Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 4, 2011

Ghosts and Ghost Busters: Writing What We Don’t Altogether Know

The ever-thoughtful novelist Mitali Perkins asked questions at Mitali’s Fire Escape about ways writers approach differences in time, class, culture, and race. I chimed in, which you can read in the comments, and everyone’s invited to join the conversation, which made me think about two strands of my process as I cross cultures and centuries.

The first is humility, a word I don’t often use. It smacks first of the church in my childhood, where it seemed girls were expected to bear more than our fair share of the trait, and then of pop stars holding glittery trophies they say make them feel humble, and I think, huh?, though what do I know about such things? Anyway, I’m the one who brought up the word, which suggests the alertly listening, almost ghost-like task of the researcher. We let ourselves fade as we enter the world of another whose life is different from ours. And we do research the same way we might approach a new person we hope will become a friend. Paying attention to what’s said, but also to points that might link us.

The second trait I think writers crossing boundaries needs is chutzpah: I like the sound of humility and chutzpah together, so I’m borrowing it with some audacity, a term you can use if you prefer it to the Yiddish term, which is pretty far out of my realm. While the humble writer keeps quiet in the corners, another part of us must stalk in like ghost-busters in big boots. We have a certain sense of importance that I hope doesn’t run over into entitlement. We think we can get things right, or at least most things, and we brim with eagerness to try. Why not?

I suppose the cloak of invisibility and loud boots are a variation on fear and confidence, those old companions. I wish all of us luck with both!



  1. Thanks, Becky. Your big boots are in the mail! I just know they’ll fit.

  2. Given how time consuming (while fascinating) research can be, I’d like a pair of seven-league boots.

  3. Good choice, Angela!

  4. A good combination and a good description of the two. I’m treading lightly at the moment. Eavesdropping on an 18th century couple’s dreams. Haven’t gotten the chutzpah yet, but I’m looking for those boots.

  5. “Eavesdropping on an 18th century couple’s dreams.” You’ve got a little poem right there.
    And I agree: the tip-toeing phase comes well before, and is always longer, than the wearing of boots. Good luck, Dori!

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