Writing Outside Your Experience: Handle With Care
Lately, it seems the whole world is abuzz with the issue of diversity. From #OscarsSoWhite, and the whitewashing of characters of color in film and television, to the horrific tragedy in Orlando, the deaths that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, and the religious and racial issues that are fueling a lot of the political conversation of our current election, we're surrounded by calls for more diversity and acceptance in our society.
This conversation has been gaining momentum within the publishing industry as well, with studies showing the gross imbalance of representation in books. Nonprofits such as We Need Diverse Books, Twitter pitch contests specifically aimed at discovering diverse stories, as well as the #OwnVoices movement have cropped up in hopes of changing this reality, but it will take time.
Because this discussion only seems to be growing, lots of writers are taking a closer look at their own stories and reevaluating what they have to offer in terms of telling a diverse narrative. But not all writers go about this in the right way. Don't make the mistake of thinking that diversity is a trend—it is everyday life for lots of people—and when it is treated as just "something to add" to a story, it can be harmful if its approached in the wrong way. With this post, I hope to challenge you to make sure that any diversity you are considering incorporating into your writing, especially if you're making the decision to write outside of your own experience, is done respectfully.
Let me say this: Anyone can write anything they'd like to write. That's the beauty of living in a country where we have freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But there are a few basic questions I think every writer should ask him or herself before deciding to write outside of their own experience.
Why do you want (or need) to tell this story?
Perhaps you have an idea for a book about a young girl in foster care who falls in love with her neighbor. At its root this is a love story, right? The pretty straight-forward boy-meets-girl, friends-become-lovers trope we've all seen a million times before. So, you might feel like you can this story because in the end, we're all human and we all (hopefully) have experienced love and heartbreak and everything. But by making this assumption, you oversimplify what being in the foster care system is like.
So if your goal is to tell a love story, perhaps reevaluate why you'd like to tell this particular love story. If you come to a good why behind your idea, (maybe it was difficult for you to fall in love because of a complicated childhood situation you experienced, and you think you have that in common with someone in foster care, or maybe she is just the character who sprang to life in your head all on her own) move forward.
Why do you want (or need) to tell this story through the eyes of this character?
Let's stick with the foster care love story. If this is definitely the story you're going to tell, think about the way you're going to tell the story. Perhaps you decide to write it from the POV of the boy next door because you feel his experience is more similar to your own and you can represent the story best that way. But if you decide to write from the POV of the character in foster care and you yourself have never been in foster care, ask yourself why she needs to be the narrator of the story, and if you can represent her POV with authenticity.
Even if you have a peripheral view of foster care from a friend or relative, or a TV show you really love, it's not even remotely the same as living a life as precarious and out of your control as your MC's life would probably be.
The POV character is often where a lot of this accuracy in representing an experience that is not your own really becomes important. Because that character is coloring the experience for your reader. You have to keep in mind that readers who have had the experience of living through foster care want to be accurately represented, but what's even more important is that your representation doesn't reinforce stereotypes or create a false reality of what those circumstances are like for people who have not experienced foster care.
Why do you feel it's a story you should be the one to tell?
“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
A lot of people (too many people) take Toni Morrison's words a little too literally. Yes, you should write a book if you want to read it and it doesn't exist, but at the same time, are you sure you're the best person for the job?
Some writers feel that it's their job/duty to tell stories of marginalized experiences because they perhaps have the platform or they have a friend who they've never seen represented well in a book, or even that they have passion about an issue, or students or a child who's experience is absent from most of the stories in the world. But there may be a budding novelist out there who was in foster care and who would have the ability to tell that story more accurately, and with more care than you could.
If you decide that you're going to write outside of your experience because it's a story that is close to your heart for whatever reason, just be as prepared as you can be to talk about it in a respectful and open way. People who have lived through what you're writing about may have questions for you, and you should be ready and more than willing to answer those questions.
But don't think that you have to write something solely because it doesn't exist yet. It may already be on it's way.
Are you doing everything you can to be respectful of the experience(s) you're representing?
If you answer all these questions and land on the conclusion that yes, this is a story you want to write, it is your responsibility to be respectful of the experiences you are representing that are not your own. So I beg of you please, please, please use both beta readers and sensitivity readers.
Most of you probably know what a beta reader is—just someone to give you feedback on your writing. But if you've never heard of a sensitivity reader, hiring one is a very important step in the process of writing stories/characters who have had a different experience from you.
A sensitivity reader is a person from the background you're representing, who reads your manuscript and alerts you of anything problematic in your story. If you don't have a friend or relative from the experience you're writing about, there are plenty of people who will do these readings for hire. Check out writeinthemargins.org.
And most importantly of all: Are you causing harm?
This is the reason #OwnVoices exists. It's the reason lots of people are completely against writers writing outside of their own experience. Because, too often, extremely harmful representations of people with disabilities, people of color, immigrants, individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community, mental illnesses, etc. have been published. A harmful representation can be anything from telling a single narrative over and over again, to reinforcing stereotypes or fetishizing a group of people different from yourself. And the book world is sadly full of them.
As I said: Anyone can write anything they'd like to write. All I ask is that you do it with care.