Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Salman Rushdie is well known for his outspoken nature and the deadly fatwa issued in answer to his work. His novel Midnight’s Children won several awards and made it onto Modern Library’s 100 best novels list, but many are also familiar with the book that sent him into hiding, The Satanic Verses, and his riveting, third-person memoir, Joseph Anton. He’s dabbled in children’s literature, published a dozen novels, and composed a number of nonfiction pieces that range from political to autobiographical and back again. Even if hiding under the threat of murder isn’t on your bucket list, this prolific and unreserved author has had inestimable influence on writers and thinkers all over the world. Let’s see how we can get in on that.
1. Write what you know – and know yourself
The Fury [was] the thing he feared most within himself. Saladin Chamcha… had been another attempt to create an anti- or opposite-self, and it was puzzling that in both cases these characters whom he had written to be other than himself were read by many people as simple self-portraits. But Stephen Dedalus was not Joyce, and Herzog was not Bellow, and Zuckerman was not Roth, and Marcel was not Proust; writers had always worked close to the bull, like matadors, had played complex games with autobiography, and yet their creations were more interesting than themselves.
– Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton
In this passage detailing one misunderstanding of his work, Rushdie uses this fantastically visual expression ‘close to the bull’ to express the interplay between author and creation. Authors are always engaging some measure of autobiography in their work. In his own works (Fury and The Satanic Verses, respectively), Rushdie isn’t simply grafting himself onto a character and calling it a day. He’s in the arena with the bull. This is his own fight, in which he is personally, even dangerously, bound up. There’s an inherent risk in writing about yourself or your demons; but if you’re not working close to the bull, you probably won’t be able to produce your best stuff.
To this end, consider keeping a file exploring your relationship to the character that reflects you, or the anti-you.All authors are, to some extent, writing about themselves. Own it.Click To Tweet
Step outside of yourself. As Rushdie wrote in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, ‘The only people who see the whole picture… are the ones who step out of the frame.’ For him, that may have meant writing his memoir in the third person. It might also mean asking others for their perspective on you.
Allow a character to experience things that you experience and respond in a way that you would not, and don’t be afraid of your own truth. Step into the arena with it. Rushdie again, with a strong exhortation:
Self-censorship is a lie to yourself; if you are going to be trying to seriously create art, to create literary art, and you decide to hold back, to censor yourself, then you are a fool to yourself and it would be better that you kept your mouth shut and did not speak.
2. To thine own self be true
‘Free speech,’ Rushdie claims, ‘is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself’ (from ‘One Thousand Days in a Balloon’ in Step Across This Line).
Certainly, if anyone isn’t afraid to offend by exercising his right to free speech, Salman Rushdie qualifies. There are two angles to free speech, though. First, as Rushdie describes it in Joseph Anton, you owe it to yourself:
He was beginning to learn the lesson that would set him free: that to be imprisoned by the need to be loved was to be sealed in a cell in which one experienced an interminable torment and from which there was not escape. He needed to understand that there were people who would never love him. No matter how carefully he explained his work or clarified his intentions in creating it, they would not love him… As long as he was clear about what he had written and said, as long as he felt good about his own work and public positions, he could stand being disliked.
Second, you owe it to society:
We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives. And it seems to me that a definition of any living vibrant society is that you constantly question those stories. That you constantly argue about the stories. In fact the arguing never stops. The argument itself is freedom. It’s not that you come to a conclusion about it. And through that argument you change your mind sometimes… And that’s how societies grow.
– Salman Rushdie, interview with Point of Inquiry
This latter angle is akin to what Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying: ‘Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.’
The individual voices of authors – contentious, interesting, avant-garde, rude, revolutionary, satirical, inventive, progressive, regressive, cacophonous, intimate, political, religious, irreligious, sacrilegious, bohemian, absurd, or revolutionary – make up the global argument that inspires and sets free and stands to impact the whole of society.
3. Aim for the stars
Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves – that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.
– Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism
The amazing thing about writing is that it can ‘name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.’ Indeed, that is an author’s work – to tell a story, to shape the world. It may take a while (Rushdie says during the 13 years it took for his thoughts to congeal around Midnight’s Children, he wrote ‘unbearable amounts of garbage’), but get there. Don’t settle for half-hearted, self-censored scribblings that aren’t even you … not when you could shape the world. Think that’s an exaggeration? Countless books testify otherwise: The Jungle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Things Fall Apart, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Brave New World, 1984, The Rights of Man, The Communist Manifesto, Plato’s Republic, The Prince, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Crime and Punishment, Beloved, The Diary of a Young Girl, The Vindication of the Rights of Women, Native Son, Common Sense, The Wild Fire, Das Kapital, Silent Spring, The Second Sex, Guerrilla Warfare… you get the idea.
4. Ask questions
Even as he compels us to argue and offend, critique and disrespect, Rushdie reserves a place for open-ended questioning:
The question I’m always asking myself is: are we masters or victims? Do we make history, or does history make us? Do we shape the world, or are we just shaped by it? The question of do we have agency in our lives or whether we are just passive victims of events is, I think, a great question, and one that I have always tried to ask.
He doesn’t end by answering his own question, and this can be a valuable tool in literature as well. One of the most popular open-ended books would have to be Life of Pi. It’s okay for a book to not have all the answers. Rushdie’s also credited with saying, ‘Faith without doubt is addiction.’ So shoot for the stars, yes, but ask for directions along the way.An audience comes with the responsibility to be honest, outspoken, and open to questions.Click To Tweet
5. It’s okay to be imperfect
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of character complexity and imperfection, but I like what Rushdie adds to this conversation: ‘Nobody wants to read a 600 page book in which the author is fabulous throughout.’ Let yourself be a little raw, too.
6. Use style and language to fit your theme
Rushdie knows he needs a fitting language:
India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language.
He also dresses Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses in a magical realism that evokes India’s history and mystique. You can see this adaptive style in creative nonfiction works like Killers of the Flower Moon or Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, which read like mystery novels, or A Gentleman in Moscow, which reads like Russian literature from the period it emulates.
Sometimes, for the reader to really occupy a setting, they need to be dunked in its spirit. The right voice is the way to do it.
Learning from Rushdie
Understandably for someone who was sentenced to death for their work, Rushdie takes writing seriously. He believes that writing comes with myriad responsibilities to oneself and to the world, and that writers must be active – questioning, honing their craft, understanding their own perspective – to be at their best.Writing is an active process. Create, question, improve. Click To Tweet
It’s an admirable approach, and while few writers are chasing the particular type of notoriety that Rushdie has experienced over his career, there’s a huge amount we can learn from his approach.
What have you taken away from this article? Which authors would you like to see us cover next? Let me know in the comments, or check out Why You Need To Write With Authenticity And How To Do It and 12 Ways Neil Gaiman Can Help You Improve Your Writing Right Now for more great advice.