This is the fourth in the 12-part series Wrongs To Write: Defying Fiction Conviction, by Fort Worth based fiction novelist Jeff Bacot on challenging conventional literary rules in fiction writing. Jeff Bacot is a freelance writer of fiction and blogger of unconventional thought. His novel ON THE HOLE was recently published and released and is available on Amazon.com or Barnes and Nonles.com. He is an active member of The Greater Fort Worth Writers group. He is a graduate of Southern Methodist University.
WRITING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW: RACE WRITING RIOTING
“Always write what you know.” These words ring in my ears every single day when I sit down in front of my laptop and attempt to create something. It’s an instruction that is hard wired into my left brain and bolted tightly into my right brain (as it is with every writer). I try. I do, but fail miserably sometimes. There are obviously limitations to writing what you know, all the time. Sometimes you just have “make stuff up” as you go. So, my next question: “What do I know? What exactly do I really know? What the hell do you know well enough to write about Jeff?” It’s a maddening question. Well, I like to THINK I know a lot…but sometimes I know nothing, but write anyway.
“You write white,” a woman in my creative writing group said to me recently. It got my puzzled attention immediately; because this woman is white. “What do you mean?” I asked, not knowing how to respond to the observation. “All of the characters in your stories are white.” I thought about it for a minute and realized she was almost correct. Most of my characters are actually not just white, but male, with money. After thinking about this for a few days, I asked myself some hard questions about characters I choose for my stories. “Why DO I do this?” I could not answer.
The counterargument that I want to toss aside is the one that “writing what you know” invokes realism. “Write only what you know,” as a defense and argument against “noodling and rambling” with words. I always thought “write what you know” was a pathetic cliché; an apologetic bromide. Like something the high school creative writing teacher says to the talented student in a Hallmark movie. That’s not to say that “write what you know” is necessarily bad advice. Clearly, a writer will want to draw from their surroundings, and from people they know when constructing a story.
Makes perfect sense I guess, right? Wrong. To write only what you know is anemic advice. It’s particularly awful advice when all of the people who have the opportunity to write are often white, often rich, and often men. Do we really want stories that are only populated with these people? No, it would get old and boring. This status quo severely limits the experiences that get written and deemed worthy to produce and publish. Writers should write what they know while being creative, thoughtful, empathetic and courageous enough (and, let’s be frank: talented enough) to venture outside those boundaries. Writing outside of what you know, when based on people we know. Individuals.
I thought about this quandary as I pondered all the people in my life that I know well. My best friend growing up was Hispanic. My former wife was Swedish. One of my closest college friends is African American. My best client when I was in the banking profession was Asian. One of my closest friends and writing editor is British, and a woman. And, upon a careful examination of the assortment of friends on my Facebook pages, roughly 50% of my friends are from a different country, or are a different ethnicity, race or culture altogether, than I. (It is also about 52% male and 48% female). It turns out I know a lot of different individuals, but tend to write only based on the same ones.
I have a variety of people that I choose to associate with, dine with, socialize with and work with. Most of these people I know well. I may not know everything there is to know about the culture, religions, backgrounds, heritages, countries, values and social conditions, but I know these people. I know this person, previously and now. So, why is it that I rarely write characters that differ from my race, religious preference, sexual preference and gender? It is completely in keeping and authentic to “what I know” to write about people in my life, because I take great inspiration from them in characterizations in my stories. But, I take inspiration from them individually and not the collective group from and to which they belong. But I think all writers chicken out when the desire to include a character whose race we might not understand, in the name of being……
PC! Yes, politically correct. I said it, and then coughed, because I am not. Anyone who knows me, knows I often say and write things that are offensive. Indeed, this whole 12-part blog series I am writing is titled “Writing The Wrong: Defying Fiction Conviction.” It stands at the altar of “going against the grain.” My last blog piece, “The Profound In The Profane”
advocated the use of more swear words in literature, for crying out loud. I don’t mean to be offensive, but I can be. In attempting to communicate that which is true, that which is real, that which connects, and that which is authentic, it is necessary for me to offend sensibilities sometimes. Yes, I said “necessary”.
In my recent novel publication On The Hole
, I wrote a scene where two guys were making jokes about each other’s bad golf shots, by personifying the shot with a famous person’s name. One of the characters (and I stress CHARACTER, because he is bigger than life, with the nickname “Skew”.) Skew refers to his budddy Nick’s golf shot that was “straight at first, but then took a turn,” as a ‘Rock Hudson’. Hitting a ball with a club size too large he calls a ‘Rodney King’ (“over clubbed it.”) Then he refers to hitting a ball in a sand trap twice before you get out as an ‘Adolf Hitler’ (“two shots in the bunker.”) Get it?
Is Skew politically incorrect? Sure he is, very. I suspect there are quite a few gay people, African Americans, and maybe even some Germans, who would find this guy offensive. Maybe even a thug. He is. But the character is unique and very far from “PC”. He is not racist, just really, really, really inappropriate. It is authentic, slightly funny, but realistic to who this guy is, and what is typical for his behavior. He is vital to the story though. (Some people really like the guy, some hate him. But all agree he is similar to someone they know. That was the goal when I created him.) But I decided in writing On The Hole, that I would just be authentic, create believable people, and let readers judge for themselves the veracity of my characters.
Lesley Arfin, a writer for HBO’s controversial series ‘Girls’, responded recently to criticism that the show doesn’t have any non-white characters, “What really bothered me most about criticisms was that this was a representation of ME. That I had a reason.” That is what Arfin “knew” and so that is what she wrote. She apologized later — “Without thinking, I put gender politics above race and class. That was careless. The last thing I want is girls versus girls.” Her apology rang hollow, but it was an apology nonetheless. Did she need to apologize though? Well, I’ll let you be the judge. I have my own opinion. But, that was the goal and what the writers knew and chose to tell: a fair argument against too much “PC”, pandering to popular sentiment and frankly, censorship. These three villains to fiction beget flat, limp, and boring characters….and crappy stories.
So, I have to be careful with this subject, but I intend to incorporate many different characters into my stories, that will be based on the people I know, regardless of their heritage. I will not pander to the umbrella of a characters’ class, race, gender, religion or sexual preference. Just the individual and what I know of him/her, and a little that I choose to “make up” in my imagination. SO, feel free to write into your stories a variety of races, religions, cultures, but it is paramount to make it based on the content and character of the individuals you know, not a PC fill-in. It will enrich your story and make it accurate to modern reality. Write what you know, and bravely write what you don’t know without fear. But make sure it is based on the person, their unique personality and glowing authenticity, not politically correct pandering.