Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't Touch That Subject Matter!

Happy Monday everyone,

Don't forget that tomorrow's the big day! The Notes From Underground Anthology will be available as both a print book and an e-book. If you've signed up for our mailing list, we'll hopefully be sending you a discount code very soon. We're also sending our wonderful contributors the cover of the image ahead of time--check your e-mails later today!

I spent my weekend reading about Tibetan dialectics and Buddhist views of reincarnation. It's a bit amazing that I was raised Buddhist and yet don't follow the logic of reincarnation very well. I'm glad the narrator of Cyberlama isn't Buddhist herself, otherwise my ignorance would really show through.

Religion has always been an interesting topic for me to explore. When I was a child, my mother--whom I love dearly--was always very open-minded about religion. I often went to church with some Mormon friends that I was very close to, and later on I would go to church with some Catholic friends.

But, although I was very interested in religion, I was afraid to bring it up in my writing for a long time. So many people take religion so seriously that writing about the subject matter always made me feel like I was playing with fire.

When I finally did allow myself to explore the topic in my stories, it was very freeing. I created characters that were atheists and Mormons and Catholics and Buddhists. I had them interacting with each other, which also allowed me to explore bigger themes in my stories. Overcoming my fear of offending my readers has really broadened my range and made my writing a lot more interesting, at least in my opinion.

Are there topics that you consider off-limits in your writing? Religion? War? Sex? Racism? Miley Cyrus? Are there topics that should remain off-limits? Have you ever written something that offended others?


  1. By “write about” I assume you mean write about and let people read because there’s nothing I wouldn’t write about but not all writing is designed for (or even fit for) publication. I go with the joke tellers. There’s nothing that can’t be the subject of humour. The only real question is: How soon? “Comedy is tragedy plus time!” Woody Allen had one of his characters say. No doubt he had in mind what Chaplin said when he wrote it: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” I wrote about my dad’s death the day he died but I’ve never tried to get the poem published. It wasn’t written with publication in mind. David Seidler, who won an Oscar yesterday for his script of The King’s Speech said in interview that he had written to the Queen Mother when she was alive about the project and she had asked him to wait before tackling the subject matter because it was still a sensitive subject with her; to his credit he did.

    Of course believing that something ought to be written about doesn’t necessarily equip one to write about it oneself. Samuel Beckett had strong political opinions and yet wrote virtually nothing on the subject because he couldn’t find the words. I, myself, changed the direction of the novel I’ve just finished because I found I couldn’t write the book I set out to write. This doesn’t mean that the book I produced was invalid or inadequate; it’s just not what I hoped to write about. I have no problems, for example, talking about sex but I find writing about people engaged in coitus very difficult because it’s hard to do, I find, without ending up with pornography or farce if not a mix of the two. So I leave what little sex there is in my books to my readers’ imaginations.

    Most of the stuff I don’t write about I don’t tackle because I’m not sufficiently motivated to tackle them: I write about what I care about and what I think I can write about well. There are enough writers out there to handle all the other subjects.

  2. Jim,
    Thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I like the Chaplin quote, and I know I've agreed with that view on several occasions. I also understand what you mean about not being capable of writing about certain subject matters yet. I do hope that's just a matter of time for both you and me.

  3. I mention religion, but don't delve deeply into it. I might mention that a character is Catholic, or a lapsed Catholic for that matter, Baptist, Evangelical, Pagan or what-not, but I don't get into the nitty gritty details.

    I do write about politics and probably let my own view points come too strongly through in my writing, but through the voices of my characters.

    I personally don't think there are any subjects/topics that should remain off limits for writers. If we only play it safe with our writing, we are - at least in my opinion - doing a disservice not only to ourselves, but to our readers. I may not write explicit sex scenes, or delve into deep religious matters - but those are personal preferences on my part. I do, delve into politics . . . which can be an indindery topic, along with religion.


  4. I think perhaps the question that needs to be answered is: Is it necessarily necessary to write about everything? I once defined a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. I still hold that to be true but it is certainly not the only response nor is it always the best response. No amount of words can do justice to a photograph of a human face, any face, for example. Converting our thoughts and feelings into words is one approach to coming to terms with and/or analysing things but I think sometimes as writers we can be a little blinkered in our thinking.

  5. No, but I remember agent saying once on her blog that she wouldn't touch a story that talked about terroists or anything abou 9-11. I guess you never know what will make people shy away.

  6. @Domey - First, I have a huge background in eastern religions, so if I can ever help guide you through some of that stuff, drop me a line.

    Second, this is a big deal for me. I wrestle with this all the time, and in the end I always end up at the same point: I have to be careful with what I claim to represent, but I have to allow myself the freedom to explore and write about anything that seems important or interesting or curious to me.

    One of the reasons why I keep use my pen name is to head off unnecessarily awkward experiences for people who know me personally and would not easily be able to reconcile what I write with who I am. Because I write from a place deeper inside me than I live out. I write from questions, not from answers. I write from curiosity, not from proposition.

