Wednesday, May 24, 2023

On being an Other

 Goodness, what a lot of wonderful stuff happened since I accidentally missed my last post! So much to comment on. I love all the talk about research and may tackle it next time. But today I'm going to pick apart the whole topic of appropriation of voice. It's different from book banning, which is ridiculous. There are some truly evil books out there, like Mein Kampf, but I think with proper guidance, most of them can be read in an effort to understand evil.

As for appropriation of voice, if I had to follow that guidance "Write what you know" (or more accurately, "stick to your own kind"), my books would be very dull indeed. All my characters would be white, middle-class, heterosexual women in their seventies. Trust me, we don't get up to much mischief, so thank God for our imaginations, which allow us to pretend we're someone and somewhere else, having exciting adventures, getting into trouble, and saving the day!

So I use my imagination, as well as lots of research, to get into other people's heads and try to experience the world as they do. I've written from the point of view of a middle-aged man in a coma, a learning disabled country handyman, a young girl, a male cop, and on and on. My books are peppered with diverse other characters as I try to reflect the society I'm writing about. I have Indigenous characters, BIPOC, Jewish, Moslem, and LGBTQ+ characters. My main limitation is that I need to know enough about their world, either through experience, friendship, research, or interviews, to feel I can write with authenticity and respect. I think most serious writers know their limitations and their comfort zones, and venture beyond them carefully.

So I suggest the writing rule should be not "Write what you know" but "Write what you can learn about." And it should apply to everything we write. If you're going to write about being caught in a blizzard, it's a good idea to have experienced one or at least get your facts straight from someone who has. As for venturing into other characters' heads, I have more difficulty writing from thirty-five-year-old Amanda Doucette's point of view than I do my older male characters. The world she grew up in and the challenges facing her today are extremely different from mine. I grew up in an era of airmailed letters, pay phones, maps, and "Europe on five dollars a Day". No computer, no internet (indeed not much television), and certainly no cellphone, social media, or Tinder. Pop culture and slang are also very different. I borrow heavily from my daughters' experiences. 

The more intimately you know something, the more power and resonance your writing will have. So dig, dig, and dig some more. I once created a character in my Inspector Green novels MIST WALKER who was a detective investigating child sexual abuse. I had fallen prey to the many negative cliches and horror stories out there about such investigations - insensitive, heavy-footed men who were rule-bound, disbelieving, and so on. As part of my rewrites, I arranged to have coffee with a senior detective who'd spent twenty-five years in that field, so I could find out what they're actually like. He talked at length about his experiences and feelings, and about one particular case that still haunted him. I realized that the real person was very different from the cliche, and I rewrote the character accordingly. It was an eye-opener even for me, a psychologist, to make sure I don't fall prey to superficial prejudices and pre-judgement.

For all of us, there are some topics that are probably too far a stretch or too sensitive to be handled by an outsider. My second Inspector Green novel, ONCE UPON A TIME, dealt with Holocaust survivors, and I was extremely nervous about whether I could do their experience justice. I read as much as I could, both their experiences and personal accounts, I found online tape recordings of survivors telling their stories, I knew some as well, but I was on pins and needles waiting to hear the reactions. When I received a handwritten note from a child of survivors saying how well I had portrayed them, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. 

Empathy is the most powerful tool a fiction writer can have. It is through slipping inside someone else's skin and trying to experience the situation from their perspective that we create the most genuine and vivid characters. Empathy comes much more naturally to some people than others, and thirty-five years as a psychologist no doubt helped me, but it's a skill that can be learned. It takes an open, questioning mind, a listening ear, a curiosity to explore, and an ability to reach deep within oneself to connect to similar experiences. We may not have murdered anyone, but surely we have all experienced the urge to kill. That rage, desperation, terror, or whatever intense feeling that might drive you to murder. There but for the grace of god...

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