April 23rd, 2018
Writing Outside the Self
As a writing teacher and coach, I have the opportunity to help myself and others think carefully and creatively about how we render characters. How can see our work through a more-aware lens?
I often find myself curious about the depictions some of us bring about people who might have different experiences than our own. As a I grow and learn more about the systemic ways people of color are undercut by the dominant culture, I have gotten more confident about asking questions that might help a given writer consider what they'd already drafted to see if the current writing can get more nuanced and compassionate in terms of writing outside one's own experience.
Recently, I had a piece accepted by Full Grown People; the essay is called Caught Between the Cow and the Buoy. Once it was accepted, the editor carefully combed through the piece, and called me out, gently, about a sweeping generalization I had made about Mexican Americans.
At first, I felt defensive, then chagrined, then empowered.
My goal with the line I had written was to bring a complex portrait of my father and his friends, but I had, in fact, perpetuated a notion of brownness being associated with violence or criminality. This was never my intention, but implicit bias is part of the national DNA, and here I was, adding to the master narrative in ways I stand against. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to see my own bias, and to address the line with more complexity and nuance—having this pointed out empowered me to work toward the compassionate, thoughtful work I want to bring to the world in my own writing and in others.
Last year, I read Roxanne Gay's Bad Feminist, and in it, she takes a lot of books and movies to task for their rendering of African American characters - Gay asserts something along these lines: most white writers depict black characters as using their agency in the world to solve the white people's problems (think Driving Miss Daisy and The Help). In this way, these characterizations perpetuate the "magical negro trope."
With that said, all of us might want to think about a character’s strength, resiliency, and power as something she/he uses for herself/himself and/or her/his family rather than just helping the (white) people around her/him. It doesn't have to be a lot – and if you’d like to do more reading on this topic, check out this awesome article by Daniel Jose Older, “12 Fundamentals Writing of ‘the Other’ (and the Self)”. This essay has helped re-see my work - I need a different lens, and the guidance of other readers--to grow both creatively and critically.
Do you have other resources you suggest writers can use to help address the implicit bias we bring to our work? I’d love to hear about them!