Let’s get the cliche out of the way: we’re living in polarized times. There seems to be a heightened sensitivity in the world these days in general, and even words and ideas that may not once have been seen as controversial can be perceived as incendiary.
Story’s noblest purpose is to get to the heart of some of the deepest and most complicated human emotions, thoughts, topics. To forge a path through the thickets of thorny ideas. To reflect and hopefully shed light on our society, human nature, and readers’ lives.
Yet in times like these, doing so can inflame some of your readers, even alienate them. There are two schools of thought on what that means for authors, as well as agents, publishers, and marketing people. Some choose to walk the middle of the road in the interest of not limiting readership or risking a slew of angry reviews. Some decide to carry their torch off the trail and into the darkness despite the risks of all that may lie within it.
I don’t believe there’s any right path. As with so much of writing, the right approach is the one that’s right for you, as a person, as an author, and as a businessperson.
But I do believe that every author should consider this question for themselves and make deliberate choices. A sort of life and creativity mission statement, if you will.
“What Story Are You Telling and Why?”
An example. Every week, when I decide what to write for these blog posts, I find influence and inspiration from what’s going on around me. It may be a podcast I’ve listened to, an article I’ve read, a concept I’ve been thinking about–or current events in the world.
Because my purpose and conscious intention with this blog and all of my work is to find ways to help writers, I tend to examine all of these prompts through that lens, as with this post about conflict and tension in writing, inspired by the infamous Oscar slap, or this one on why telling your stories matters, inspired by the war in Ukraine.
Or like my recent post inspired by the school shooting in Uvalde, which I used as a springboard to talk about why it’s not meaningless to write in the face of human suffering.
I am not a political pundit, nor have any of you come here for my personal ideology and views, so I keep everything focused on my core mission of helping authors.
But I am a human being, as we all are, and I’m a creative, both of which mean that I am profoundly influenced by the events around me, as are we all. None of us exists in a vacuum, and just as I always talk about being mindful of the world your character lives in and their place in it as key elements of what shapes them and their behaviors, we can’t isolate any part of ourselves from all the richness that we are as full humans.
Much of my thinking and formulating of ideas in my field of expertise, writing and editing, is in fact drawn from and influenced by everything in the world around me. That’s a key part of my process. And I have made the choice to share that with my writing community. To be my true self, while still honoring your purpose for being here and trying not to muddy my focus on that.
That’s my personal choice for how I run my business and my art, even though I know it may not appeal to everyone, and may result in some people not being receptive to my work and central message. I’ve carefully considered that and it’s a risk I’m willing to take because it makes my work feel more organic and whole to me, and that’s important to me.
But there are any number of other industry professionals who may feel that doing so is not a risk they’re willing to assume, or that it unnecessarily limits their audience, or that it’s not their place to weigh in on topics outside of their specialty. I recently saw a reader comment on one blogger’s post about a current event that they appreciated that this person “stayed in their lane” for the most part, meaning not venturing outside the parameters of their work. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
But the writer’s job is not necessarily to be everyone’s cup of tea.
“Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?”
“Making Your Voice Matter in a Crowded Market”
Who are you as a writer? What do you want to say? What’s important to you? These are the kinds of questions you might deliberately ponder, if you haven’t already, in determining how far out on a ledge you want to go with your writing. How personal you want to be. How definitive you want to risk being.
There is no right or wrong answer here, and no path is better than any other. But it’s part of finding your voice as a writer, as an artist. It’s about knowing what drives you creatively. It’s about knowing your purpose, with every story, and with your entire career and art. These are not casual choices. They will shape you as a writer. They will define you. They will define your message and your readership.
My personal decision was based on the fact that I wanted to be able to fully express who I am even in my writing about craft, and that I wanted to be cohesive in my career with who I am as a person. Despite that this may narrow my potential audience, I love the fact that those who do vibe with me are my “people,” and create a writing community that nourishes me. It lets me feel more authentic, and it frees me.
That may not feel right to another editor or writer or agent, who may prefer more of a separation of church and state, so to speak–their business pursuits entirely separate from their personal lives. And that’s an equally valid choice, as is anything in the full spectrum in between.
They key is to make whichever path you decide your deliberate, thought-out choice, one that best fits your personality and purpose, your goals and values for your career and your life.
And then commit to that with your whole unbridled heart and mind. That’s how you create your individual style and voice—and how you build a career with meaning.
Your turn, authors—are you cognizant of your personal views finding their way into your art? Do you embrace that or curtail it—and in either case, why? Do you like reading (or watching) stories with a clear point of view, or do you prefer your art “neutral”?
I’m writing a novel about a coven of witches. Real life witches love Mother Earth, as do I. So I’m able to write about environmental challenges that I wouldn’t normally preach about. Supernatural style!
