Walking through the Fog

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Photo: Gabriel Homel

Writers, beginning or experienced, often feel like they’re walking through a fog. Where do I start my story? What is my story anyway? Do I write what I know — and what do I really know anyway?

Of course, there are as many answers as there are writers. Here are a few from my side of the fence. We often hear that phrase, “Write what you know.” I prefer this variation: “Write what you want to know.” Often this leads us into investigating some event or some person that is problematic for us, or that caused conflict in our lives. We want to know the “why” behind the conflict. And conflict, as we know, is at the heart of most good stories.

That unresolved issue, that person who disappeared from our lives, that odd choice a family member made — why did those things happen?Maybe writing can help us get closer to an answer. I’ll give you an example that led to my 2003 novel “The Speaking Cure” that is set in Belgrade at the end of the war in Bosnia, in 1995, part of the ex-Yugoslavia’s string of civil wars. Here was a country that was a model for many of us in the 1970s — and suddenly it dissolved into a fratricidal war. How did that happen? What does that have to say about our own multi-ethnic country? Can it happen here? I’ve always been interested in the intersection of psychiatry and political power, so when I discovered that the unsavory leader of the Bosnian Serbs, a certain Dr Karadzic, was a psychiatrist, and a poet too (though not a good one), my curiosity was complete. I set out to learn what was behind these events, and in the process, my novel came into being.

“What do I want to know?” is often another way of asking “What about the world bothers me?” We’ve all got big lists to that question. Writing is investigation; it fills an empty place where we want to have knowledge. We just need to hone in on the subject that’s essential to us — it’s a life’s work, so let’s start now.

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