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.

It’s a Week into Grad School

…And it’s been one heck of an experience. From navigating multiple five-story buildings with mezzanines and skybridges, to learning how to cross the city streets (it’s different in Oregon! Jay-walking is legal!), to working with professors who stumbled into academia rather than pursued it and have industry jobs…. It’s been a little crazy.

Some things haven’t changed, though. Students still rush to their classes; there’s just more of them. The food in the student market is overpriced, but at least there are more choices. And the professors? As expected, they’re really cool.

It’s more than an understatement to say I’m having some culture shock. I’m not used to the huge buildings and giant lecture halls—or elevators, for that matter. The largest class building of my undergrad had a basement and three floors, one of which was barely accessible to students. The largest class I ever had personally was just over 60 students. We barely had any classrooms that could hold that many people. That’s not the case at PSU. They seem to have an excess of large rooms. My current largest class, with an occupancy of about 40 students, occurs in an auditorium with 200+ seats. It’s kind of nuts.

But more than that, the campus itself is simply huge. It spans 50 acres and more than 30 city blocks. The Portland streetcar runs through the campus—literally traveling between the bookstore, the student rec center, and a cluster of restaurants. There are at least three Starbucks on campus. I’ve barely begun to explore my school and already the scale overwhelms me. Part of it is that I’ve never spent much time in cities; I’ve lived in the suburbs all my life. But now I take the Max light rail into Portland four days a week and spend anywhere from four to eight hours each day away from home. And I’m sure that once my classes pick up, my time on campus will increase dramatically.

I still feel good about my decision to pursue a graduate degree at PSU. I might say that I’m more excited about the program now that I’ve started it than I was a week ago. But there’s a huge part of me that hasn’t adjusted to it yet—which, I know, is totally normal. Undergrad was such an easy transition for me. I was ready to leave home, and the classes were pretty much what I expected after taking as many AP courses as I did in high school. I could walk from my dorm to my class in five minutes. Now my commute is sometimes more than an hour each way (granted, it’s on the Max, so I can read or surf the internet while I travel). Most of my new friends in the program live across the city from me. On a campus of almost 30,000 students, a lot of times, I feel solitary in a way I never did in undergrad.

I know, I know. I’ll get used to it eventually. I may even come to love the sprawling campus after my two years are up. But, for the time being, it’s an unexpectedly difficult—yet also exciting—transition. And I look forward to seeing how it all turns out.