My writing buddies know that I agonize about writing from the viewpoints of characters that are not me. I constantly question whether I have the right to write about a Jewish character who isn’t Reconstructionist or at least Conservative. But Reconstructionist Judaism is a tiny percent of Jews, who are a tiny percent of the general population. Will Orthodox or Reform Jews throw rotten tomatoes at me if I write from my own background? Will non-Jews understand that there are many flavors of Judaism? What if they don’t? This was the big, embarrassing question that I asked Eric Flint at my first Superstars Writing Conference.
I will never forget his response, “Fuck ’em. If they don’t understand your stories, they just won’t read them.”
I wish I were as confident as Eric Flint was. I miss him.
I spent a couple of years in a Zen sangha and yet I hold my breath whenever I write about meditation. What if I get it wrong? Not that this is unusual for me. I spent my time in the sangha worried that I was meditating wrong and someone would discover this and out me. Making this even sillier, there is no right way to meditate. The leader of our sangha used to say, “You are perfect as you are. And you could use a little work.” I need a lot of work.
That doesn’t even compare to my paranoia about writing from the viewpoints of characters who aren’t even close to me. How can I possibly write from the viewpoint of a Christian? I don’t understand them at all, much less the many flavors of Christianity. I’m white, Jewish, and American, how do I write Asian characters? Black characters? Indigenous characters? LDS characters? Muslim characters?
At the same time, I want my stories to be encompass the diversity in the world and not just represent myself alone.
One of the great things about Twitter for me has been the relatively easy exposure to a lot of different people and their opinions. I couldn’t make an LDS character out of LDS Twitter or a Black character from Black Twitter, but at least I can listen in and try to learn. With the potential of Twitter changing radically or even going away, I’ve been looking around the social media landscape again, hoping to find that easy diversity. I set up a Mastodon account. You are welcome to follow me there: https://dice.camp/@CarolynIvyStein
Or not. I’ll continue to be on Twitter for as long as it’s around and on Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere.
I pulled up Tumblr, which I didn’t remember ever looking at. I was wrong. At some point in the distance past I set up a Tumblr account and followed the Writing with Color area on Tumblr.
Writing with Color provides a way for writers to think more deeply about people from different backgrounds, including Judaism and get advice from people from those cultures and backgrounds. In particular, I’m finding the Stereotypes and Tropes to be quite useful as well as the various lists of words to describe people. It makes me feel a bit less fraught about writing about characters who are not me. I recommend it.
It’s a good thing to shake up our lives and our writing with fresh perspectives. Perhaps this is the silver lining behind the storm on Twitter. It’s forcing us out of our comfortable nests so that we can experience new things, platforms, and people. I hope your life is filled with wonderful people, a cornucopia of diversity.
Be well, friends!
2 Comments Add yours
Didn’t even know that you had a Twitter but I also recently joined Mastodon 😂 after a narrative designer I follow on LinkedIn suggested it. I think a lot of people are looking for new SM alternatives that aren’t controlled by billionaires or white supremacists.
Also, I totally understand your fear of tackling characters that are of a culture not your own. As you have read a bit of my work, you know that I try to make my characters diverse as well, but it is hard. Writing a character that is from another time period or in a fantasy world makes it easier sometimes, as the veil of time and otherworldliness blur any outright objections.
But I have written from the perspective of a pregnant young mixed race woman as well and had to really dive deep into myself and into the lives of close friends whose experiences I shared to properly portray her. I think that is sometimes the key to writing from the perspective of someone very different from yourself, finding common ground inside yourself and from stories and experiences of people you are/were close to. Not sure if it always works, but sometimes I have an interview with a memory, or imagine how a specific acquaintance or friend would see an experience in order to try to find that place of difference from who I am.
Twitter has long been my favorite platform, but I do like Mastodon as well. It’s a lot easier to specialize in communities you love on Mastodon, which is both a strength and a weakness.
You do a fantastic job with your characters. I’ve found the best tools I have are to know someone and write about a friend or to smash two friends together to make a unique character. But I really like the Tumblr resource of POC characters. I’ll think about what you’ve said.