By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

The aspiring writers I meet when I teach at universities or conferences want answers. Correction. They are desperate for answers. Someone will raise an insistent hand. At the first hint of eye contact, they’ll blurt, “My character is in a same-sex relationship, but I’m not. Is that okay?” The issue might, alternately, be anything from the race of the character to her socio-economic status to the city where she lives. In short, these writers want a definitive pronouncement on exactly how far they may stray from their own lived experience. Is this far okay? How about this?

Write what you know. The dictum is so prevalent that even non-writers can recite it. But what does it mean? On the surface, it sounds simple. It’s like Don’t count your chickens before they hatch or No pain, no gain. The problem is that if you dig very far beneath any of this advice, it becomes meaningless. How can one prepare for the arrival of baby chicks if one doesn’t try to get a head count? It’s going to be quite helpful to know if there could be as few as two or as many as twelve of them in the incubator. I, personally, would rather have too much chicken feed on hand than too little. And any physical therapist will tell you that exercising through pain can be a terrible idea. What kind of pain are we talking about here?  It’s no different with write what you know. What does know mean? Heck, what does write even mean in this context? And don’t get me started on the multitudes contained in you.

Kathy Flann

At one extreme, we can interpret this as a mandate to write autobiographical fiction. In this approach, the census data of the character mirrors the census data of the writer. The character shares, more or less, the same life experiences, as well. For me, this would mean that my stories would be written from the perspective of a straight, white, middle-class, married daughter of divorced parents who lives in Baltimore. She’d have gotten hitched in her forties and adopted a dog and a baby (in that order). Etc. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and a lot of writers gravitate to it. My own problem with this type of storytelling is that I find myself so uninteresting. I don’t mean that I dislike myself. Rather, I mean that I already know what my own life is like. What I love about fiction, both reading and writing it, is the chance to learn about people who are not me. I think most writers are, at heart, people who veritably burst with curiosity.

However, the concern behind the aspiring writer’s question – Is this okay? – is well-founded. At the other extreme, as most of us hopefully grasp, there’s a long history of writers in dominant groups taking ownership of the depictions of people from disenfranchised groups. Not surprisingly, those depictions are often rife with stereotypes that grow from the writer’s reliance upon cultural conceptions rather than first-hand knowledge. Frankly, a lot of people are fed up with reading stuff like this.

Case in point is a controversy over the recent Oprah pick, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a book by a non-Mexican writer (white/Puerto Rican) that is told from the perspective of a Mexican migrant. To be clear, I haven’t read the book, having followed the issue mainly through articles that explain situation far better than I can. An article in Vulture gives a decent overview, and anyone with a subscription to The New York Times or The Washington Post can read about it there, too. The social media response to the book reflected, among other issues, the frustrations of readers tired of being spoken for and/or at. The subtext of many messages and reviews seemed to be: write what you know.

It’s important to point out that many people view the situation as the continued failure of the publishing industry to support writers of color. Some reports suggest the white writer received a very large advance. The book seemed to prosper from the controversy more than suffer, appearing on best-sellers lists throughout the country. Apparently, there’s a movie in the works, as well. All of this is to say that there’s a lot more going on here than the writer’s choices in the book itself.

Still, the issue of Write What You Know is on people’s minds, and I think a lot of writers are fearful of the “success” that Cummins has had. What I see in the sessions I teach, at any rate, is a genuine interest in getting it right. The relationship between the writer and the reader is a delicate one, and these aspiring writers understand very well how important it is to nurture it. The reader’s decision to commit to a book is like a trust fall – a toppling backward into the fictional world, agreeing to its terms, pretending it is real, presuming the writer has a plan to catch her. In turn, the writer receives the reader in open arms by providing a carefully constructed story, a world that the reader doesn’t have to struggle to believe. Every detail feels authentic.

The suspension of disbelief is a complex transaction, one that involves a reader’s decision to pretend that writer isn’t there, crafting the whole experience. The relationship can falter in any number of ways, including technical missteps, like point of view slips or unclear sentences. These kinds of issues remind the reader of the writer’s presence, and not in a good way.

The worst betrayal of trust, though, arguably results from substantive issues of characterization. If the reader suddenly becomes aware that a character has been portrayed in stereotypical way by the writer, not by another character or something else inside the fictional world, the reader might be taken out of the story. The reader is likely to feel let down – as if the writer has let her fall.

By some accounts, Jeanine Cummins let readers down in just this way. By others, she did try to create an authentic experience. She wrote from her own life in certain respects, drawing upon personal tragedy, for example. She conducted research on aspects of American Dirt that didn’t draw upon her own life. Be that as it may, writing from the perspective of someone from a marginalized group of which the writer is not a member will rub some people (maybe a lot of people) the wrong way, no matter how hard the writer tries to do it well.

So if a writer doesn’t want to compose autobiographical fiction (again, not that there is anything wrong with it) what’s the path forward? There are no pat answers that I can provide the students on a bullet-pointed handout. What I can say to the aspiring writers is that awareness is a certainly good start. I’ve taught a few workshops – thankfully not many – in which students submitted stories from the perspectives of addicts, sex workers, or even slaves in the 1600’s. These stories demonstrated little comprehension of the identities they depicted, leaving the rest of the workshop group rather stunned about what to say. In each case, the most concerning thing was that the writer seemed surprised that anyone might be troubled. By comparison, the writer who raises a hand and asks the question – Is this okay? – does at least have awareness that the work she’s composing might be problematic. Insight is a good start, but it probably can’t be the end of the process.

Ultimately, I try to let the writers know how I navigate these challenges in my own writing life, not that I have it all figured out, by any means. For starters, for me personally, there are identities I don’t feel qualified to depict. As one example, my in-laws are immigrants from China, and as fascinating as their lives have been, I don’t know that I would ever capture them exactly right – at least not from a point-of-view perspective. But there are myriad personas different from my own that I do feel comfortable depicting, often inspired by the people around me, some of them male – car salesmen or elderly Walmart greeters or people who own dive bars – and I feel a responsibility to handle their stories with care.

I give my work to readers throughout the writing process in order to understand how the characters come across. The results can be surprising. I remember one of my trusted readers saying, “Why have you made this woman so stupid?” Ouch. The female character should have been the easiest one to get right. I hadn’t intended to make her stupid. Rather, I wanted her to be someone who can’t stop talking. Unintentionally, I played into misogynist stereotypes of the vapid “Chatty Cathy” – a trope I especially disliked because my own name is Kathy. I realized from my friend’s response that just because the character talked a lot, what she said didn’t have to lack substance, and I was able to make changes accordingly.

The point is that respect, empathy, and care will take a writer a long way, but might not be enough. A strong community of writers who’ll provide feedback will hopefully give us another means to make positive choices. My own community of writers, in response to this very article, encouraged me to note that some writers enlist sensitivity readers. Others suggested that I remind people that there’s further reading on the subject, such as The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine.

Don’t rush to publish. Once something is out there, it becomes frozen in time, unchanging even as the writer and society continue to evolve. It will represent the writer and also the people being depicted forever. Here’s the place to ask the question: Is that okay?



Kathy Flann is an award-winning author whose latest book, Write On – Critical Tips
for Aspiring Authors, will be released in early summer 2020.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.