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Beyond the Self and Writing What You Don’t Know

‘Write what you know’ is the advice often given to new writers, and it’s true that our stories, or versions of the stories that haunt us, are the starting point for much of our writing. 

If you are not Karl Ove Knausgaard, however, you may tire of your life story and yearn to transcend the limits of your experience by inhabiting a character, as the Latvian poet Karlis Vērdiņš playfully does, in ‘Memories of Sancho Panza’:

         In villages and in open spaces, I have to lag behind a couple of dozen steps, of course: master must think that my odour might scare away girls.  If, of course, he thinks at all.

         At night, I often have to sleep with the pigs while master serenades with the cats, or walks along the ridge of the roof, arms outstretched to the moon.  If, of course, it’s not cloudy.

         Master can’t say where the road is taking us; I think it’s most likely to hell. I’ve already hinted a couple of times that I’d like to go straight there instead of following him through the entire world.  He says I’m a pessimist.

This Sancho Panza has something of Vērdiņš in him – is it the eyes, perhaps? Does Vērdiņš inhabit Sancho Panza or vice versa?

Years ago, when I came across a translation of 2000-year old Sanskrit monologue plays set in the courtesans quarter in India, I was hooked. The women I glimpsed through the eyes of the male narrator insinuated themselves into my thoughts. I imagined I heard them say in my ear, ‘yes, we lived, but it was not entirely as he told’. I found myself wondering what they would say if they could speak. But how to breathe life into a character in a way that feels authentic? What responsibility do I have to representing someone who may or may not have lived, with integrity? At what point does imagining a life I have no experience of – i.e. that of a transgender courtesan – become appropriation? 

On my upcoming course, Beyond the Self, we will consider some of these questions as we explore the possibilities a persona offers as a prism to see things newly. Taking inspiration from poets who are skilled ventroloquists and shape shifters, you will be encouraged to take on other voices, other lives, and write new poems.


Free your imagination by playing with the ‘I’ in your poems, on Beyond the Self: The Persona Poem, a face-to-face course with Shazea Quraishi. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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Image: Don Quixote & Sancho Panza by spotter_nl. The image has been resized a filter has been placed over it.