I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw a long thread that basically boiled down to a debate over the old mantra “write what you know,” although I’m not sure the people in the thread realized it.
And then, via the Chef’s Table episode on Enrique Olvera, I had a chance to reflect on a somewhat modified mantra, “cook what you know.”
You see, a successful Mexican chef told Enrique, “Enrique, you cook really well. But you’re Mexican, and you’re not cooking Mexican food. Because you’re Mexican, you have a responsibility to cook Mexican food. Who better to cook Mexican food than a Mexican?”
So what do I think about the old mantra “write what you know”?
Imagination: the fantastical and avant-garde
Let’s see. The Wizard of Earthsea. Do you think Ursula K. Le Guin had ever battled a shadow demon when she wrote this work of fantasy?
elBulli, the great restaurant. Do you think Albert Adrià cooked postres (desserts) he knew?
Or were both of them making some of it up as they went along their way?
Given that I’m starting out like this, you might think I’m here to rip the old mantra to shreds. That’s not the case. I’ll get to the good parts about the mantra in a bit. But I wanted to start off with the glaring inconsistency. If the only good writing was truly “what we knew,” there would be no such thing as good sci-fi and fantasy. Okay, maybe you’re a hater of genre writing, but there wouldn’t be good magical realism. A lot of good literary fiction would be remiss, too. And historical fiction? Forget it!
The old mantra undercuts the power of the human imagination, as well as the value of human experience. Huh? Isn’t it all about human experience? Well, no. It’s about individual experience. When you say to someone, “Write what you know,” there’s an emphasis on the you. As if you, the individual, are expected to confine yourself to the things that you know.
I’ll tell you right now that the only time a writer really does this is when writing their own memoir. For me, This is Not a Sad Story is an expression of the things I know. All of my other writing expresses things I know, but to varying degrees.
Let’s not assume.
Here’s something funny-ish that happened to me. I posted the first chapter of Blue and White on Reddit’s r/DestructiveReaders for critique.
Most people, thankfully, had some nice things to say, a couple points to make. One person, though, had some interesting things to say. You can read the full comments here, and I bet you’ll be able to pick out the INTERESTING critique even before I tell you anything more about it. (You can also find a link to the first chapter of Blue and White there, which I will be sharing here on the blog at some point.)
It starts with a discussion of, okay, you should be intentional in the things you write, the details you pick. Okay. Then it goes through a laundry list of things that I supposedly included in an unintentional way. Except… many of them were intentional. They told me, “Write what you know.” But here’s the cake. At the end, they include something like this: “Well, I think you A) have never had sex outside, B) have never skated on a real frozen lake, and C) are more bicurious than you’re willing to admit.”
Okay, person on Reddit. I was willing to read all the other stuff, but you just made three assumptions that all, by the way, happen to be wrong. Especially the last one. I’m not bicurious. I’m bisexual, for heaven’s sake.
I told them so. They never replied.
You don’t know the limit of another person’s experiences.
Every time I see people attack, say, a male author for writing about something like rape, I cringe a little. Because who am I to say that that author hasn’t experienced something like rape? Maybe they didn’t want to come forward and talk about it, so they wrote about it instead, to help them work through their feelings. Imagine how it must feel to be condemned like that. I bet it doesn’t feel great.
And even if the crowd is right half the time — who the heck cares? No one said that the topic of rape is reserved for a select few people. Anyone who wants to write about rape can write about rape. This is sort of like free speech but not exactly. Free writing. You can’t copyright or reserve a topic. Anyone can write about anything. You don’t have to like it. But you can’t stop them from writing about what they want. And, in my opinion, you shouldn’t bully them about it later. You should choose what you want to write and focus your attentions there.
A brief rant about the term “POC” — skip if you don’t want to read something a little political.
I’m getting to the real point, I promise. The real point is about the crisis over “POC” characters in writing.
But let me tell you something first. I hate the term POC. I think that it’s one of these stupid “politically correct” terms that has gone way too far. Do you want to know why?
A) It’s an umbrella term that doesn’t clearly reflect the identities of the people who use it.
B) It leads to pointless debates like, “Is Antonio Banderas a POC?” which draw attention away from the real matters at hand.
C) Coming back to point A, under the confines of the umbrella term POC, I technically count as a person-of-color because I do not have a strictly “white” or “European” identity. Does that make any fucking sense? Okay, I’m sorry to swear, but seriously. I HAVE EVERY OUNCE OF PRIVILEGE IMAGINABLE AND I SHOULD NOT BE LUMPED IN WITH GROUPS WHO HAVE SUFFERED SYSTEMIC RACISM FOR A LONG TIME.
And no, it doesn’t make a difference that a short while ago, half-Asian people were technically “illegal” under anti-miscegenation laws. Doesn’t matter. We’re perfectly legal now and perfectly privileged. We tend to have highly educated parents who put us on a track for success. Call me biracial or multiracial or half-Asian or hapa. DO NOT CALL ME A POC.