I love stories that let me understand or learn about something–that broaden my mindset as well as entertain. I always think it’s the sugar that makes the pill more palatable. For me, story is more than straight-up diversion. I want to think…I want to explore new viewpoints and ideas, to expand my horizons. Doing it through the delicious medium of story makes it more enjoyable than just cracking a textbook on a subject. Stories aren’t soapboxes and the issues/themes should never override the main story or feel preachy, but I love the way you’re using Wicca to dive into ecological issues–it’s an organic, natural fit, isn’t it?
This was really meaningful to me on two levels. I write memoir, and my first reaction was to decide that “of course I put in my attitudes and values.” But as I read, and as I sat with the words of this blog, I started having doubts.
I recognize that my writing is for my family only- and as I recall some of my favorite pieces, I noticed that I sometimes dial back my opinion or point of view, so that they can form their own when they read this some day.
And on another level, I feel gently challenged to pay closer attention to my purpose and goals as I write, and not to just write in my personal vacuum space. Thank you!
Ooh, Karol, I love this. We do that in life too sometimes, don’t we? Curb our genuine thoughts or opinions for various reasons…put a “check” on our truest selves. Memoir is especially hard because it requires such nakedness and vulnerability, and as you point out, it has the potential to hurt others or expose them in an unwelcome or unflattering way. I always think it’s one of the most challenging forms of story for that reason–that’s an incredibly hard equation to balance. And yet good memoirs–bare-naked, raw, real ones–can be some of the most affecting, impactful stories we read.
I kind of love that this has prompted you to think about how much you may be holding back or playing it safe…and what you really want to say at the core. To me that’s what makes for the truest and most relatable writing. Thanks for sharing that!
There was a time when we didn’t have to be quite so concerned with our personal opinions. There was also a time when peoples’ skin was thicker (and more respectful). Somehow we’ve become super sensitive to literally everything. And that’s unfortunate. But the bottom line is, as a writer or author, you cannot please everyone and any attempt to do so usually results in a boring read filled with too many caveats.
For me, I don’t want to read blatantly opinionated anything. I also do not want to write blatantly opinionated content. I want to be entertained. I’m referring to fiction here. I try to at least present both sides of an issue because the characters kinda have to reflect some realistic state of being. But I won’t trash one side or glorify the other. Nobody wants to read stuff like that.
But Tiffany is correct, you’re better off writing what is true to you and be fair doing it. Trying to please or not offend everyone is near impossible and is obvious when attempted. Take Hail Mary for example. I don’t know for certain, but it was my impression it was heavily edited for the widest possible audience which to me was both obvious and eye-rolling. I could not get even half way through it. It was very different than The Martian. I realize I am likely one of the few to form this opinion but I’ve become super sensitive just like everyone because of the saturation affect.
The fiction I write stays away from real life current events because I want to entertain, not rehash the same crap that goes on day to day. So yeah, I think it’s sad we have to be so sensitive to the level of sensitivity in our writing. Good article, thanks.
Your comment reminds me of this recent article, Tom (which I’m sharing in the “writerly Resources” of next month’s “How Writers Revise” newsletter). I agree wholeheartedly with you that good stories shouldn’t feel like they have an agenda (even if they do). That’s not why most of us read story, and to me it impedes it. I do love story with a message, though, or a theme–not one that’s spoon-fed to me, but one that may spark my own thoughts on a subject, lead me to explore my own opinions and ideas about it.
I also wholeheartedly agree that the world has become supersensitive and polarized, in a way that I think especially does not serve story–and in fact may limit it. (Among its many other unfortunate effects on us.) Side note here, but do you know about an organization called Braver Angels? It’s one of a number of orgs with a similar mission to help depolarize and reconnect people–to teach us to find common ground again (which I believe we have so much more of than not). I’ve recently started attending their workshops on the topic, which give me hope we might be able to mend some of these breaches one day. I think you nailed one of the ways forward–remembering to respect one another as humans, regardless of where our beliefs may differ (and this is something Braver Angels focuses on).
I do think you’re right about our characters needing to be fully developed and real even if their beliefs don’t reflect ours–and if every character’s do, that feels pretty dull to me. It can be hard to write a character of a differing or opposing viewpoint with depth and verisimilitude and compassion, and without resorting to stereotypes or villainizing, but I love when authors succeed in doing it. It’s one of those things that expands my mind–lets me consider other points of view I may have been blind to or dismissed. And it’s excellent character work, which always delights my character-editor soul!
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. See, you’ve given me something to think about right here, illustrating our point. 🙂
Hey, Tiffany! This so spoke to me. My goal for my first few books is to dive into taboo topics too long ignored while still taking readers on page-turning rides. For me, that’s integral to the author brand I’m establishing.
