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On Writing What You Don’t Know by Rebecca Burrell


Somewhere back in caveman times, I envision a young, creative soul with a fistful of ochre and torch soot. As she ponders the limestone, instead of bison or aurochs or deer, her head fills with great creatures who live under the sea and though she’s never seen them, she knows exactly what they look like. How they move. The way they shimmer when sunlight hits their skin. And then, an elder comes up behind, and after a dismissive grunt, tells her ‘stick to what you know’. 

It’s maybe the oldest pieces of writing advice out there. And it has its merits. If our aspiring cave artist can only manage a soggy-looking bison, she’s added very little to the world. Or maybe she paints a respectable dolphin, except it’s blood crimson with snaggly tusks, and no one is the wiser until some seafaring stranger happens by and says it’s all wrong. Still, our intrepid artist hasn’t committed any harm. But is that always the case?

In the real world, when we tackle a topic outside our experience, we own the force of our words. For a reader in a marginalized group, a depiction which rests on unwanted stereotypes can feel more painful than the lack of representation itself. The main protagonist of At Shutter Speed identifies herself as biracial, which I do not. However, I am an adoptive mother who’d been watching her non-white, immigrant child struggle with the changes that have occurred in America over the past few years. (Although that’s his tale to tell someday if he chooses, not mine.) Writing this story became my window into how scary and uncertain all this feels to him. The challenge was how to avoid the trap of falling into my own biases and perceptions, but I found that so long as I maintained an awareness of this, I could approach it much the same as I do any time I write a new character or setting. I’ve never been a war photographer either, but I immersed myself in memoirs and geeked out with photos and cameras until I was confident I could inhabit the character’s headspace in a believable way.

“What you don’t know” is only true for a fixed point in time. Perhaps it’s a piece of historical fiction set in an unfamiliar time or place, or a voice you want to explore, but aren’t sure you can do it justice. A magical thing about writing: you can always turn back. Don’t be afraid to venture out of your cave and take your first steps towards the sea.

Musings on The Moment Before by Jason Makansi

Q&A with Happy LaShelle, According to Audrey