    My pen name helps me feel free to do that without second-guessing myself as much.

    But even so there are topics that come up that I sit down and confront before writing them.

    But it's always before writing them and not before deciding not to write about them.

  7. Davin, what a thought-intriguing post. I'll admit right now that I don't include religion in my books - at least not on the surface. I do slip in some very quiet things here and there disguised as metaphor or themes, but I doubt most readers pick up on those, especially if they aren't familiar with my particular religion. For me this is the safest way to write about these subject matters I feel uncomfortable throwing off the rooftop. However, I must also remember that "writing safe" won't often get me super far if I want to grow. I hope to reach a point in my writing where I'm more comfortable with religion, especially, as a subject matter.

    I do have one novel in the very early conception stage that is entirely based on my religion. I have wanted to write it for a few years now, but I know the timing isn't right yet. I think a few more years down the road I'll be ready.

  8. I beta-read for someone once who chose to make fun of handicapped people. I was instantly put off and told him if he wanted to get that book published to take it out. I don't know if he did or not.

    Like Jim, I don't write sex. Not because I can't but just because it's best left to the reader's imagination. Religion and politics don't bother me, although if it's a put down saying the particular religion or politics is WRONG, then I just put the book down.

    I know we don't live in a shiny happy world all the time, and someone's nose will always be put out of joint, but in writing about such "taboo" subjects, I think a fine line really needs to be drawn so we're not offensive.

  9. I think you can find an audience for just about any subject. While I don't enjoy reading books that show the author's political leanings (masquerading as the character's), I know people who wouldn't mind that.

    Religion isn't a subject to shy away from, I don't think. While I've read a lot of religion-bashing plotlines, I've also read some that were more receptive. Just goes to show that you can find a reader for either.

    In regards to my writing, I think the only potentially controversial subject matter I have is male in an adult male. I was writing a YA, but then decided that bit probably wouldn't go over too well, so I switched the story to adult and haven't looked back since.

  10. Scott, I think (and hope) in the end it does come down to a personal preference. I hope no writer feels that a subject matter can't be investigated as a general rule...but as I think about it, I bet there are some social taboos that might make one feel that way. Politics is an interesting subject matter to me. I'm working on getting well-versed enough in it to be able to talk about it.

    Jim, I don't think it's necessary to write about everything, although for where I am right now, writing is my clearest form of expression. I painted for about twelve years before I started to write, at only near the end was I able to express myself very well in that art form. Now, I've lost that ability again. There's also the matter of simply living life...which is probably the best way to deal with important matters!

    Jennifer, that's a good point. I mean, I fear for agents who have blanket statements like that, but as a writer, it's good for us to know that some subject matters will just be a turn off.

  11. While I hate the thought of really offending someone with something I've written, I don't feel the need to avoid certain subjects just because some readers might not like them or feel uncomfortable. I use religion in my writing because I don't think you can create a viable world that contains characters we recognise as human without incorporating some form of belief system. My faith also plays a huge part in my life, so I'd probably find it hard to ignore.

  12. Nevets, I like that last line of yours. I guess that's why I ended up thinking about a pen name as well. It was more for professional reasons, but it is the same general idea. I didn't want people at work to worry that my fiction writing was going to cause problems.

    Thanks for your offer to help! I'll probably be contacting you about that!

    Michelle, thanks for your comment! Yeah, whenever I end up writing about religion, I tend to be more aware of it than when I write about anything else. But, it has gotten easier, and I think it helps that often I'm writing from a fairly objective point of view, even if my characters aren't objective. You've mentioned that novel to me before. I'll be interested to read it when and if you end up finishing it!

    Anne, I also remember you once mentioning that you avoided topics of sex in your romance writing because it played with expectations. It's interesting to be in a place where readers approach a book or story with a certain standard in mind. I think that can be one of the things that makes genre writing fun and challenging.

    KM, one of the questions I had been wondering about was whether or not a genre like YA would have different rules in that sense. Thanks for giving us your thoughts on that! Your book sounds interesting, and I hope the transition between genres is working out well for you!

  13. Cas, well said, and I think that's why I ended up writing about religion as well. At some point in my stories, in particular one that dealt with a woman who had terminal cancer, religion became the white elephant in the room, and I figured it was more strange NOT to write about it than to write about it and have some characters with two different stances address it. No matter how we feel about religion, it is are so many other big topics.

  14. Absolutely, Domey. It's not what we write so much, but how we write it that counts.

  15. I used to shy away from religious content in my writing a lot as well but I've been tinkering with it a little more lately. It can be frusterating becasue the readers' expectations are usually that the writing will manifest a brutal denouncement or the religion being addressed or a devout acceptance. Sometimes it needs both or, even beter, the reader should be allowed to draw their own conclusions.

    @ C.N. Nevets: I love the idea of writing in questions. Answers always make me more frusterated than enlightened.

