemporary novel “Hooked,” the main character is a teen girl named Fred.  She lives in the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, Arizona, in the American Southwest.  Fred is Native.

Something you should know: I am neither a teen nor Native.  In fact, on the surface, my background differs greatly from Fred’s.  Below the surface, however, I found that while developing and writing Fred, we were more alike than I realized.  If we had gone to school together, I liked to think we could have been friends, maybe even best friends, because I really could have used a friend like Fred when I went to high school.  High school for me was pretty brutal.  I was quiet and bookish and had difficulty relating to most of my classmates.  Consequently I spent a lot of time alone and was never the type to, say, join the Homecoming Committee or party in the woods near our home on a Friday night.  I was anxious to graduate and go to college and get on with my life.  In “Hooked,” Fred pretty much feels the same way.

Another thing you should know:  I didn’t set out to write a Native teen in “Hooked.”  The truth is that the character kind of popped into my head, completely unexpected.  Yeah, I know that sounds cliché but it’s true.  Fred spoke to me one day—well, I should say she motioned to me first.  She was waving a golf club in my direction from the side of a road like she was some kind of band conductor, although I wasn’t certain if she was angry at me or trying to get my attention.  Over time, I realized it was the latter.  And over the course of two years, she had a lot to tell me and a lot of it wasn’t pretty.

I was returning home from a hike up Telegraph Pass in South Mountain Park, a mountain range not far from my home in Phoenix.  I do a lot of hiking in my spare time and on this day I was driving down Pecos Road which, at certain times of the day, is pretty desolate.  Think tumbleweeds bouncing across the road and the occasional coyote or javalina peering at you from desert.  My kinda place.  I love the desolation of the desert.  Anyway, I was driving down the road, with the Gila River Indian Community stretching into forever to the south of me when I got this very clear image of a Native girl with long black hair, wearing tan shorts and a white t-shirt.  And, like I said, she was waving a golf club at me.  Girl got my attention, needless to say.  I did not crash the car.

Why was she waving a golf club? I have no idea.  It’s not as though I’m a pro golfer or anything. I know enough about golf to be certifiably dangerous.  When I reflect back on it, maybe I was thinking about why there weren’t more golfers who were Native?  With all of the golf courses in Arizona, and roughly 20 Native American tribes in the state, you’d think there might be more Native pro-golfers.  (Side note: I wish there were!) This image of that girl who would soon become Fred both confused and intrigued me.  So I went home and started to bang out a couple of chapters—which, by the way—would be written and rewritten a hundred more times.  But I had this girl and the first seeds of my story firmly sprouted in my head.

Since I am not Native, I didn’t take the idea lightly of writing a girl from the Gila River Indian Community in my story.  In fact, I knew that if I was going to include Fred, she would have to be a main character, not the trusty sidekick which, unfortunately, is how you find too many characters from underrepresented groups in children’s literature.  That said, I knew full well that Fred and my story could/would be met with skepticism, even suspicion, given that I’m just a Midwestern girl who grew up outside of Chicago.  (Side note: It has.) Despite Fred’s background, I refused to be afraid to write this character either, even though conventional wisdom dictates “Write what you know.”  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), I prefer the less popular “Write what you want to know.”

Writing bravado aside, I am fortunate that I have many Native friends, having lived in the American Southwest now for a few decades.  I count several as best friends.  Before I got the seed of the story for “Hooked,” we would talk, as girlfriends often do, about home and growing up and kids and stuff that we think is important or mundane or funny or ridiculous.  You know, Girlfriend Talk.  I thought I knew these women.  I would learn through writing “Hooked” that there was so much more I needed to learn.

In particular, I confided to my girlfriend Jenn about Fred and my story.  Jenn is Gila and Pima.  Jenn never once tried to talk me out of writing “Hooked.”  In fact, as I began to tell her about how the seed of the story popped into my head on Pecos Road and what I thought the plot should be, she uttered that magical question that every writer loves to hear after she’s been babbling ad nauseum about her latest story idea: “So what happens next?”

Image © Vancity Allie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/30691679@N07/4515205925/)

Image © Vancity Allie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/30691679@N07/4515205925/)

This doesn’t mean writing “Hooked” was easy.  Stories don’t write themselves and stories that are written outside of your life experiences and comfort zones definitely don’t write themselves! (I even had to research golf, for god sakes.)  Sometimes as you wade into the muck of your own stories, your characters may mock you and yell at you and do everything to try and get you to give up and take up roller-blading or cupcake decorating or neurosurgery.

But there was something very special about Fred.  She had a story to tell and I refused to let her go.  I couldn’t give up.

As Jenn and a bunch of my other Native friends began to read early drafts (and soon even a few of their tween and teen kids began to chime in with cool feedback), the story began to take shape and develop a pulse.  Some of the feedback surprised me.  All of the feedback fascinated me.  Above all, the feedback—from the seemingly minor things to the majorly things—taught me.  Shaped my thoughts. Changed my perspective.  Like:

1)    “At least you didn’t make her a basketball player. I would have hated that. Too many people think that the only sport Native girls are good at is basketball.”

