“Why would you, an African American writer, bother to write a story from the point of view of a white male when the world needs more stories written about black people by black people?” was the question asked by a well-meaning white professor during a creative writing workshop I took many moons ago. I got this lecture after she returned my short story to me – not a single comment except “See me after class.”
I stood looking at her for a moment. The room was empty. Just the two of us. She was a young woman herself. New to teaching. New to publishing – she had published a few poems and short stories, but that was about it. She was full of righteous indignation. A northern whirlwind, intent on “saving” her one African American student who had the unmitigated gall of writing about something other than “the black experience.”
My response to her came from my own place of righteous indignation. “I bothered to write about a white male character because I can.” Then, I symbolically threw down the microphone and walked off.
Okay, I was twenty-something. Tact, and perhaps, patience were not really in my DNA yet, although thinking about the “me” I’ve become, my response would probably be the same, but this time, I would offer an explanation for my answer, and it would go something like this: I am a writer. I happen to be African American. I happen to be female. I happen to be southern. I happen to be a mother and a wife. Hell, I happen to be a pescetarian who desperately craves barbecue ribs at times. Does that mean I should only focus on stories that involve those types of characters? I think not.
Now, that doesn’t mean those types of characters don’t interest me, it just means I am of the mindset that a writer should never place creative limitations on herself. The chances are very good I will write mainly stories that involve African American characters. The chances are equally as good that most of my stories will take place somewhere in the rural south. However, I would not swear on it. Tomorrow, I might decide to write about a young Vietnamese girl who writes love notes for American G.I.s to send back to their girlfriends who are stateside. As a writer, that is my right. I go where my imagination takes me, and sometimes, where I end up, even shocks me.
I would not want to live in a world that didn’t have Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path.” Yes, Welty is white, but the way she depicted the love the grandmother in the story felt for the young grandson who had trouble swallowing transcends race. It didn’t matter that Eudora wasn’t an old black woman writing from her own experiences. It just didn’t matter. I can’t imagine studying southern fiction, and not being able to read Faulkner’s depiction of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. I can’t imagine believing that character any more than I did if the writer had been black. And how would we talk about the antebellum south and the slavery resistance movement in the north if we didn’t have Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
Now, the problem occurs when writers get lazy. We could probably talk all day about how Stowe’s depiction of Uncle Tom was fraught with stereotypes and misrepresentations. I could go on and on for days about contemporary writers who have "assumed" they understood another culture and wrote with wild abandonment about that culture in ways that were equal parts gross and unconscionable.
So, a conscientious writer cannot assume. If a writer, regardless of ethnicity, gender, socio-background, etc., wants to writer about Others, then just like they wouldn’t dare to write about 17th Century Japanese culture without doing a ton of research, the same is true when writing about a different ethnic or gender group.
When I first started contemplating, Jimmy Earl, the 16 year old white male narrator in my upcoming novel, I immediately called my friend Rob Gray (It has been years now since that conversation, but it really shaped how I think about this subject). Rob is male and he has lived the majority of his life in the south. But more than that, he and I have the type of friendship that no question is off limits. I knew I could ask ridiculous questions and get a thoughtful response. And I did. I asked him everything imaginable. I didn’t assume I understood how a white male might think in certain situations. I asked questions and I continue to ask questions. When writers do this, they are free to explore EVERY situation and EVERY circumstance.
Writers can write about anything and everyone. But we have to treat our characters with the same respect we do those details we automatically look up like what day did the Fourth of July fall on in 1936 (Saturday, by the way). As I mentioned above, we would not assume that we understand the behavior and attitude of someone born in the 17th century in Japan, so we have to operate with the same mindset when we write about other ethnic groups who we may think we know, but in fact, we have no clue.
I know a lot about what it means to be an African American woman, but when I wrote a story called “Shaken” that is told from the point of view of an 18 year old African American male, I went to my son and asked his advice. I didn’t assume that I knew anything, and by assuming I knew nothing, I was open to everything my son had to say about my story (and he had quite a bit to say). “Mom, we (meaning his generation) don’t say things like that anymore. That is so 1990.” “No, a guy would never say/do/think that.”
I love it when my white students come to me and ask, “does this sound like something a black person would say or do.” Now, I assure them that I can’t nor do I want to speak for all black people (that is another discussion for another day), but I am gratified that they at least recognize their limitations. I am pleased that they “get” the fact that we aren’t all the same. I celebrate their understanding that unless you’ve walked in someone’s shoes you really are clueless to their experience even if you were walking right beside them the whole way.
So, to all writers I say, write what interests you. Just make sure you do your research. Assume you know nothing, which then allows you to be a wide open vessel, open to receiving all sorts of information about the human condition of others.
I'm working on my second novel, and right now, I am writing a scene involving the Ku Klux Klan and a soon to be burned down chicken coop full of chickens. Right now, I feel tortured by the writing. I both want to run to it, and run away from it. Writing is HARD. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Sometimes, I wonder why I put myself through this process. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a writer, but it can wreak havoc on one’s mental state. There are times when the writing seems to be pushing me to the edge. It is no wonder to me that many writers turn to the bottle and other coping mechanisms.
