When I was teaching in Michigan, I remember a Caucasian student who submitted a story containing African-American characters. What struck me was that each of these characters exhibited at least one stereotype of African-Americans. The stereotypes weren’t all negative, but they were stereotypes nonetheless. When I met with the student and raised this point, the abashed student said, “Well, I don’t really personally know any blacks.” To underscore this point, the student’s normal speaking voice dropped to nearly a whisper when saying the word “blacks.”
Like most clichés, the old fiction adage “write what you know” has a grain of truth in it. But when I meet writers whose knowledge only fits into a small circle, my advice is to always broaden that circle, not double-down on what’s inside. As we meet people different than we are and get to know them, two things happen and both are vital to improving our craft.
The first is we learn that while people may look different, while they may think, act, believe, and express themselves differently from us, they are essentially the same as we are. It’s that different/same mix that creates what Janet Burroway, in her book Writing Fiction, called the individual-typical- universal character. Characters must be individuals, or else your story is lost from the start. Characters need to also be typical, meaning that they should act according to the norms of their natural or chosen environment. Even if your character is a lone-wolf rebel who is defying all societal norms, that character must act as lone-wolf rebels do; in other words, that character must exhibit at least some traits that are typical of rebellious people. Finally, they must be universal. They must have the core human traits common to all people.
Second, widening what we know and who we know deepens our mines so that we can extract richer and richer material. Unlike other skills and crafts, every moment of a writer’s life is part of our study. You climb on a bus in the morning and take your seat next to a stranger, and the lesson begins. What is your seat companion’s facial expression? What mannerisms are used? What does the person’s movements – actions and reactions – tell you? And if you’re the kind who can talk to strangers, what do you know about the topic chosen and where the conversation goes? What can you pick up about the sound of the person’s voice or the pattern of speech?
I grew up (childhood through college) in a time and place that was pretty homogenous, where traditions were touchstones to be kept and honored, and change was generally something to be wary of. My earliest writing reflected that sort of environment. My first teaching gig was at a local community college, and there I met a student who was of a different race, and he had AIDS. At that time (1989), AIDS was a death sentence, but there he was working for an education. We were talking one day, and he mentioned some of his dreams for the future. I can only imagine the look on my face because this soft-spoken, wonderful man chuckled and said, “My future mightn’t be as long as yours but yes sir, I have dreams.”
My circle widened a notch that day. And I realized I wanted (and needed) for it to widen much, much more.
A critic of this approach could point out – correctly — that an author like Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize by almost exclusively chronicling the small-town, blue-collar denizens whose jobs, relationships, and self-worth were either gone or on the way out. I would argue that that is by choice, not by restriction. And when we as writers don’t diversify who and what we know, we are limiting ourselves and our craft.
This blog piece began with an anecdote about stereotyping, and I’m bringing it back to that because if we don’t diversify our experiences and our writing, we ourselves become stereotyped. Imagine for a minute if Neil Gaiman announced his intention to only write romance novels from here on out, or if Toni Morrison said she planned to write hard science fiction exclusively. Maybe Russo’s next book will be a chick-lit story about the 1%. Publishing executives would have fits. They can’t do that!
Yes, they can. They – and you – are not limited by what you have always written or are known for writing. There are no rules about what gets written by gender or race or previous experience. Only you can limit yourself by not widening your circle or exploring themes outside of what you have written before.
Practice wondrous variety. Both your writing and your life will be richer for it.