J.K. Rowling never attended a school for wizards and witches, or at least that is the common theory. Surely, if wizards did exist, might they be outraged that a simple Muggle speaks for their struggles, their experience? What is an experience, or rather “the experience” of any certain group? Maybe Rowling need not fear backlash from wand-wielding cloak-wearers, but what about writers who write outside of their experience?
Not every crime writer started out as a detective or cop or anything more than a college graduate. Beyond the need for clearly explaining the real world aspects of jobs writers may not have, they may approach a lifestyle they have never approached. Generally, when I pick up a book by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, I can expect their depictions of growing up black and female in America to be accurate. Of course, those experiences do not encompass everyone’s experience, but they make a good representative example.
But what about when I write about being a black female in America? Could my words be taken just as solidly as theirs? After all, it would merely be a representative experience, right? The problem arises that I don’t know what it’s like to be black or female, and although I could research “what it’s like” and read endless books, I may never really know. That’s okay: I’ll write about it anyways.
Because no one can put their feet in everyone’s shoes. We can do only what we can, right? If I only wrote about bookish middle-class white males from Aiken, South Carolina, I might as well write a memoir. All that Write What You Know tripe, it rings true to a certain extent, but it can seriously mangle creativity. And if you never attempt to replace your eyes with the eyes of another, you’ll never learn their perspective.
I thought about this dilemma while outlining a new story about gay homeless teens in New York. I’m not gay, and I’m not homeless. I’ve never even been to New York, but I still think I can write the story. Of course I’ll do research, just like I did research when Is tarted my newest novel about boxing. I did not know anything about boxing culture or rules or even dress, but I learned. You read and read and talk to people who know what it’s like to be whoever you’re writing. Often, I base my stories off of real-life events or ideas or groups, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of them.
Surely, Thomas Harris never ate a single human being before penning Silence of the Lambs.
When I began In Lickskillet, one of the characters seemed to be half-black, half-white. There was no reason for it, but that’s how he looked in my mind, and I didn’t shy away from addressing his perspective. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe I assumed many egregious things, but I tried.
There is no gay experience or black experience, only the stereotypical ideas about such experiences. Either there is only one experience (the human experience) that we can all understand, or there are infinite experiences (meaning none of us will ever fully understand one another). My job as a writer is to try to understand, even though I know I can’t.
What do you think? Should authors tackle difficult subjects they’ve never encountered firsthand or act more like journalists?