And, honestly, people don’t refer to each other by race very often. I don’t think of my boyfriend as my white boyfriend, nor do I think of my close friend as my half-European half-Indian friend. Nor do I think of my ex as my Asian ex.
Writing point-of-view characters who are not like you
Let’s start off like this. You’re a man. Or you’re a woman. Or you’re an other. You have some kind of identity. Does that mean you can write ONLY from the point-of-view of characters who share that identity?
You have a certain personality. Does that mean you can write ONLY from the point-of-view of characters who share that personality?
You have a certain race and a certain culture. Does that mean you can write ONLY from the point-of-view of characters who share that race and culture?
So now, all of a sudden, according to some of the logic floating around out there today, I can only write from the point-of-view of a half-Asian, 21 year old, female, bisexual, American protagonist. Which would be to say, I can only write about myself. There goes my work-in-progress. There go my short stories and many of my poems. Oh, boy.
It’s false, false, false, and false again for good measure. You can write from points-of-view other than your own. That’s one of the joys of writing — being able to inhabit another person’s mind. And the ability to do this effortlessly, easily, is one of the hallmarks of a great writer.
Now, there are caveats. The farther away I take my characters from myself, the harder it will be for me to write them authentically. If I decided today that I wanted to write a book with a POV character who was, just to pick an example, half-Hispanic and half-Black and autistic and gender non-binary, plus they have PTSD, I’d probably have a pretty darn hard time. In fact, I don’t think I could produce an adequate representation of such a person, though I’m sure they exist. With such a specific identity and one that’s so removed from my own, it’s very difficult to get a handle on that character’s inner processes.
But, to take the protagonist from Blue and White, can I write an adopted Asian, 18 year old, male character living in a suburban town? Yeah, I can. Fairly successfully. Adopted Asians and half-Asians share some similar identity struggles. Not the same ones, but similar. And I’ve known adopted Asians and Asians, as well as 18 year old Asians living in suburban towns. My human experience is not just my own. It’s also a composite of the things I’ve picked up along the way from other people’s experiences. These things are not perfect, but they are part of my experience. By witnessing other people’s lives and struggles, I have expanded and enriched my own. You do the same thing. We all do. Write what you know is an all right mantra if you take care to remember that we all know more than “we” know.
Some advice for writers writing POV characters with identities other than their own
- Make sure your character is not out of left-field. Like my example above. Don’t do that. If you try to do that, you won’t be successful. And you will be ridiculed, and probably rightly.
- Question your reasoning for using this character. Is it just to “add diversity” to your novel? Maybe not a great idea. But if the novel has something to do with the story of that character’s identity, then go for it. Don’t sermonize and don’t tokenize, though. People won’t like that either.
- Recognize the truth. The truth is, a good Asian writer will always write a deeper Asian character than me, because that writer has lived that experience, and I haven’t. And this is okay. This doesn’t mean we both can’t write an Asian character. Because by the same token, my half-Asian character will be better than that writer’s half-Asian character. USE YOUR IDENTITY AND YOUR EXPERIENCES TO YOUR ADVANTAGE.
- Research, research, research. Research is your best friend. And not just Internet research, but also talking to people research. Learn about this identity you’re writing about. Talk to people who share your character’s identity. Learn what it’s like. If you’ve never met anyone with this identity and can’t find someone to talk to, know that your odds of creating a successful character are reduced.
- Employ beta readers of your character’s identity and/or “sensitivity” readers. They’ll help to ensure that your portrayal is as accurate as possible and that you don’t make any heinous mistakes. (Although if you think you’re in the realm of making heinous mistakes, maybe reconsider.)
- All in all, exercise good judgment. If you’re careful and honest, few people will attack you. There might be a few. Be chill. Don’t be defensive. Say, “Okay, I respect your opinion. Thanks for sharing it.” If you hear the same opinion several times, then consider reworking what you’ve done.
I’ve written this addressing how to write a character with a different identity, but these tips go for writing anything you don’t “know.” Especially the research one. Conduct research online, in books, and out in the real world. For example, if I really had never skated on a real frozen lake, I would probably want to do it before writing about it.
The one thing that’s done in the first chapter of Blue and White that I’ve never done before — which that one commenter didn’t pick up on, actually — is smoke marijuana and drink alcohol simultaneously. I’ve done each separately. But I questioned people who have done both together extensively in order to represent the experience with some accuracy. Research, research, research. I can’t stress research enough.
Tie together your lived experiences with your research, and always add a pinch of imagination!
If you enjoyed “Write What You Know,” read more on Voyage of the Mind.
You might enjoy Laura’s article about how she found out people on Facebook think she’s a guy… after reading some of her writing.
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