Is that to everyone’s taste? No. But those are the stories I want to tell. I know there are readers thirsting for reading journeys that both challenge and entertain, so I’m confident I’ll find my peeps!
I feel you, Paulette! I could no more write a story without a point of view or underlying questions/theme I’m exploring than I could chew off my own foot. 🙂 It’s a huge part of why I want to write–to dig into ideas I want to explore. As you suggest, I think the skill lies in not letting the message overwhelm the story–or even be overt. Our job is to open the door for a reader, not shove her through it–and to entertain and engage above all, not just enlighten.
I love that you dive into “taboos.” Art has always pushed boundaries and driven advances in humanity, hasn’t it? It’s not a casual thing, creativity. It has great power, I believe…and of course with that, great responsibility.
And here people think we’re just spinning pretty yarns. 🙂 Thanks for your insights and sharing.
First, let me say that of all the writer bloggers out there, you are, by far, the most astute and most useful to me as an artist. And if you knew me, you’d know my bar is set pretty high.
Writing Safe: This issue, for me, goes back many years… to 1972. I’m eight years old, and I accidentally catch the press conference on TV of Elvis Presley at Madison Square Garden. In the plethora of questions asked, this one stopped me in my tracks:
“Q: Mr. Presley, as you’ve mentioned your time in the service, what is your opinion of war protesters, and would you today refuse to be drafted?
Elvis: Honey, I’d just sooner keep my own personal views about that to myself ‘cause I’m just an entertainer, and I’d rather not say.
Q: Do you think other entertainers should refuse to be drafted?
Elvis: No, I can’t even say that!”
I never personally knew the man, but I think he loved all of his fans so much, that they were literally his world, he didn’t want to offend a single one for fear he’d lose that fan’s admiration. That, and he was, after all, a southern gentleman who lived through an era where you were told never to talk publicly about three topics: marriage, religion, and politics.
But his refusal to offer an opinion set me back in my chair, for at the time, holy heck, every actor and entertainer of his age were spouting words and protesting, i.e. Jane Fonda, to name one, Elvis’ choice to stay out of the fray really made me think, and ask myself, am I that well controlled? What would I have said in his place? I was taught the same way by my parents. The adage, if you can’t say anything good…, sort of speak.
But a half century later, and I’m not that young child anymore, and after a lifetime of observing the world — its good and evil — I have adopted a stance where I WILL voice uncomfortable issues in my written works, but not directly, through the characters and the events they encounter.
As in life, so goes work. I’m either loved or hated, it seems. But I cannot be as Elvis or as the many writers I see on Twitter who would rather sever a typing finger than spout anything but run-of-the-mill Pablum statements that won’t offend, or affect, a single soul.
My question then is this: How to be Elvis and still look yourself in the mirror?
Back then, I admired the entertainer for his polite no-speak about issues not involving his career. But now, it seems a row I cannot hoe. Being socially polite has taken a backseat to speaking my truth. In no way am I condoning ridiculous acts like what Fonda did or how other entertainers embarrass themselves by what they say and do in the name of protesting to just get media attention. That, to me, is childish and plain embarrassing.
But how can I be an artist if I’m not true to my own feelings about events which surround us all on this Big Blue Marble?
My solution: A compromise. Attempt to be Elvis, that southern gentleman in HOW I formulate my socially driven works — letting the characters say and do in a meaningful way but NOT in an offensive way — but never let those characters shy away from events which impact their world.
Result: doubtful I’ll have the following great writers do, but at least every word I lay down is genuine, and will glean what I glean in my personal life — lovers and haters, of me, and my works. I guess that’s who I am after a half century from those flickering TV images of a man in a blue jumpsuit who I still admire.
Barbara Thompson, Books by BJ Thompson
Your kind words about the blog and my work mean a great deal to me, Barbara–thank you. And I LOVED your comment–so much meat to chew (and I love the way you phrase your thoughts). Interesting that your views on…well, an artist’s views have evolved over the years. (And remember those quaint days when we avoided volatile topics or maligning others’ deeply held beliefs…?)
I have also found myself where you are–unwilling to be neutral about my art (or my life). That would be robbing myself of much of the motivation I have for writing–even with these blog posts, I have pretty strong opinions on the topics I talk about. I’m not saying I’m always right for everyone, but it’s definitely right for me, and consistent with my views and philosophies and approach to my business and this craft. Like you, I try to be respectful of other points of view–to share mine without denigrating others’. And I try to be open to other perspectives. But I can’t neuter my writing any more than you are willing to these days, it sounds like. And like you, I’m willing to have a smaller community of those my work resonates with, rather than be more broadly, “safely” appealing. And yes, genuine, as you say–authenticity is one of my main goals (and rewards).
