Part two of our discussion on “Write what you know.” You can find the first part here, where I write about the importance of research as well as grounded things in genuine experience.
This is the one where I am a little worried, because I feel it is likely to bring out stronger feelings. Few people are going to argue against doing research to write better, but this second part of the argument tends to fall along the lines of who can write certain stories, or simply certain types of characters.
Living in the internet, where often only the most extreme of voices can be heard, there does seem to be a belief that only like should write like and there stories. Only people of color should write people of color. Only those who are LGBTQ should write LGBTQ.
Cards on the table time, I am a straight, white guy approaching 40. I am from the American South, mostly growing up in rural or suburban areas as part of a liberal middle class family. (Yes, they do exist in the South.)
If someone wanted a writer to depict the everyday life of a young latinx woman growing up in a big city, I should not be anyone’s first choice to helm that story. I certainly wouldn’t choose me. Or, at the very least, there are many voices that could represent that tale better than mine.
But should that come in blanket form? Should I refrain from writing those whom I don’t overlap enough with? There are those who would say so.
And can I blame them? Let’s take a look back, not only at writing, but at representation in general. I can recall a lot of books, TV, and movies that I grew up on that didn’t do a great job of capturing the dignity of those who weren’t white males. And it is also worth remembering that a majority of the stories out there for me to peruse all seemed to feature people that looked just like me.
No doubt, powerful, well done pieces exist of those that don’t look like me (you know, straight white guys). But they do tend to be outnumbered by works where “the other” is treated as an object, a punchline, or both. I have to be aware of how many demeaning representations exist in order to understand why some don’t feel their existence can be spoken by those who haven’t walked the same paths.
And then there is the other aspect. Those stories above? They all tended to be made/written/produced by people who look like me as well. Not everyone. But a lot. I feel safe saying a vast majority.
So, we look at a history of stories made by white guys about white guys, and when diversity comes into play there is a better than even chance it will be handled poorly. Can it come as a surprise that there is a belief that perhaps white guys can’t be trusted to properly tell PoC stories?
And then there is the added dimension. Why is it that most of those storytellers have looked like me? Shouldn’t those voices belong to a crew a little more diverse?
By the way, the above is not to say that the only people telling stories and getting those stories in front of the public, are white men. That isn’t the case. But it is fair to say that we have had an advantage when it comes to getting our stories out there.
It all links together. A dominated craft turning out lack of respectful representation has understandably pushed some voices to the extreme.
So, what can we do about this?
First, I need to understand why those feelings exist, and respect that they have a basis in reality. Yes, I am human and will have a difficult time agreeing with all opinions. I don’t have to. But, I shouldn’t be dismissive.
Then it comes to my writing. Sure, I like to tell stories of magic and dragons. But also takes of a myriad of people, different cultures coming together, of struggles, of good friends and dark happenings. The basic trappings of fantasy.
Many of these aspects benefit from from an understanding of the real world. I may never write about a latinx girl in the big city, but I can certainly envision myself wanting to tell a story of a shunned member of society persevering in a harsh world.
And, believe it or not, my own lived experiences do give me material I can mine for such a tale. But, if I stop there and don’t look into the lives experiences of others, the result will be hollow, one-sided writing.
If it makes sense to research tales of war for my fantasy land, then why would I refrain from researching the experiences of those who have lived different lives than myself.
Write what you know. And the first step to doing that is accepting that we can’t know everything. There is always more to learn.
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