“Can I write about this?” – Yes, on one condition.
People love classifying other people. Our minds are happily oriented around patterns, but when it comes to making sense of others, especially those who are different than us, we get into trouble. Writers who want to tell a story featuring a race or culture to which they don’t belong are right to be nervous about tackling such a project.
By all means, write about something completely alien to you, but respect it enough to give time, energy, and interest in order to do it justice.
Beginning writers are often told “write what you know”, which is one way to get the pen moving on the paper, but that doesn’t make good material very often. This advice can feel like shackles.
There is a way to write about any person/thing/group/hot-button topic out there. Research.
I wish I could borrow a leaf from Chuck Wendig over at Terribleminds and really just tear into what I think is wrong with how people do research today, but I’m true to myself as a wuss when it comes to swearing. Point is, writers of all levels should research their topics, and it’s not all google searches.
I shared a post a while back about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. If you’re concerned whether you will get in trouble with a group because you’re writing about them, then you don’t know them.
So get to know them!
Reading up is fine, but nothing beats sitting down and really getting to know individuals. For the most part, people love talking about themselves.
If you’re concerned a candid talk isn’t possible, voice that concern and do your best not to be the problem. Here are links to help you keep that from happening:
How to talk to people you disagree with: https://ed.ted.com/featured/XNDvgIYd
Discussing difficult or controversial topics: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines
Understanding giving and taking offence: http://www.conflicttango.com/giving-and-taking-offense/
Examples of micro aggressions: http://www.microaggressions.com/
Tips for conducting research interviews: http://managementhelp.org/businessresearch/interviews.htm; https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/708/01/
Some quick points about primary research:
- Never talk to just one person. Quantity informs quality when it comes to research. Stay focused, of course, but great writing on a touchy subject is great because it distills the experiences of many people into a greater truth.
- No one, ever, is obligated to talk to you. Respect the human beings you’re meeting and interviewing, especially when the subject matter is something personal. Their comfort and safety are in your hands. Do not abuse it or the time they’re giving you.
- Take your time. Rushing through to get what you think you’re looking for isn’t going to help. Set a time-frame, sure, so it doesn’t go on forever, but anything worth such close attention deserves a real investment of time. Months are one thing, years on one project isn’t uncommon.
- Keep track of who you’re working with. People you work closely with, though the numbers may add up quickly, are what set your project apart from others who haven’t gone out to do their own research. Take down their names and at LEAST two points of contact (if they’re willing to give them) to keep them informed. Include thanks to them, whether individually or collectively, in your final work. See #2 if you’re still not sure why they deserve it.
- Let yourself change. Let your project change, as a result of what you hear and who you meet. Connections are beautiful, and can be rich, deep, and/or lasting. It’s selfish to go into a meeting with someone with only a checklist of what you need from them. It’s silly, too, since you’ll be denying yourself the benefit of discussing deep subjects with another human being. They have things they want out of the interaction too. Make each one as positive and compassionate as possible.
To touch more on the first point, truth about sensitive subjects appears most often in patterns rather than personal accounts. This is how writers who deal with difficult subjects end up creating work that speaks to all people vs. just the one person whose story they heard while researching. Individuals’ experiences with the same circumstances differ radically. An experience of prejudice differs depending on the person giving it, receiving it, observing it, and all of this changes based on where it takes place and what’s at stake. To just speak with one person about the issue doesn’t give a full picture.
Emotion is in the specifics. Consider research a bit like a geometric diamond. The top point is individuals’ experiences you’ve researched, the wide center is the overall concepts, emotions, themes, and forces you end up with after hearing the individual accounts, and the bottom point is the individual FICTIONAL experience you produce for your character based on the concepts and forces you’re showing in your work. For people who have never experienced these things, that character is their focal point. They are your readers’ connection and they make the whole thing personal. Without personal connection, your research will not reach people the same way this issue reached into you.
I think it’s important we feel concerned we will not be doing justice to something we don’t know first-hand. That warning bell goes off when we’re ignorant and could stand to learn a little more. Thankfully, good writing has a way of spreading, and what we learn during real, first-hand, primary source research can help knock a little compassion into those who read our work.