I recently read an article titled: “Stop telling authors what they can write.” The focus was on identity politics and the demands by some that writers stay in their lane and write only what they know – or to be more accurate, what they are presumed to know on the basis of certain unalterable characteristics.
As a matter of principle I have always been against the personal being political.
I’d like to say I am someone who creates freely and that I would never let others overshadow my vision, but it is often difficult to prevent ones self-internalizing other people’s ideas and perceptions – it’s not just outside censure a writer must contend with, self-censorship is an easy trap to fall into.
To me the imposition of another’s expectations is a fundamental misunderstanding of how art works. When you get right down to it, the stories we tell must come from within rather than without. The world will inevitably affect us, but what we produce is always going to be a synthesis of our own experiences and ideas – surely we should not let anticipation of what others might think corrupt the purity of this expression.
Readers and audiences absolutely have the right to call things as they see them and vote with their feet or wallets, but anyone trying to prescribe the type of work you are creating or how others interpret it based on how they see you, really has overstepped the mark as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, I am not outlining more than my own position, but the article did make me ponder something that might be of general interest, whichever side of this issue you stand:
How often do you self-censor?
Having just made the argument that the stories we tell have to be dredged up from our own psyches, it seems reasonable to ask how often the audiences we hope to please reside in the same place?
When your pen halts on the page or your finger hovers uncertainly over a key, it is not any external criticism that has disrupted your flow; it is often the person you imagine reading your work over your shoulder and they can be far harsher than any critic you will encounter in real life.
They can steal something from you without ever having existed!
An imagined critic is no different from an imagined story
If you do subscribe to the argument that some aspect of your identity or experience should stop you from writing about certain subjects, wouldn’t it also follow that the same lack of connection would mean that you would be entirely unable to correctly model the reaction of your proposed audience? In other words if you can’t imagine the experience of those you want to write about how are you any more capable of knowing whether those with direct experience would disapprove of what you are writing? How can we truly know what would be offensive or inappropriate, if identity politics is correct in the claim that we can never truly know each other? (Come to that if the only way to know anything is direct experience, why write at all? It’s always a good idea to do your research, but recognising holes in your experience is very different to subscribing to a theory of ineffability).
Surely fearless honesty will do more to bring us together as human beings than any amount of well-weighed insincerity? Unless people are prepared to speak the truths they see, however incomplete, then the claim that some experiences will always be beyond us must remain a self-fulfilling prophesy…
If you don’t find my position convincing then I would still urge every writer to silence the inner critic at the moment of creation – there is a time and a place for reflection, but I would argue that too much self-awareness represents a dangerous abstraction during the act of birthing your story.
Get your thoughts down – maybe you will never show those pages to anyone, but even the emotions they make you feel and the questions they raise have to have value.
Don’t be paralysed by fears and attitudes inherited from others if you want to freely create, and at least consider the possibility that your jailer might reside in your own imagination.
You can’t please everyone – so don’t try
When it comes to real world criticism or expectation, there is simply no way that you will satisfy all the demands others will throw at you and there is a very real risk that trying to be all things to all people will mean your work has little value to anyone.
Far better then, to identify what you are trying to say and who you are trying to say it to. Writing for yourself is just step one in the process of good communication – the art lies in getting a message across and making it accessible to others – maybe only meaningful to a few.
As a slight digression, it’s my belief that all human beings have far more in common than they would ever have to separate them. The demand that people write what they know is all but farcical when you realise how little any of us can actually claim to truly understand. Part of being a good writer is taking the experience you do have and using it to believably approximate the experiences of others – I’ve never been in hyper sleep, but this doesn’t mean I couldn’t imagine astronauts groggily waking from their tanks. I don’t have children, but this doesn’t mean I cannot recognize another’s love for their child.
Imagination and empathy are closely linked and as far as I am concerned, a writer should always be looking to expand both – stretching yourself and putting yourself in unfamiliar shoes will often be professionally and personally beneficial. Even if you can’t know everything the attempt to go beyond your comfort zone can still be worthwhile
Perhaps a good way of framing the issue is that focus shouldn’t be placed solely on what a work isn’t or some might imagine it shouldn’t be but rather ask what you are trying to say or what it might yet be if you free yourself from preconceived limits (remember most experiments in history have been failures, but since the first you’ve learned from falling over).
Don’t just define yourself in negative terms – what made you want to write your story in the first place?
It is always good to be aware of potential pitfalls, but it’s at least as important to recognise the positive aspects of your work.
Those who can only see your deficiencies or how you don’t fit their expectations, are rarely worth listening to.
If you do find yourself straying into uncertain territory it is often better to be evocative than categorical – trust in the good will of your readers. None of us really know what a dilithium crystal is but this hardly matters when it comes to writing a good Star Trek script. Chances are that if you don’t understand all the intricacies of a given scenario then those particulars have little to do with the story you actually wanted to tell; stay focused on what you are trying to create rather than the minutiae that might trip you up.
I’d offer my book Cave Canem as a personal example. While writing it I spent more hours than I care to admit reading up on the Roman military and the events surrounding Germanicus’s invasion of Germany, but I was always painfully aware that I would only ever be able to guess at what it would really be to serve in the Roman army or have actually been in the thick of the fighting.
Anyone who knows the book will be aware that it is written from the point of view of a war dog. The perspective served the story but it also offered me a lens through which any practical short comings in my experience would be understandable.
So – don’t ignore details, research does matter, just remember that a good story is all about showing the reader as much or as little as you want them to see rather than achieving laser accuracy.
Think of the difference between a photograph and a painting.
To thine own self be true
I’ve said it before and I’m going to keep saying it – have fun and stop worrying what everyone else thinks!
There are plenty of people who will get into your head if you let them. Frankly they should write their own books rather than trying to hijack yours. Chances are you’ll let down everyone else in some way, so you have to please yourself and stay true to your own vision – anyone who claims to see it all clearly is either mad or to be deeply distrusted.
Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to speak or forget to listen. There is so much experience to be shared that we simply cannot be picky – for writer and reader alike the true question can only be:- “Does this speak to me?”