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Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.
However, there are many ways that a story can harm. When an author writes a black woman who shows up only to be angry in two scenes full of sass and pilfered vernacular, divorcing the anger from its cause and playing to the worst of tropes, he is performing a violence. When an author conjures up a Latina cleaning woman who is old and slow and barely speaks English but leaves her home, the people who love her, and the dignity of her life on the cutting room floor, he is performing a violence. When an author rests a book on the thinly drawn metaphor of black bodies being torn asunder by some mysterious force that ends their lives just before adulthood, they are engaging in the ugliest exploitation of black trauma in America.
We get angry at the above and more. Because stories have power, and we know that there are rules about who gets to use power and who does not. It is a rule of polite society to accept the reality that publishing is too white with a grim resignation and a nod. The trade-off for not changing anything seems to be to let people get angry when the publishing’s lack of diversity takes the shape of harmful stories. And we do get angry. We form hashtags on Twitter. Discussion rages on Facebook. Online magazines run polls, collect data, and assemble a host of thinkpieces trotted out on the daily to explore the causes of the problem.
Yet, despite our anger, it happens again and again, with such regularity that our anger and outrage have given rise to a cottage industry of minor fixes. Take that remarkable innovation: the sensitivity reader. For a price, an author can have someone else read their work and point out all of the problematic aspects from the standpoint of that person’s unique experience. There are also a host of blogs scattered across the internet (Writing with Color being perhaps the best) to aid writers by answering their (often offensive) questions about how to write characters of various ethnicities, races, cultures, and religions. There is also the much dreaded “diversity panel” to be found at almost any writing conference, the point of which is ostensibly to inform a largely white audience what they are doing wrong. But also, there is a great proliferation of workshops, writing groups, and services offered by “diverse” editors. There is money to be made by coaching white or male or able-bodied authors through the tricky and frightening process of writing “the other.”
I do not mean to be cynical in my appraisal of these services. Stopping the spread of harmful narratives while simultaneously opening up the range of stories available about a group of people should be a priority for anyone currently involved in publishing. However, I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between the financial realities of publishing and the profitability of our anger. When a firestorm descends upon a literary figure, we turn, invariably, toward familiar framing. How did they not see this? They’re blinded by their privilege. Publishing is myopic. This is a moral failing. We need diverse books/authors/agents/editors/publishers.
But I am not sure that problematic stories are always the result of a moral failing. I think that the trauma that marginalized people feel when they read problematic stories about themselves is real. I think watching an author strip away your humanity or flatten the complexities of your life and your experience into a couple of sentences meant to prop a secondary character is an awful thing. But I do not think that the author sets out to do that. I think that we must be able to hold two things in our mind at the same time. We must be able to honor the trauma that marginalized people feel when a story does violence to them and we must also be able to discern the cause of the story’s failure.
There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.
Harmful writing happens when an author’s empathy becomes limited in scope. When the depth of a person’s humanity is correlated with that person’s proximity to the author. This is where we get the dreadful phrase writing the other. There are classes, panels, workshops, blog posts, editors, anthologies, writing series, reading series, and seminars about how to write the other, which is often taken to mean people of color. I admit that I am perplexed by the absence of classes meant to instruct us in writing white middle-class ennui. No special roundtables to discuss how best to write about straight people or cis people or able-bodied people. There is no special secret to writing about people who do not look like you. There is no technique that you need that is different from writing about self. If you can write self, you can write other.
If you cannot write other without the assistance of a dedicated team of marginalized people to check your every sentence, then you should likely interrogate the writing that is about self.
If you cannot write other without the assistance of a dedicated team of marginalized people to check your every sentence, then you should likely interrogate the writing that is about self. Writing requires you to enter into the lives of other people, to imagine circumstances as varied, as mundane, as painful, as beautiful, and as alive as your own. It means graciously and generously allowing for the existence of other minds as bright as quiet as loud as sullen as vivacious as your own might be, or more so. It means seeing the humanity of your characters. If you’re having a difficult time accessing the lives of people who are unlike you, then your work is not yet done.
When a story does harm by presenting a limited view of a group of people, then the author’s craft has failed them in some crucial way. It isn’t that every character belonging to every marginalized group must be perfect and without conflict. It isn’t that an author must present an example every kind of person. Rather, it’s because you present only one side to that person’s life, a side that has often been fabricated and perpetuated by the larger public. It’s because your character doesn’t ring true, has none of the mess that makes a person real on the page.
A writer’s work begins and ends with empathy. Without it, there can be no writing, at least not good writing, and if the author cannot enter into the lives of those unlike himself, then he must, I think, hold the work about himself up for closer scrutiny. The distance between the self and the other is never as great as we imagine it to be—the two are often twinned, and it’s this relationship that empathy reveals. The best writing, the writing most alive with possibilities, is the writing that at once familiarizes and estranges; it’s writing that divorces us from our same-old contexts and shifts our thinking about ourselves and the world around us.
The solution to problematic stories, both at the level of craft and at the level of human experience, is empathy.