When I wrote some of the tougher scenes in my debut novel, Drinking From A Bitter Cup, I had to mentally prepare myself for some of the more graphic moments involving my young heroine, Sylvia Renee Butler. I loved that little imaginary girl and as her creator, I wanted to step in, and “fix” her life. I wanted her mother to stay and not abandon her, but writers have to honor the story. Once the story starts to reveal itself to us, we have no choice but to write the story the way it was meant to be written. If we don’t, the story will come across as contrived and boring. Readers can tell when you don’t write the story the way it was meant to be written. The characters come across as weak and cookie cutter. The prose sounds flat. The scenes feel forced and uninteresting. Real writers go into the deep because there is where the story exists. The trick is to not stay there. The trick is to be able to separate these characters and their world from the world that is made up of our family, friends, job, etc. When writers go in to the depths of a story...and I mean, really go in...they are often left feeling like a puddle of water on the floor, when it is all said and done. Below is one of the pieces of dialogue from my next novel that has left me tossing and turning at night, but I knew when I typed those words, they were the words the character HAD to say.
“Hey in there. Y’all niggers come on out,” a loud male voice yelled. “We about to make y’all some fried chicken. We know how much you darkies love yourself some fried chicken.”
Typing those words broke my heart. In my mind I questioned myself. I asked myself, How can you put your characters through such pain and degradation? My response was simple: Because I have to. Writing in the deep is not easy. New York Times and Times of London bestselling author, Raymond E. Feist, says: “Writing is hard work; it’s also the best job I’ve ever had.” I have to say, I concur.
A few posts ago, I encouraged writers to read their work. There is something so scrumptious about tasting the words of your characters in your mouth. You become the conduit through which they are heard and felt. I have always loved performance art. Perhaps, if I didn't have such difficulty memorizing dialogue/lines, I would have auditioned for the stage. Maybe the fact that memorization is a chore for me, I instead focus on getting the voices of my characters just right. I know I will never perform in a play (unless I am the character who enters stage left, nods at the people in the audience, and then walks off stage right). Therefore, I must allow my creative process to help me engage my characters orally. My ultimate goal is, after I've "written" and "talked" my characters into existence, someone who reads a story written by me will "hear" the voices of the characters as if I or the character herself were speaking them out loud. So, below, I share with you my reading of my short story, "Something in the Wash." This story is part of the thesis I wrote entitled Wade in the Water. Please feel free to leave comments below about your writing/reading experiences, or just talk about writing with me.
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” ~ E. L. Doctorow
Because I was raised as an only child, hearing voices was a normal occurrence for me. Before I could even read, I invented elaborate stories about my stuffed animals, my imaginary friends, and myself. And no matter what the story, I always had a particular voice for each stuffed bear, each long-legged Barbie and each imaginary prince who was coming to sweep me—his little brown-skinned Princess—away to some fairy kingdom.
And when I wasn’t creating my own voices, I would often times sit (well hidden so as not to be seen or disturb the storyteller) and listen to my Dad and his brothers and friends tell elaborate stories about people they knew, and always, always their stories were accompanied by the voices of the person they happened to be talking about. And as a result, these people became more than words out of the storytellers’ mouths, they became living, breathing people who embodied the very soul of the oracle relating the story.
As a result of my “voice-filled” childhood, it became second nature for me to hear the voices of the characters that I would create in my own writing. And until I heard them, until I could hear each character’s individual personality radiate through every word of dialogue, until I heard the very timbre of their voices, my characters did not exist for me.
The voices in your story are the DNA makeup of your characters. The voices are what makes your characters tick. I like knowing all sorts of details about my characters. Things like: Date of birth. Time of birth. Place of birth. Parents names and ages. Siblings names and ages. Etc. I also like to SPEAK OUT LOUD the dialogue of my characters. Speaking out loud is so very important for developing the voice of each character.
If you hear your characters, then you can more easily catch when you’ve written dialogue or action that doesn’t fit with your characters. So, ask yourself: Does your character speak fast? Slow? Does she stutter when she’s nervous? Does she have a drawl or does she speak with the clipped cadence of a Northerner? Walk around. Embody your character – mind, spirit and soul. Ask questions that will allow you to get as deep into the psyche of your character as you can because there is where voice resides. So here are some potential questions you can ask your character during a pre-writing interview. And really act this out. BE the character. Not the writer. Not the reviser/editor. But the actual character from your story. Some of the potential questions you can ask are:
Question 1: What is your earliest memory?
Question 2: Which of your parents showed you the most love? In what way?
Question 3: What type of people did you hang out with in high school?
Question 4: Who was your first sexual partner? Did you enjoy it or not?
Question 5: What is the worst thing you ever did to a person that you loved?
Question 6: What is the worst thing that was ever done to you by someone you thought loved you?
Question 7: How would your family and friends describe you?
Question 8: What is something that you have done or said that you wouldn’t want your mother, father, spouse, and/or children to know about?
Question 9: Are you living your best life? If not, why not?
Question 10: What is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to you?
Question 11: What is your most pressing need right now and what would you do to get it?