Writing The Other

In recent weeks, the enormous and enormously moving Black Lives Matter protests have triggered an overdue reckoning in every facet of American life, including the worlds of publishing, Hollywood, and journalism about barriers that keep writers of color from telling their stories, and how those barriers can be torn down.

Amidst this history-making conversation, many writers are saying (again), “I better not write any stories about people who are from a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic class than my own. I guess I better stay my lane.”

While no one is advocating cultural appropriation—using someone else’s culture in your own work without attribution, understanding, or respect—you also want to avoid writing monochromatic stories.

Refusing to write the other is not only, as science fiction writer Nisi Shawl says, “taking the easy way out,” it’s also refusing to write for people who don’t look like you, either.

“Write for the multitudes of us who are here, who don’t fit into any Census box so neatly, who somehow have not been quite imagined by the country we’ve been in our whole lives and for decades and centuries,” author Mira Jacob said last year in Longreads. “We are here, we exist, you know we exist…Imagine us, because we’re here.”

When you do, be prepared for a lot of self-examination. In fact, author Alexander Chee in a viral essay in Vulture last year, said the first thing you should do is ask yourself, “Why do you want to write from this point of view?”

You might not be from your character’s community, Chee says, but you should be in community with them. That is, you must get to know their community, and more importantly, know what you don’t know about it, and be willing to learn. “If you’re not in community with people like those you want to write about, chances are you are on your way to intruding.”

If you’re in community with your characters, you’ll avoid another big pitfall—false generalizations. In their book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward remind us, “Group membership does not inherently determine, predict, or predestine anything about any individual, or any character.”

Nor should writers assume that membership in a particular group will be so defining that your characters will think about that membership 24/7.

“Do you spend every waking moment thinking about your …traits? About your high blood pressure? About the town you grew up in? No. And neither should your characters.”

Your turn. Here’s an exercise by Shawl and Ward from their book that will let you practice writing the other, maybe identify some blindspots, and hopefully, allow you to imagine a story more like the world we live in—polychromatic.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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