Climbing Walls

by | Jul 16, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 5 comments

S. Lee Manning: Universal advice to writers has always been to write what you know. What that meant was to write from personal experience – which for me pretty much would have meant writing novels about middle class Jewish women from Cincinnati, Ohio – who wanted to be writers but wound up as attorneys and then worked part time so they could raise their families.
No offense to anyone. I know this life. I’ve lived it. I didn’t want to write just my life.
I tend to be careful and risk adverse. Yet I like writing about people who climb walls three stories high to break into a building. Or who have sit downs with gangsters who might kill them. I like writing about people different from me. For me, most of the fun of writing is in imagining situations and people that differ from me and my life.
So writing spy thrillers works as long as I do my homework and my research – although I did have one agent tell me that she would only consider spy novels written by CIA agents. (Sigh.)
But what about writing characters whose identities differ from our own? Is it kosher to write from a male perspective if you’re female? Or the reverse?
A lot of people, myself included, like to write characters from a different gender because it helps them get out of their own heads – and into the head of a character. I find it interesting to try to imagine how a man would think – how a man would act. I also write from women’s perspectives, and I’m contemplating a new series with a strong woman protagonist. Still I do like writing from the perspective of someone different – which Kolya, my current protagonist, certainly is.
What about writing a character from a different ethnic background? Is that kosher? There is a debate about that going on right now, and I’m sticking my foot in it, probably, to even ask the question.
I understand the perspective of underrepresented peoples who feel that their experience needs to be authentic. But does that preclude writing outside one’s own box?
A personal story.
When I was a kid, the Holocaust was not that long ago. We Jews felt it so strongly – we knew survivors – and we knew that but for existing in a different time and space, we would have been victims. But among all the stories of death and terror, there was a true story of Jewish heroism and courage. I was obsessed with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I read every novel on the uprising, and the best, the most moving, novel I read on the uprising was The Wall, written by John Hersey.
The title, the Wall, referred to the wall around the Warsaw ghetto, meant to keep Jews in and non-Jews out. Trying to escape over the wall was punishable by death.  Smuggling food into the ghetto was punishable by death. Jews were crowded into the space, and the population of the ghetto was thinned out by starvation and disease. But the Jews didn’t die fast enough, so the German came up with another plan, deporting the residents of the ghetto for “resettlement” in the East – which was a euphemism for deporting them to be systematically murdered. As the ghetto was emptied out, and the Jewish residents sent to Treblinka to be gassed to death, those who remained obtained guns and made Molotov cocktails. On April 19, 1943, when the Germans entered the ghetto to gather the surviving Jews to be murdered, the Jews fought back. They fought against tanks and flame throwers with handguns and home made bombs.  The Germans didn’t crush the revolt until May 16, at which point any captured survivors were either sent to the gas chambers or killed on the spot. A handful of Jewish fighters escaped through the sewers to the forests of Poland.
The Wall is a superb novel – capturing the Jewish experience as people moved into the ghetto, as they were systematically dehumanized, as they realized the ultimate planned fate, and as they plotted to fight back.
Hersey was not a Jew.
The fact that he was not a Jew did not in any way diminish the power or the beauty of that novel. It remains to this day one of the best novels I have ever read about that particular moment in time.
But he wrote with such sensitivity, such care. Clearly, he deeply researched Jewish culture and the Jewish religion, as well as the historical event of the uprising. And that is so important for anyone writing a character different from one’s own ethnicity – to do so with sensitivity, to avoid stereotypes, and to research.

So while the question of writing outside one’s own ethnic box is one that every writer has to answer for himself or herself, I will say this. I am glad that John Hersey decided to climb that wall from the non-Jewish side into the Warsaw ghetto. I am the richer for it.
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  1. john

    Interesting article in today's (7/16) Washington Post by Gil Steinlauf, an American rabbi who has been blacklisted by the Israeli Rabbanut, the official religious authority in the Israeli government. "The reason? We can only guess."
    Steinlauf relates how he was once told, in Israel, by an ultra-Orthodox Jew living there, that the Holocaust should be blamed on the Jews themselves, "because too many Jews weren’t regularly checking the mezuzahs on their doors to make sure they were still kosher!” Strange things happening in Israel.

  2. S. Lee Manning

    This is not that strange. The ultra orthodox have always been, shall we say, a little off…

  3. Karna Bodman

    As you said, S. Lee, we've all heard about "writing what you know" ….but that would mean we would have no historical thrillers, science fiction, paranormal, Regency romance, or other great stories to read. You are exactly right about the need, though, for an author to do a tremendous amount of research, just as you do for your great novels. Thanks for this very thoughtful post.

  4. Sonja Stone

    S. Lee, I'm with you–write what you want to know, not what you actually do know. I've not read THE WALL. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Gayle Lynds

    What a wonderful post, S. Lee! I had no idea about John Hersey wasn't Jewish either. What a powerful book, and it puts the lie to the impossibility of writing authentically from others' points of views!