Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Write who you are: Teri Terry has an identity crisis

It might seem rather incestuous - today's guest blogger Teri Terry is basing her blog on a talk I gave in Birmingham last week. As I always do, I bashed on about how it's not about writing what you know but writing who you are (not an original thought, unfortunately - I read it in Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell).I also read in Story by Robert McKee that Stanislavski used to ask his actors: Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in your art? Hmm. Inneresting question for anyone trying to write novels.
Candy Gourlay

Who Am I, and what does it mean for my writing?

A reasonable question to ask. I’m posing it after having a bit of a light-bulb moment on Saturday.

I was on the train coming back from Birmingham, iPod on, not thinking about anything in particular while the countryside rushed past my window. But random things were having a chat in my subconscious, as they do. I’ve always founds trains are great places for thinking.

I’d just been to the SCBWI event with Candy Gourlay and lots of lovely SCBWI friends as well. I won’t be a spoiler and tell you all about it, as this event may appear in a location near you, soon (and GO if it does – it was a fascinating and inspiring talk). But a few thoughts collided in my brain on the journey home.

They were three:

  • a rejection received the day before: along of the lines of, concept check; writing check; supporting cast, check; main character – er… – lacking something?
  • Culture and cultural clashes – being from one place, living in another – what this means (and from a personal perspective, it is one of those things you don’t really get when you are making the decision: at 20-something or even 30-something, you don’t feel the long-term implications in your guts)
  • Write what you know vs. write what you are.
I’ve had this sort of debate with myself, before. If you looked up ‘rootless’ in the dictionary, I’m sure you’d see my photo: Dad Dutch, Mum’s parents Finnish, me born in France, moving every five minutes with Dad’s air force postings throughout childhood. And I continued this pattern on my own, living all over Canada and Australia, collecting degrees and changing careers along the way, until I somehow landed in England. I’ve lived in the same house here now for six years with my partner, and I’ve never even come close to that long before. It is a bit terrifying.

When Frances Lincoln had a ‘Diverse Voices’ writing competition a few years ago, I remember looking at it, and wondering: would writing about belonging nowhere be an acceptable interpretation of the rules?

I decided not, but out of the thinking JJ was born, my 13 year old character in Meet Me at the Lost and Found whose artist dad and poet mum had her many times around the globe before she could talk.

Writing what you know: the feeling of belonging nowhere and trying to find a place for yourself, and the survival techniques you learn, like how to quickly integrate enough but not too much in new surroundings. The ‘one friend’ rule: you just need one, and you’re all right.

When it was gently rejected last week, it was pointed out that the ‘warm fuzzies’ this sort of 10-plus book needed to have were missing. The expectation that JJ was making her own family for herself when her parents dumped her with an Aunt in London were not fulfilled. The relationship with her Aunt and Grandad didn’t develop sufficiently, and JJ wasn’t likeable enough. And the criticism was fair.

On my train journey, I was thinking about the three things I mentioned above, and about rejections of the past. And I started to spot a pattern.

My secondary characters are not generally a problem: it is always the ‘I’, the main character, their development, their relationships, readers’ sympathies with them. There seemed to be a recurring theme.

A-ha! An epiphany! Something to work on, and think about.

But the why is less comfortable. When I write, I am my main character. Male, female, whatever age. JJ feeling disconnected from anywhere is writing what I know. But resolving the story to give warm fuzzies at the end isn’t what I know. I don’t get it. Because I still always feel like I don’t belong anywhere, like I need space. Like I don’t want to get too close to people in case they disappear. Beyond my ‘one friend’ – long-suffering, darling husband – I get to a certain point in relationships with people, then back away.

Ways forward for my writing?

I get it, and I’ll work on it. And I also see why I prefer writing for 12 or 14-plus. Adolescents are plagued with feeling alienated and needing to find their way. Warm fuzzies aren’t my specialty. Dystopias are just the thing…

Teri is currently writing Slated, a chilling YA Dystopian trilogy.

Last word from Candy: well this is a pet topic of mine so I can't help putting in a last word. Not mine but another quote from Robert McKee that really resonates with me - Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as a writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave of your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life.

Heads up, anyone working on high concept who hasn't wept over a character yet.


  1. Teri, I really empathise with you here. The idea that you need to change who you are because the themes that resonate with you aren't as palatable in story terms, is a hard one. And maybe you're right, dystopias are the way to go. I'm sure you'll work it out and manage to draw out the parts of your vision and personality that work best on the page.

    For me, things have been a little easier in resolution terms, because I started writing a book about zombies and somehow ended up with a story of someone building a family. Which of course ticks all the touchy-feely Pixar-approved boxes of modern culture. But that is who I am - someone who has come out from a disconnected childhood and then spent my time building the family I never had.

    Did that sound impossibly mushy? Typing it made me cry, so I must be on the right track somewhere...


    P.S. Candy - high concept is just that, a concept. The actual story can be as emotional as you want to make it.

  2. Great blog, Teri. I've always believed that, in terms of personal qualities, our greatest strengths are the same as our greatest weaknesses.

    I think characters are at their most likeable when they're completely opened up to the readers scrutiny, no matter what their qualities may be.

    And by the way, every time I read something of yours it blows me away!

  3. Write what you know, write what you are, and here's a good one: write what you feel!

  4. Hiya

    WOW! I've just worked out who I am!

    (thanks to Sara O'C for the link)


  5. I found this post fascinating, Teri, because my kids grew up (until ages 11 and 7) as expats - in Amsterdam.They went to an international school where there was great emphasis on getting them to think of themselves as global citizens, otherwise known as third culture kids. It's not the easiest thing to be, but now we're back in our 'home' culture (which neither of them feel is really 'home') I can see the advantages in feeling free to travel anywhere, live anywhere and still be yourself.

  6. Teri, I really appreciated this post. I haven't gone through anything like the number of moves you have, but even just bouncing around the US and the UK has been enough to make dislocation a common theme in both my life and my writing.

    I also empathize with how hard it is to find a solution for a character when you've saddled them with issues that are hard to resolve in your own life. But I also think that some of our best writing happens when we take on those unresolved issues. It keeps us from falling back on easy answers.

    About finding warm fuzzies when you haven't experienced any: You might find this interview --
    -- with Cheryl Rainfield helpful. She struggled for years to find a way to write in anything but a very bleak way about a very painful past, and in the end she produced a book of enormous power.


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