Writerly Foibles (or Who Can Tell This Story?)

In general, writers are a mass of contradictions. That’s both fascinating and maddeningly frustrating.

Many of the writers I know spend a lot of their time observing the world. We study how people talk and behave to write believable characters.

But writers also notice how a person’s body language differs from what that person says. We notice little details about how people dress, how rooms are decorated, and other sensory information.

The writers I know tend to ask a lot of questions about why things are done a certain way. We speculate on how things could be done differently and what the consequences of that might be.

A lot of writers have the ability to envision both the best- and worst-case scenarios in any given situation. I tend to dwell on the worst-case scenarios, probably because they’re the ones with the greatest potential to make a good story.

Those traits, I think, tend to make writers good at interacting with people, despite how many of us lean toward the introvert side of the spectrum. We find it easier to imagine how the person we’re talking to feels and to react accordingly.

But those traits also mean we are wracked with self-doubt, impostor syndrome, and their related angst.

We’re quick to judge ourselves as “unworthy” because our first drafts don’t match the brilliance of someone else’s polished, published work. We despair of ever finishing a great work that cements our legacy in the canon.

And yet, we also feel qualified to write stories that, perhaps, aren’t ours to tell.

For example, I can’t be the only female reader who has stopped reading certain male authors because they simply cannot write a convincing book from a woman’s point of view.

Recently, a lot of writers have discussed diversity in books and who has the right to tell certain stories.

Before I give my two cents, I should note that I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, white, cis lesbian. In other words, I tick only one or two diversity boxes, and my thoughts on this topic are limited as a result.

In one recent debate, a middle-aged, middle-class white writer talked about the slave-narrative she’s working on. She got a good bit of pushback from writers of color, and she seemed to take great offense at their reactions.

Personally, I understand why writers, particularly writers of color, might be angered to see another white writer trying to publish a novel with a slave as the protagonist. After all, we have a large number of those books already.

But I also understand that white writer’s perspective. I don’t feel that my work should be limited to just what I know or have experienced. Often, I pick a topic to write about because I don’t actually know as much as I’d like, and writing the story gives me an opportunity to learn.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ll try to publish every story I write.

Some of our stories simply are not—and never will be—worth publishing. I think that’s a hard thing for any writer to admit. We don’t want to spend all that time working on something only to put it in a drawer and forget about it.

But sometimes, that’s the best thing we can do. Especially if, as we’re working on a story, we realize we really don’t know enough about what it’s like to live the lives we’re depicting. And that we cannot, even with the best of intentions, represent that world authentically.

It’s a fine line, and I think that writers must do their best to research thoroughly, write “the other” with respect, and be willing to hear “no” if their work isn’t good enough. We shouldn’t limit our explorations, but we should understand if our work doesn’t measure up.

And, perhaps more importantly, more writers need to champion diversity in reading, writing, and publishing. We need more writers from all backgrounds getting their ideas and experiences into print. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her 2009 TED Talk, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”

When we read or write stories about people who are unlike those we know, we grow. We become more empathetic and less fearful. We learn to walk through life with more awareness of the world around us.

That’s the power of stories. It’s why I write. I hope it’s why you write too.

(Photo by Victoria Palacios on Unsplash)

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