The other day, I came across a link to 13 inspirational TED talks for writers. I enjoyed many of them. Chimamanda Adichie and Elif Shafak talk about fiction and identity politics—for example, how fiction can shape our view of an entire culture. Or the expectation of the “multicultural” (i.e., minority or raised in a different country) author to represent entire communities. Others, like the writer of Finding Nemo and Toy Story asked the question, what makes a great story? His talk left me with some concrete tools to guide me through my novel.
As impressive as all the talks were, today I am dedicating my post to Tracy Chevalier’s TED talk “Finding the Story Inside the Painting.” Tracy wrote the novel turned movie “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” which is based on the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. It sounds very high brow, I know. But her talk didn’t come across as inaccessible at all—in fact quite the opposite. She explains that she saw a picture she liked and basically went with it. For years, she found herself drawn to the colors in the painting and the expression in the girl’s face until finally she decided to do some research. She discovered that almost nothing was known about the girl or the circumstances surrounding the image. So she made it up. During her presentation, she talks about the clues she found in the painting and elsewhere to ultimately create a fictional love story behind it.
Tracy’s approach to the writing process was unique to me and ultimately, incredibly inspirational. I’m not a big art person so as far as I’m concerned, she started with a painting that meant nothing to me. Yet during the discussion, Tracy somehow brought it to life right before my eyes. She saw something that I didn’t and conveyed it to me in a way that I could relate to and enjoy. It gave me a new appreciation for at least one piece of art.
The other thing I liked about Tracy’s talk was that it demonstrated that you can find inspiration for a story anywhere. She reaffirms my conclusion that you don’t, necessarily, need to write about “what you know.” Rather, you should write about the thing that draws you in—the thing you can’t stop looking at/thinking about/trying to figure out. In more ways than one Tracy simply followed her passion, which led her to great success. It was 14 minutes of my life well spent: