At the end of the workshop, we all all delved into an impromptu discussion about permission, ownership, exploitation, and truth. Of course, nothing was resolved during the course of the workshop, and I e-mailed the students my additional thoughts on the matters at hand. Here, then, is an excerpt from the e-mail that I sent, which proved to be a good launching point for further discussion. You should be able to figure out the context fairly easily:
1.) It is rather tempting for writers from time to time to wonder, for example: "What right do I have to write about the experiences of a 17-year-old black girl living in the Deep South? I really don't know what that's like"; or "What right do I have to write about the experiences of a middle-aged, gay Middle Eastern bus driver who is trapped in a marriage with a woman? I don't know what that's like"; or "What right do I have to write about [FILL IN THE BLANK.]"
Do you see the fallacy in that line of thinking? That line of thinking presumes that a 17-year-old black girl living in the Deep South is "like" something specific. That is, there is a particular way that that girl would act, would talk, would be. If you're afraid of not capturing the "authentic" voice of a character, you really have to ask yourself what authenticity is anyway. If you aim for "authenticity," you run the risk of hitting stereotypes. When we don't give ourselves permission to explore the lives of characters different from ourselves for fear that we can't really understand them, we are unwittingly acknowledging that we believe in stereotypes. I would hope that the scope of human experience would allow for characters with the same surface traits to be different from one another. Drastically different.
Sure, if you write outside your "experience," you run the risk of people saying stuff like, "Well, a 17-year-old black girl would never speak like THAT" or "a gay Middle Eastern bus driver would never do something like THAT." But you know what? That has always been a pet peeve of mine in feedback sessions in writing workshops. For example, somebody will read a short story in the voice of a 10-year-old girl, and someone will inevitably say something like, "A 10-year-old girl would never use a word like 'disenfranchised'." And that criticism supposedly carries a lot of weight because it points to the "sin" of not being authentic. But again, do you see the fallacy in that line of thinking? It presumes that ALL 10-year-old girls are the same. Are you really telling me that in the history of the world and in the realm of everything that's possible that you can't even imagine one 10-year-old girl out of the billions of 10-year-old girls who have ever lived using the word "disenfranchised"?
As a writer your responsibility does not lie in honoring the voices of 10-year-old girls. Your responsibility lies in honoring the voice of the specific 10-year-old girl that you have created.
Furthermore, I pose the same conundrum that I posed in the workshop: Our primary concern should not be if something is "true" or "authentic." Our primary concern should be asking ourselves: "What is truth?" or "What is authenticity?"
2.) I have been approached by both colleagues and students who have asked me directly whether they had a right to write about so-and-so. And after they went ahead a wrote about so-and-so and after the work was presented and after all was said and done, the only people who were even concerned with these questions of "rights" and "permission" were those writers themselves. And only them. Nobody else cared, or, at least, nobody else EVER brought it up. Sometimes we're our own worst enemy.
...Look, there is no moral court for writers. (Well, maybe the Oprah Winfrey show, but the chances that she's gonna drag you onto her program for committing some writerly sin is NEVER going to happen.) In Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, a character declares, "An artist creates his own moral universe." It doesn't matter what you think of Woody Allen—truer words were never spoken.