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Writing Outside Our Experience

Amy Leibowitz

Many of us like to write stories about people who, in some way, share our experiences. For survivors of trauma, writing about fellow survivors may be key in the healing process. Sometimes, we write because we don't see enough people similar to us in our books. I like to write about my fellow LGBTQIA folks because it helps bring me closer to my community.

When we do step out of our area of firsthand knowledge, it's important to keep some things in mind:

  • What led you to telling this particular tale? What sparked your motivation?
  • Are you able to put yourself in the characters' shoes? What things in your own life can you draw on to develop compassion?
  • If you're writing about a group of people who are historically marginalized--and you're not part of the community--are you continuing to engage in support for that community outside writing?
  • Have you done research not only by looking up information but by reading books by people from that community and talking to people in your own life?
  • Do you have a few people in mind who can look over what you've written and give you pointers?
  • Who is your target audience?

Here's a good example. I'm about to join a discussion group for Jodi Picoult's Small Great Things. The book is very clearly a white woman writing for a white audience about racism. I've read the reviews, so I'm already aware of some elements which are problematic. This means I can engage with the book sensitively while also being aware that the story is not truly meant to be a book for a black audience. It's meant to get me to look at my prejudices. We can discuss whether I should be listening to black people talk about my prejudices (I should). But we can also talk about whether sometimes we need to examine our racism without putting more burden on black folks to educate us. If I can have this conversation via a white woman's book, and keep an open mind, perhaps it will motivate me to seek ways I can be not merely without racism but actively anti-racist. Perhaps it will also motivate me to read the work of black writers on their own lives and experiences.

Knowing why we write and who it's for--at a deep level, not a surface "but I just like it" level--can help us write characters and situations different from our own with greater empathy.

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