Write What You Don’t Know

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.

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  1. Bart Leib
    16/04/2011 at 1:29 pm Permalink

    This is a great post. I’d like to add a follow-up point of advice to the above: When you make a mistake – it’s inevitable that this will happen, and someone will be offended – own up to your shit. Don’t get defensive and dismiss the offended person’s right to be offended. Too often writers respond to being called out on mistakes with “You’re really overreacting, I don’t see what the big deal is.” or “My best friend is [black/a woman/gay], I’m not a [racist/sexist/homophobe].” Acknowledge the mistake, apologize, ask for more info/talk about it, and say you’ll work to do better in the future. And thank them for pointing it out: after all, a writer should always strive to improve, and this additional knowledge and insight will help you avoid similar mistakes in later stories.

  2. John Remy
    16/04/2011 at 7:02 pm Permalink

    Bart, that’s great advice–one I plan to take to heart. Thank you for a valuable addition to this discussion.

  3. Erika Holt
    16/04/2011 at 3:05 pm Permalink

    I agree wholeheartedly! What a boring exercise writing would be if we all had to stick rigorously to our own experience.

  4. Mishell Baker
    18/04/2011 at 6:28 pm Permalink

    Though I am not racist by any definition of the term I’m familiar with, my experience has taught me that apparently the color of my skin makes me racist by default. As a Caucasian, virtually anything I say on the subject of race will be met with savage retribution and animosity by a significant handful of people. For that reason, I either do not mention the races of my characters, or I write them as nonexistent fantasy races. One of the things I am least able to emotionally cope with is being labeled the “bad guy” when the last thing I want is to hurt anyone.

    I have no confidence that any amount of research would solve this problem; in fact, even my efforts to understand other cultures have been met with venom too often for my comfort. There is almost no way to phrase a query about racial/cultural differences that isn’t offensive, apparently, and assuming people are all the same under the skin enrages people as well. “You’re white; you can’t ever truly understand my life.” I wish I could say I’d only heard that two or three times. I’d be lying.

    As a woman, though, I thought I was safe to explore gender themes… and apparently this is not the case, either. I’ve actually become afraid to write about virtually anything these days. People tell me I should “grow a thicker skin,” but a) I’ve had no success in 35 years of trying and b) I wonder what kind of writer I would be if nothing made me cry. My strength does not exactly lie in tightly woven, action-packed plots.

    Sorry for rambling, but this is a very hot topic for me, and stirs up all sorts of junk in my psyche.

  5. John Remy
    19/04/2011 at 10:55 pm Permalink

    Mishell, I can relate to your feeling of frustration in dealing with fraught discussions. You’re absolutely right that no level of research will completely eliminate complaints and offense, but I want to reinforce my point in the post that if one chooses to write from another real world perspective that research is still valuable and helpful. Also, even if the handful is significant, it’s not necessarily representative of that group.

    I think that, ultimately, no writing is safe. Some one will always find some fault, and the closer we write to what we care about, the greater the potential for leaving ourselves vulnerable. But I hope that as writers we still strive for care in our writing, and I hope that you keep writing and taking risks, in spite of the pain.


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