2)    “We call each other ‘Indian’ when we talk amongst ourselves but you shouldn’t. You should call us Native or by our tribe’s name. It’s confusing, I know.”

3)    “Don’t have them sit on the ground, cross-legged. I find that offensive.”

4)    “A lot of tribes like to refer to the reservation as a ‘community’ but we still say ‘rez’ when we talk amongst ourselves.”

5)    “There are differences between urban and rez Natives, but a lot of us don’t like to talk about it.  Sometimes rez Natives don’t feel that Natives who live off the rez are Native enough.”

6)    “The bullying that happened to Fred reminds me of stuff that happened to me when I was in high school.”

7)    “I knew someone like Seth Winters.”

8)    “A girl called me Pocahontas in middle school. I hated that. And I hated her for it. It was like that was all she could see about me.”

9)    “I once had a crush on a white boy in my Freshman lit class.  I never worked up the nerve to talk to him.  I was afraid that if I did my Native friends would hate me.”

10) “Loyalty is very important on the rez. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my family.”

11) Not every Native is traditional. We were because my grandmother lived with us for a long time. She taught us a lot of stuff about our tribe.

12)  “Fred is too white.” (All of my Native beta-readers told me this upon reading my earliest drafts.)

That Fred was too white kind of became a burr in my skin that I couldn’t quite reach for a long time, probably throughout the first year that I drafted and redrafted  this story.   I didn’t know how to change this about her.  How could I make her more genuine?  More Native? More Gila?  Was I only seeing Fred through my lens, so to speak?

When I probed my Native friends further, they told me that I was making her too animated, too aggressive, too loud in her actions and mannerisms with Ryan and the other kids at the fictitious Lone Butte High School where “Hooked” takes place.   “I would never have acted like this,” one girlfriend told me about several of my chapters.  “I would have ignored that girl. She’s not worth it.”  They were referring to Gwyneth, one of the teen girls in the story who was jealous of Fred and went out of her way to make Fred’s life miserable.

In a moment of writer frustration, and probably a half dozen drafts later, Jenn said something that became the lightbulb that went off in my head.  She said, “Don’t mistake silence for weakness, Liz.  Fred’s better than that.”  With that simple yet profound piece of feedback, it was like the sky opened, the sun blazed, hummingbirds started chirping, and I finally began to *get* my elusive Fred and what she was really all about, her humanity.  Her soul.  Those deep places that are intangible and yet help to create that impenetrable emotional bond between writer and character, story and reader.

What Jenn was also trying to tell me, I believe, was that the less I wrote Fred in my own image—or in the image with which I was most comfortable—the more genuine she became.  And, as it turns out, the more relatable she became to Jenn and my Native friends.  Sometimes that rewriting included something minor, like a reaction—or no reaction at all.  Or more self-reflection.  Other times it included a complete chapter rewrite like the scene where Fred shows up to the pool party at Ryan’s house, for example. This was a critical moment and provided more insight into Fred as it gave her a chance to evaluate whether she truly wanted to hang with Ryan and his group of friends.  By observing and interacting with Ryan and his friends, she became stronger in her convictions as to what she wanted in her friendships and for herself, in general.

And so I rewrote chapters till my fingertips and eyeballs burned and until I finally began to get feedback from my friends like, “I can really relate to this girl now.  Keep going.”  And even that lovely, “What happens next?”

HOOKED_Book_CoverA few more things you should know about the characters in “Hooked”: no one is perfect.  Not even Fred.  Everyone has their issues and challenges and obstacles.  No one has the perfect family, the perfect home life, the perfect social life, the perfect wardrobe, the perfect anything because who really does in real life?  Fred doesn’t.  I didn’t.  And Fred and I grew up, worlds apart.  Yet, I could understand her.  In fact, I could understand her better when she became less like me and more fully herself.

And I think that’s the great thing about books, particularly stories with diverse characters: it’s when you can find a little piece (or a big piece) of yourself in a character that might be different than you.  You find that bond and you can empathize or sympathize, depending on your perspective and set of life experiences, but also learn to respect and even admire your differences. 

As a writer, there’s really no greater thrill than finding the humanity in your characters.  Even so, I would never advise a writer to not write outside her comfort zones, although I don’t think it’s a decision that should be made lightly either.  Writing what you know is hard enough; writing what you want to know will take a few extra hundred layers of thick skin and good friends who aren’t afraid to poke holes in your perceptions.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship” — Louisa May Alcott

 

 


Liz Fichera is an American author who lives in the American Southwest by way of Chicago. She writes stories about ordinary teens who do extraordinary things.  Her 2013 YA debut, “Hooked,” features a Native American girl who decides to join the all boys Varsity golf team at her high school.  It received a Kirkus Star and was also a YALSA Best Fiction nominee.  Her next novel, “Played,” releases May 27, 2014. She also has a novella releasing on April 1, 2014, entitled “Your Are Here.”  To learn more, please visit her web site: www.LizFichera.com

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