11 March 2010

Writer as Anthropologist: A Spy Story

by guest columnist Karen Quah.  Follow her on Twitter.

I once went out with a guy for a week. I say Went Out. But it was really just a whirlwind romance that lasted, well, a week.

We met through mutual friends. Instant attraction. Saw each other every day, any chance we got. Before work, in between work, after work… We just couldn’t get enough of each other.

Then, after a week… Nothing.

A couple of strangers staring at each other across a restaurant table, left with dregs of a tornado been and gone, wondering what the hell happened.

The break-up was quick and amicable. We ate. He paid. He dropped me off. But before we parted, he made me promise one thing.

ONE-WEEK STAND (OWS): Swear you’ll never write about this?

ME: Huh?

OWS: Promise I won’t open the paper one day to find a story about “us”.

ME: Why the paranoia? Are you a spy?

No. You are.

ME: What?

OWS: Why can’t you just promise me I won’t read about “us” in the paper, or anywhere else?

ME: All right… I promise you won’t read about “us” in the paper.

OWS: Or anywhere else.

ME: Or anywhere else. Okay? Can I go now?

I never saw him again. And since I am a woman of my word, kept my promise. Well, until now.

I figure after all this time he’s either dead, forgotten about it or doesn’t really care. And the reason I tell you this story is because he was, of course, one hundred per cent correct.

Anyone who is acquainted with writers or is a writer knows, whatever they experience will ultimately end up on the page, in some form or another.

It’s inevitable. Happens to the best of us…

Sapphire, author of Push – now renamed Precious after the film for which Geoffrey Fletcher won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay - based the novel on her remedial reading teaching experience in Harlem.

At the school, the author is said to have come across many girls like Precious who 

“didn't fit into the confines of our society's beauty paradigm, girls who were essentially 'locked out' of a broader culture.”
Screenwriter Mark Boal who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Hurt Locker explained in an interview how the story came to be.
“I was an embedded reporter in Iraq and I came back from having spent some time with the bomb squad and watching them disarm bombs in the heat of combat. And I knew Kathryn Bigelow from before that experience. Anyway, I told her about it, and she said, "Hey, that's a movie." Or, "That might be a movie."
One of my favorite novelists, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was incarcerated in 1849 for being part of the liberal intellectual group - the Petrashevsky Circle, and sentenced to 4 years in exile and hard labor at a Siberian prison camp. An experience which Dostoyevsky compared to being “shut in a coffin”, which prompted him to write The House of The Dead.

Of course, we don’t have to go to prison or war to write about it. But we have to connect. And that connection comes from life experience and how it has informed us as people and artists.

It doesn’t have to be anything prolific. Sometimes a simple break-up or an asshole at work or something on the news will do. And sure, from our victims’ perspective, it may seem a touch parasitic and traitorous - this business of living, then sharing with the rest of the world. But from a creative standpoint, it is a sure path to authenticity.

As storytellers, our lives inform our work – I firmly believe that.

I also believe as writers or storytellers, we are anthropologists. And as anthropologists, we serve as spies for the human condition, spirit, soul.

So I wonder
: When was the last time you went through some crazy screwed-up situation thinking: This would make a really cool story?

Karen Quah is a journalist, playwright, screenwriter and script editor who is currently working on her first novel. She also runs a blog called ModernDayStoryteller. http://moderndaystoryteller.com


Tyler Weaver said...

I used to do that all the time at the wine shop I worked at in Boston. Actually used it to keep order with the more... wily customers.

I made sure everyone knew I was a writer (mainly because I was writing all the time), and kept a list on the counter. When people asked "what's that list," I would respond:

"It's my idea list. Everytime someone annoys me, I write their name and one major characteristic as well as the offense that gave them a spot on the list."


"For material."

Still have the list =)

moderndaystoryteller said...

Ha, that's wicked Tyler. Though at least you're open about it. I like to do it in secret and take people by surprise. Is it a long list? :)

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman said...

Great insight, Karen!

Everyone around me knows nothing is sacred, but growing up with a father who wrote a newspaper column, I respect when someone says, "this is off the record." However, if I can find a way to change the names to protect the innocent, I will ;)

But now, I hear my kids say, "You're not going to tweet about this, are you?" Nothing is off limits... well, maybe my kids.

There's a danger in writing about family or close friends though. I did have to remove one of my favorite blog posts because the friend was deeply offended. Sigh. When you're a spy, you need a tough skin... or an alias.

moderndaystoryteller said...

Love that Jeanne - tough skin or alias! And so darn true!

It is a fine line we tread though can proudly say I have never sold anyone out for the sake of a story and even lost an assignment once over it.

I also find if you stay true to your friends and principles, chances are karma will smile upon you and if you were meant to tell that story, it will find a way to you. Thanks Jeanne & Cheers!

Jessica said...

I have a much easier time being the anthropologist - observing and absorbing the little quirks, delights, and horrors of humanity and using those observations to enhance characters or themes.

I have a much harder time taking screwed up situations that I've been personally involved in and turning them into fiction. It can be very difficult to part with something as simple as the chronology of an event. I can get very attached to the idea that there is such a thing as objective reality, which can be quantified and accounted for through very specific reporting. (And, yes, I am aware that this is silly.) Of course, the narratives of our lives don't fit neatly into fiction without major revisions and rearrangement.

And I guess that's another perk to being a writer - you get to revise and rearrange and revisit your experiences in ways that you couldn't when they were happening to you.

moderndaystoryteller said...

Ah yes, the quiet observer. As opposed to us loud ones who turn mishaps into fiction or in my case, comedy. Yes, I see your point about objectivity and detachment, Jess. Sort of like how some actors find it easier to slip into another character than to play themselves. Guess I haven't a problem with the latter since I often regard self and life as fictional. Which I'm sure it is. As for revisiting the past, there is only one perk. Revelation. Once all mysteries are solved, I'm happy to move on.