Good for you for having thought this through so thoroughly. I’m betting it shows up in your writing, your stories, and your voice. Thanks for such a deeply considered comment.
I’ve generally avoided getting directly into politics on my author presence. But my next manuscript will require me to make some choices on what I feel equipped to talk to as it hits on some hot topics.
Interestingly, at a retreat last year a friend and I had a somewhat heated discussion on whether agents should post copious political perspectives on their “professional” agency Twitter.
I felt like it mixed an agent’s job with their political beliefs and unless they represent political books is kind of discriminating against those writers with different politics to them (eg “if you don’t believe what I do don’t ask me to represent you as an author”). A writer friend felt passionately that an agent’s politics is very relevant and yes, she wouldn’t choose any agent who fit her political beliefs so it’s relevant and she wants to know. It was actually a heated discussion.
So even the topic of whether this should be a topic can get heated!
I think those kinds of topics make a story feel very topical and relevant, and can make people think. But yes, they can also be a minefield, as it sounds like you’re discovering. 🙂 But I think as artists we have to take risks, don’t we? At least in my philosophy. I don’t really enjoy reading (or watching) “safe,” homogenized, generic stories any more than I enjoy writing them. I like things that make me react, make me think, engender a spark in me–of recognition or even outrage–because it opens up my worldview a bit, lets me reconsider the things I perhaps think I know, or areas where I have calcified.
As for whether to post on socials as a professional…that’s a little bit of a different egg, isn’t it? Still something we all have to answer for ourselves, I think. I grew up in a family and community where my ideology was pretty different from everyone around me, and I learned tolerance, coexistence, understanding, respect for others’ points of view (or at least their right to them). Those values were never tested so much as they have been since the world has grown so bitterly divided–I’ve been as susceptible to that as anyone, and it’s something I work to counter, but it seems to get harder as we all entrench in our positions and demonize anyone who doesn’t share them.
I try not to hit that chord too often or too hard, but I do occasionally post potentially divisive issues, and my position is usually pretty clear. My guideline, though, is to do it with rationality and respect, to be civil, stick to facts, and avoid ad hominem attacks. Is that the “right” answer? I don’t know–I’m sure I’ve pushed some writers away with those posts. But I’m committed to being authentic, and to speaking out when I feel it’s important. But each of us gets to (has to!) choose what approach is right for us.
And yes, you’re so right–even the question itself can be polarizing! I’m hopeful we can find our way back from where we are. I don’t think anyone is happy living like this, feeling at war with half of humanity. We’re so much more alike than we are different. Thanks for an intriguing comment, Lainey.
I thought I had a lot to say on this topic, but Tom Sullivant above articulated so well what I was thinking, and also as well your comment on Lainey Cameron’s post. I could reflect for hours on all these great thoughts and opinions here. Always love your posts, Tiffany, and find myself coming back to reread many of them.
This is a great set of comments–I thought so too! Thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Thanks for your comments about the posts, Cate–it really means a lot to me to know when they “land” with authors. Glad to see you here.
Well, as one of your fans, in particular a craft fan, like a really big fan, I find you personal and passionate in your personal passions, but not too much so. If you were strong or heady or overly passionate in your passions I’d probably unfollow you, because as much as I may respect your views, it’s just not why I follow you. I follow you for one reason: you insight on the craft. And to do so, and love you as much as I do, and then have you pivot because you are animated by something, I don’t know, it just feels “off” to me and I wouldn’t like it.
So to me, it is all a matter of degree. If you share a passion, tying it into the craft, weaving it like a stitch, no problem, I can live with that. In fact, it may make me respect you more, or I may like you more because I get to know you. Just don’t get preachy or go too far with it, is how I feel. It all comes down to degree.
I liked this subject, though, because my memoir includes parenting and religion, the latter of which I don’t shy away from but have embraced it, knowing that some will like what I write about and others will be turned off. So be it. I’ve got to be me.
Ken, your comments always put a smile on my face–and you always have something intriguing to add. I like the nuance in your answer, and your views resonate for me too. I don’t mind a certain amount of personal passion in the people whose work I like or follow, but yes, if it hijacks that work I think I probably feel as you do, that it may be a little off putting for me. It’s a balance, I think–I don’t expect people I admire to be automatons or not to show their humanity, and I often like when they do. As you said, it lets me feel I know something more about them personally. But to a point. Hopefully I find that balance. (Although I admit that sometimes I have to sit on hotter passions before writing or posting, to let that die down a bit and let me focus on the writing aspect more.)
Memoir gives you more license, I think, to put your voice and views into the work. But as you suggest, still to a point, for various reasons–readership as well as respecting others who feature in your story.
Thanks for your considered comment–and your very lovely words that were a delight to read! 🙂