  16. @Domey and @Taryn - I think one of the reasons I write from a place of questioning is that it means I don't feel competent to fully address a topic. If I'm stirring thought or raising questions, then there's no pressure to be an authority on a subject. I think a lot of people place certain topics off-limits because they don't feel like they know enough to write about it.

    It's very freeing to write without the pretense of authority.

  17. I'll write about whatever interests me if it seems to fit into the story. I'm surprised at how much the characters in my books talk about religion, but all that talk has to do with who they are, not with anything I'm trying to say about religion (aside from having characters bad-mouth each other's religions, but that's true to the historicity of these characters and says more about human nature, I think, than about religions).

    I'm with Nevets on writing from questions and not needing to be an authority to write about a subject. I like my characters to have more questions than answers. Books (authors, that is) who present themselves as having things all sorted out tend to be annoying and boring.

    All that having been said, I don't care the tiniest little bit if I offend people, or who those people might be. I don't go out of my way to offend, but I do go out of my way to present the world in what I see as a true light. I have no agenda to advance. I just want to be scrupulously honest about what I think I'm observing when I look at humanity. A lot of that turns out not to be pretty.

  18. @Scott - That's a great point, too, about not caring if you offend people. When I wrestle with something it's more about not wanting to offend myself, mostly because I know my writing will be crap if it's something I don't want to read. I should probably not worry about that either, but at least I usually overcome it.

    Other people? Not really that worried about offending readers. I don't set out to do it. When someone tells me I offended them, I don't particularly enjoy it. But I also don't really care either.

    Mmm, let me half take that back. I sometimes sort of care. But what I usually care about isn't that I offended them; it's that I usually think their expressed sense of offense entirely missed the mark and resulted in their mis-characterizing what I wrote.

    That does frustrate me a whole lot, but is also on my list of things to get over.

  19. Nevets, sometimes I have to figure out if something I refuse to write offends me or frightens me. If the former, I move on. If the latter, I try to make myself write it. There's a particular kind of discomfort that I think is good for a writer.

    Also, I side with the authors who don't write directly about sex because then you've got, as Jim Murdoch said, either pornography or farce. Though sometimes farce is good, if it bolsters statements about character. I do have sex going on in the novel I'm revising, but I'm talking more about what the characters are thinking or wanting from each other in a larger sense than in any sort of "she took his x and y'd it while he z'd" sort of thing. Very few writers can write about genitalia in an elegant manner. QED.

  20. My fear (I guess it's fear) of not putting my religion in my novels has less to do with worrying about offending someone than it has to do with the fact that it simply doesn't fit there and the last thing I want to do is force religion into a story where it doesn't really belong. It hang out in the background, maybe, but why put it there if that's not the story I'm telling? If that makes sense. When I write a character who has religion as a strong part of their lives, I'll write about it then. I just realized this. :)

  21. I have had exposure to a lot of vastly different religions over the years, and have strong religious beliefs of my own. I don't write about religion with any specificity, probably because I'd hate to cross the line into preachy.

  22. Taryn, I admit that I myself get suspicious whenever I first see religion in a story. But then, I always appreciate it when a writer handles the subject well.

    Scott, I think having the subject matter fit the story is key. When it's done well, subjects like these really work to make the world of the fiction seem real and deep.

    jbchicoine, Being preachy is a concern of mine too!

  23. Domey - politics is always a hot topic. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a household where my parents didn't talk about or try to influence the political preferences of their children. We each in turn chose our own political course without my parents ever saying, well, we vote . . .

    The fact is, as someone much wiser than me said: you can't please all of the people all of the time. In the end, some people might like your take on religion, politics, whatever, and some are going to take offense. So, stay true to yourself, your beliefs, and what you want to write . . . because it is your writing after all.

  24. Miley Cyrus would be off limits to me, as well as anything/anyone to do with reality TV or People magazine. Gag.

    Seriously, I can't say there is anything I wouldn't write about. Subjects I wouldn't have touched when I was younger I have since found myself writing about with abandon. If it comes up, it comes up. It it requires research, that's fun too.

    I can't wait for the big day!! So excited. Will you send us more info. about ordering, etc. tomorrow?

  25. Yvonne,
    Yes, we'll have the details up tomorrow, and we're also including a discount code in our mailer. :)

  26. Sex: I've written lots of erotica, and I do hope it was neither porn nor farce.

    Politics: Eh. Not my thing.

    Religion: if you haven't watched the HBO miniseries from a few years back called "Rome", check it out. Religion was integral to these people's lives (set during Julius Caesar's time) and the writers wove it in beautifully and naturally without hitting anyone over the head with it. An absolutely brilliant series all round.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  27. Alex, I think farce porn is going to be the wave of the future. Step back vampires.

  28. Nothing is off limits. I believe that we should be able to write about whatever we want: religion, politics, anything. In fact, I encourage writing about these things in order to think deeply about our lives and why we are living the way we are.


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