Cheers Jess and thanks for the input!

Ann Marie Gamble said...

The bits and pieces of events I experienced or the people I know end up highly altered (I think ;) ) by the time they end up in my fiction. An event sparks my interest, but it has to tie into a conflict to make a story.
As Tyler says, there may be a major characteristic I carry from a real person to a character in a story, but then I mold and shape. In a story I have the luxury of knowing exactly why they would act that way.

For example, the sensation in my WIP of being a stranger in a small town in Ireland is largely informed by my year standing out in a big city in Japan (really, truly, there are similarities!). The mice in the MC's mattress are the raccoons in my attic; the 80-year-old conflict-avoiding sheep farmer is my--wait a minute, who reads this blog?

Where I do tread warily is with my children: I don't mind telling tales of their happy exploits, but I don't want to humiliate them, and I don't want to drown out their perception of events.

moderndaystoryteller said...

Haha, you had me at 80-year-old conflict-avoiding sheep farmer!

I think we are all unanimous in our agreement as parents that kids are off-limits. Yes indeed. I can see how taking a major characteristic from a real person and shaping that into your character could provide you with flaws and motivation. Though have to admit, I have very little say in my characters' actions and generally try to stay out of their way.

Your novel sounds intriguing, Ann. And yes, can absolutely see how being a "Gai Jin" in Japan for a year would inform a story about being an outsider in a small Irish town. Best of luck with it. Let us know when it's out. And thanks for sharing!

Simon said...

Drawing on what we've seen and experienced for our writing. It presents dificulties for me in that what I've seen and experienced is rather intense, and how to convey that in fiction? Well I'd have to write a script from the point of view of someone in my career, as the avergae person wouldn't see what I've seen, over and over again. By now, you're probably going "what's so non average about you" and I'm trying to convey it with some sense of decorum, in that me, I'm an average joe, what I've seen is not. I've been in the news industry for 7 years, in that time I've probably attended 60 odd fatal accidents, I've seen a semi trailer carve its way through a car right in front of me, logs spilling everywhere, and the car disintergrating in seconds, they didn't survive. I've been to countless house fires, a couple of gun sieges (always great when everyone without a flak jacket is running away and you're running in with the cops) standing outside of court with the scum of the earth calling you vulture (I'm lucky I've never been assaulted by one of these vermin, but I'm 6'2" 95kg)
Seen floods, bushfires, the depravity of human kind with rapists and murders, seen the fallout with families (who are usually the nicest people in the world) covered evacuations of natural disasters and riots in th wee hours of the morning, seen children staring at parents who've lost everything. All this is in my head, all the pressures, the friends I've made, the friends and family I have lost, through accidents or suicide, and the fallout in my own family, all of this is in me...and yet I want to write about spaceships, magic, the fantastical, the Lucas and Spielberg childish wonder, as the real world scares the hell out of me...I don't know what I will bring up if I write about reality from my own experiences, perhaps my own fear will create something amazing, if I have the courage to put it to paper, and then, could I really do it justice? Has all this stuff just washed over me, because I can't absorb any more? Or is it waiting for a release within a fictional craft? I won't know until I start writing...I'll let you know how it goes.

Simon VDS

moderndaystoryteller said...

First of all Simon, thank you for sharing.

It is amazing in that I never suspected that of you - "the average person". I can absolutely see why you would go to fantasy and magic in search of answers, it might well be the best way to find them. Drawing on our own sour experiences does not necessarily mean drama. The worst experiences in my life have made the best comedy. And that is really all I'm comfortable writing, is comedy. So I wish you the very best, Simon, in dealing with the demons of past and making sense of them. Allowing them to seep out amidst spaceships and intergalactic activity does not mean you lack courage, it simply means you are loaded with imagination and creativity and are dealing with it as best you can. Whatever means of exploration you choose, what you've seen and lived I'm sure will be there, as it is now a part of you. Wishing you all the best Simon. Go easy on yourself and once again, Thank You for sharing. I deeply appreciate it.

Olive O'Brien said...

Hi Karen,
I think a lot of people around me are scared that I will write about them eventually! Some said to me recently, you can talk about us as much as you want, as long as you don't write about us.
I do sometimes think that whatever happens to us in life, somehow makes its way to our writing, whether we like or not, or indeed whether we intend to or not. I suppose it's all part of being a writer.
There have been a few things that happened in my life, when I thought that would make a good story! Haven't written them yet, but some day...maybe:)

moderndaystoryteller said...

Ha, that's funny... You're allowed to talk about your friends, just don't write about them. I get the paranoia but as you say, it's not intentional - on your part. Though inevitable. And the translation doesn't have to be literal either. I'm sure your Perry the Polar Bear books have something in your life as a basis, right? Cheers Olive & Thanks!

Anonymous said...

When I tell a real story it becomes confusing. I elaborate the twists, to turn the real into somewhat fictional, then no one thinks it really happened.


I guess I do absorb everything, it will come out somewhere in a story, and there is a fine line between my life and the paper.

It's so damn frustrating that people would believe it's all about them. It's just character traits and we all have a million of those. Unless, they want it to be about them, and then yes, I did draw from them.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, I have been accused of being a spy ...

purelycarrie said...

I am the anonymous @purelycarrie I am not a spy. LOL

moderndaystoryteller said...

Carrie, you crack me up - anonymous at all. Having read your writing I know everyone you encounter goes down the rabbit hole into your world. And you've touched on something wicked here, some people like to be written about. Especially if the character is a flattering one. Why not? It's the ultimate compliment. Thanks luvly.

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