A Writer’s Responsibility

There are those who say that one should “write what you know.” And how far does that get you? What can I be said to “know”? I can write the experience of a white, middle class girl in America and that’s about it. So I have not heeded that advice.

I’ve needed to have male characters, so obviously that’s not writing what I know. However, I’ve pushed the envelope farther than that. I’ve written from the point of view of Indians (and I do have extensive experience with Indian culture in my every day life) and, obviously, I’ve written from the point of view of people who have physical disabilities that I do not have.

I think that I do it well.

Others might feel, though, that I don’t have the right to tell those stories because they are someone else’s experience. I can understand why people feel that way when I see things like the reviews posted for the horrible book Hell on Wheels.

“Reading this novel changed my perceptions not just of the disabled, but of love relationships.”

What’s bad about that? The novel was written by someone who seems to have never met a disabled person in his life. The portrayal is laughable and ridiculously inaccurate. It terrifies me to think that non-disabled people are getting ideas about what life with a disability is like from books like this.

I do believe that authors can write about experiences not their own (I found Memoirs of a Geisha amazing and very true to the female experience, thought it was written by a man). HOWEVER, it is vital that the author do research and take great, great care in the way that they present the characters who are in roles they have never personally experienced.

If you read a book with a disabled character, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking “How noble and good for someone to write about this poor disabled guy.” It’s like the authors get sucked into the same stereotypes as people with disabilities do! Don’t assume that a fiction book you read about a character with a disability has anything at all to do with real life. Don’t assume that it is accurate about things as simple as how sports programs for people with disabilities work or how amputees navigate their homes or whether someone without legs can drive a car. You cannot trust that the author has done anything more than decide it would be cool and shocking to include a disability in his novel.

We as writers MUST take care in the message we give the world about the people in our stories. We are changing perceptions in actual society with what we write. Let’s take care not to send the civil rights battle that is waging right now for people who have disabilities back to the dark ages.

4 Comments

  1. The Red Angel
    Mar 5, 2012

    I’m so glad you touched up on this, Ruth. I think it’s perfectly okay for authors to write about experiences or people–for instance, disabled people–as long as they do a thorough research like you said. Ideally, the writer would want to interview individuals with those particular experiences or set of circumstances to get their personal accounts. But even when the writer has done all of that, it still takes a great deal of skill, work and editing to make sure the book does those individuals’ perspectives justice.

    • RuthMadison
      Mar 5, 2012

      Exactly! I feel pretty confident in my writing because I’m deeply involved in disability issues and am close to many people who have disabilities; but even so, with each story that I write, I take a lot of time to make sure that my representation is fair and not likely to lead to perpetuating stereotypes or misinformation.

  2. In writing classes, they always teach you: “Write what you know.” And obviously, the strongest writing tends to come from experience. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t write outside this “comfort zone” and create incredible worlds and characters.

    As you say, what that means is you have to do your homework– research the people and places you’re writing about if you don’t know them yourself, and come to know them, as best you can, anyway.

    Sometimes, like in the book you describe in your post, writers will learn just enough to “get by” in their writing, and those who aren’t familiar with what they’re writing may be sucked in. I remember one example in a writing class I took in which we read about a character who was a carpenter. The teacher selected this story b/c his father had been a carpenter, and he could tell that the author knew very little (if anything) about carpentry or that way of life.

    It was a lesson that who your character is, what they do, defines them and it should show in the way you write – if they’re a carpenter, they’ll think of the world, see the world, differently than if they were, say, a banker.

    I think when it comes to something like culture, race, religion, disability, etc., it is obviously always going to be harder for someone to write about it if they are outside that culture – I could never write about India, for example, in the same way I could write about Latino culture.

    Still, it’s possible – the sad thing is, some writers don’t seem to care. “Just enough to pass” is good enough for them. And those are the writers who will never be truly great.

  3. dose
    Mar 8, 2012

    Write what you want, and to hell with everyone else.

    While context can alter the effects of what we write, in general, writing does nothing, so far as I can tell, to hurt anyone. There are many notable exceptions to this, and everyone has their favorite.

    The only problem with this notion though is that none of us operate outside of *some* context. It’s good to consider who you are, what you are writing, who it may effect, and how.

    Generally though, most of us are not in the position of best selling authors, or even journalists for that matter. Dev fiction is mostly at the level of fan fiction. Though I must add that everything I’ve read on the ParaDevo blog is very high quality, and I find myself drawn in even when the given disability is not one to which I’m devoted.

    Without getting distracted though I want to reaffirm that you are allowed to tell whatever stories you want, and detail whatever situations you want, in whatever manner you want. Rewrite the 120 Days of Sodom starring the Teletubbies if you want.

    Words function merely as signs giving directions to the imagination. You aren’t so much an author as an architect of thought and emotion. Thought and emotion though are not action. The onus lies upon the reader to think critically about what they have absorbed. Sadly, there are a lot of stupid people who probably won’t do this. Still though, those are their actions, and thus the fault is theirs.

    I don’t know, that’s just my $0.02

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