by Lillian Csernica on February 16, 2014There seems to be more and more talk these days about the importance of diversity, inclusive viewpoints, and using language that carefully avoids triggers and hostile buzzwords.
What we have here is a mine field.
Let’s consider the Bogeyman of our times, the Straight White Male (SWM). How is a SWM supposed to write about characters with whom he has absolutely nothing in common, no points of cultural similarity or emotional resonance? As a drastic example, just to make the point, imagine a single, childless SWM attempting to write a story from the viewpoint of an African-American lesbian who has two children from a relationship that occurred when she was a teenager. Even if the SWM knows a woman who fits this description and goes to her for research and feedback on his manuscript, he’s still in the position of a deaf person trying to imagine what music sounds like. No matter how hard he tries, he’s not really going to understand. He can’t feel it in his bones, so to speak. He may comprehend the words, but the tune escapes him.
Worse, the SWM has put himself right in the middle of the mine field. Should he go ahead and write the story and somehow manage to get it published, he will expose himself to all manner of criticism. Perhaps the woman he went to for advice and feedback is not typical of the kind of character he wants to write about. Perhaps she’s in an economic position that has made her able to go to college, get a degree, achieve a high level of success in her field, earn a considerable income, buy a house, send her children to the colleges of their choice, and in general live the life people often consider typical of the SWM himself. The SWM’s research resource will give him insights skewed according to her experiences. If his research is inaccurate, or at least not representative of the character he wants to create, then what comes out on the page will not ring true. It will invite all kinds of hostility and outrage and accusations of racism and class prejudice.
I’m walking through the mine field myself to even discuss such a situation.
I am not defending the Single White Male who does commit offenses of language and action against women and people of color.
I do believe that to claim EVERY White Male, single, married, or otherwise, commits such offenses routinely is bigotry in itself.
The point that I’m trying to make about writing realistic characters from vastly different cultures and backgrounds would be equally valid if we were on Jupiter and the Hermaphroditic Reptilian Millionaire chose as its main character a Homeless Single Sex Cyborg. The First Rule of Writing is Write What You Know. That leaves the SWM in the position of writing about SWMs. That’s what he knows best, that’s what he can write about with the greatest accuracy and depth of feeling. To punish him for doing so is inconsistent, unreliable, and even merciless.
We can’t write what we know, because we don’t know enough. Part of the adventure of writing is doing the research. The more we learn about people different from ourselves, about lifestyles different from our own, about morals and ethics and religions and spiritualities and cooking and clothing and planting gardens in ways far different from the familiar, the more we enrich our writing. The more we stretch the muscles of the imagination. Am I stating the obvious? Yes and no.
It’s important to write what we know because then we bring to it the knowledge we carry in our hearts and in our bones.
It’s even more important to write what we don’t know and to make the effort to get it right. That way we learn, our readers learn, and we do justice to ourselves, our readers, and the characters whose stories we tell.