Writing What You Don’t Know

Most writers have been told to “write what you know.” Meaning, start with your experience, your memories, your interests, your surroundings. Drawing from concrete details is so much easier than making everything up. But at some point, a writer years to try something else. They try writing what they don’t know.

(Fair warning: I’ll be brain-dumping on race, diversity, and privilege in the publishing world. I am ALWAYS open to having difficult conversations and being called out if I say something untrue or offensive. I hope to handle these subjects lightly, and certainly there are other bloggers who have more right to discuss them than I do. Next week, I’ll write about some awesome people on Twitter you should check out.)

I have super scattered thoughts on this subject, mostly because on Twitter, I follow two authors with very different views. One author—I’m paraphrasing here—believes writers should only write characters like themselves. Specifically, this author wants white authors to avoid writing about PoC because so many white authors have portrayed PoC stereotypically and/or problematically. And the authors that have been called out on it have been less than sympathetic or willing to hear the criticisms. White authors doing poor jobs of writing nonwhite characters already cause so many problems in the literary world. It would be better, this author claims, if white authors avoided writing about PoC altogether.

To some extent, I agree with her. Literature, and media in general, shapes culture and our perceptions of ourselves and each other. PoC already have it bad enough in America; they don’t need us perpetuating racism in literature. If we white authors can’t portray them accurately, we shouldn’t portray them at all.

But if I’m only allowed to write about what I know, then all my characters would be depressed white girls. I want to portray other cultures. I want to write stories with diverse casts. Moreover, I’m a fantasy writer. It’s hard for me not to explore other cultures. Impossible, even. Author 2 agrees, saying that a writer who can’t imagine characters outside himself is a bad writer.

There are more problems with white authors writing characters of color, though. White authors are often given a pat on the back for “diverse” work. Author 1 claims a book isn’t “diverse” unless it’s written by someone outside the white, “cishet” (cissexual and heterosexual), abled norm. Otherwise, the book merely reflects the real world—or in the case of speculative fiction, a world more likely than a white-only one. And I do feel that priority should be given to #ownvoices books: novels written by Muslims, about Muslims, for example. If a non-depressed person wrote a book about a depressed girl and got it wrong, I would be pretty upset. I could do better, surely—because I live that life and know what it’s like.

Still…. Maybe it’s my privilege showing. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me talking. Maybe I’m still ignorant, even after listening to authors discuss diversity in publishing for months. But I do still want to write diverse—or perhaps a better term would be realistic—characters. I want to try. And I’ll be damned if I don’t put in the effort to get a culture right. To accurately portray a marginalized individual. If my work ends up being problematic, I’ll go back and rework it until it’s not.

Author 1 says I should “stay in [my] lane” and stick to writing characters like me; it’s not my place to write PoC. But I disagree. Publishing—especially speculative fiction—is way too white, and if I can work towards making the industry more accommodating and respectful toward people of color, then I should at least try.