On the surface, you’d think that writing what you *don’t* know should come naturally to authors of specfic. I mean, how much does anyone really know about what it feels like to face a Hound of Tindalos, or to download an assassin’s persona into your brain, or to have your body transformed by the effects of polyjuice potion.
But what does it feel like to wake up to a cross burning on your front lawn, or to suffer from chronic depression, or to feel your body ravaged by AIDS? I’ve had a number of conversations with writer friends who struggle with writing outside of their cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, age, and life experience. These are daring authors who want to push themselves, but who are also sensitive, compassionate people who don’t want to offend or cause unnecessary pain to their readers.
When we write outside of our own experience, even with the best of intentions, we risk creating stereotypes and caricatures, exploiting others’ cultural heritage for our own purposes, and offending others by missing some important point. Actually, let me revise that. Even when we write from our own experience, we still risk this. Writing, especially powerful writing, is fraught with risk.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, I’d like to offer some advice on writing outside of your experience:
1. Do some initial research. In this case, do write what you know. If you obsess over Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or are an Anglophile, or have watched every Chinese martial arts film available on Netflix, write stories inspired by your obsession.
2. Shut down the inner editor on your first draft. If I leave mine on, I would never get anything written. *When* I’ve left mine on, I get stuck in a frustrating cycle of writing and deleting, writing and deleting. Your first draft may be full of the worst stereotypes, unintended slurs, glaring gaps in cultural or experiential knowledge. Save that for your first revision.
3. Again, write what you know in terms of personal experience. Have you been so sick that you had to face your fear of death? Have you suffered discrimination? Have you ever questioned your sanity or your sexuality? Stephen Crane wrote the the classic Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. He never experienced battle, but the veterans who read it could relate to the distress, the fear, the rage felt by its protagonist. Crane channeled essential human emotions and experience from other aspects of his life into the battlefields he read about, and the soldiers he created with his pen.
4. Finally, do your research, look for qualified readers and critiquers, and rewrite and revise. Now that you have the basic story down, turn that inner editor dial to at least eight. But remember that you probably will never please everyone. For every issue that you’re concerned about, there are probably multiple blogging communities and academic conferences full of people who live and debate that topic.
I’m trying to follow this challenge myself. Although I’m essentially a straight male, I obsess over gender identity and sexual orientation enough that I tend to write stories featuring queer main characters. Lately I’ve been studying Bolivia obsessively, and my next couple of stories will be set there with Quechua and mestizo characters, instead of in Japan, or in the US with Japanese-American or half-Japanese protagonists.
I’ve acted as a cultural consultant for a published story and a soon-to-be-published novel, each set in Japan and featuring Japanese and Japanese-American characters. Both were wonderful stories, and I believe that both were written by white Americans. I’m glad that the authors and editors took great care to vet the stories, but I’m even more grateful that both authors took the risk to write outside of their immediate cultural experience–the world would be a poorer place without these stories.
In fact, please check out Matthew Sanborn Smith’s moving story set in a future Nagasaki at Tor.com: Beauty Belongs to the Flowers.
I realize that my advice is not for everyone, and may even be problematic. Please comment below if you’ve struggled with similar concerns and please share how you’ve overcome them, or (especially!) if you disagree with me.