I rarely give writing advice. I rarely give any kind of advice and never if not asked. My aversion to advice-giving stems from certain experiences in my youth with which I will not bore you here. Suffice it to say that, when not giving advice in my professional capacity as an attorney, I try to keep my mouth shut.
But I was on Twitter not so long ago and came across a tweet from a young writer who wondered if an author should write about characters whose background he did not share. More generally, he wondered if an author should write about things of which he had little or no experience.
His immediate concern was how he could add “diversity” to his scenarios if he could not write about characters with ethnic and racial backgrounds different from his own. His tweet set me to thinking and I sent him a reply. But his concerns require a more elaborate response than fits in a tweet. Here it is.
First, let me say that “diversity” and I are not friends. I regard it as one of those notions that have become so ubiquitous and elastic as to lack any meaning whatsoever. It is not so much a word encapsulating a thought as it is a club with which to beat people who have the temerity to disagree with you.
Second, I am a great believer in writing about people, places and things you know. Depth of knowledge and an intimate understanding of subject matter are, to my mind, of much greater advantage to a story-teller than striving after any superficial “diversity.” The real diversity isn’t in people’s skin color or culture or even in their experiences. The real diversity is in the choices they make in the face of their circumstances. You can find tremendous diversity in the most homogeneous groups if you are willing to plumb the depths of the human soul.
Having made the case for writing about what you know, let me turn around and argue against it.
The real skill of the novelist is in getting into people’s heads. Paradoxically, when you succeed in getting into other people’s heads, you end up revealing more about what’s in your own head than you would have thought possible or palatable, but that’s another story. The story here is that, if a novelist can’t explore what other people are thinking and feeling and deciding, then there is nothing for him to do. He may as well give up.
The greater the difference between character and novelist, the more the novelist will need to stretch himself to understand the character. But it’s always worth the effort, even if it’s not done well. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “[a]nything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Only by exertion and risking failure can you hope to understand other people.
Those who worry about “cultural appropriation” or who believe that you can’t comprehend another human’s response to circumstances you have not directly experienced don’t realize the implications of their attitudes. Ultimately, every human being is unique. If we can’t understand those different from us, we can’t understand anybody and communication is impossible. That’s about as absurd as things can get.
It’s an absurdity that denies human nature, by which I mean it denies the notion that, beneath all the differences, some shallow and some deep, there is at root some things all humans share, something you are simply because you are human. It is the greatest triumph of the novelist, of any author, to reveal these deep unities of the human spirit.
I was once sitting in a huge conference room in a huge investment bank in New York City. I was taking part in a meeting about a corporation’s initial public offering of stock. Dozens of people were attending the meeting and my participation was only intermittently required. At one point, I found myself sitting at a distance from the action next to a young Chinese woman who was an intern with the investment bank.
We chatted during our common downtime. She told me of a conversation she’d had with her grandparents before she left China. They were farmers in their small village. They were afraid of the gulf opening up between them and their grand-daughter, afraid that, coming to America, she would lose her “Chinese-ness.”
I answered that I had, many years before, had a similar conversation with my Italian grand-father. I remarked that, since then, I had met many Americans with Italian names who had little else connecting them to their Italian heritage. She remarked that, in China, they had a phrase to describe their analogous phenomenon: they called such people, “hollow bamboo,” Chinese on the outside, nothing on the inside.
In that moment, transcending our differences of age, sex, culture, civilization, religion, we found common human ground. Unearthing and illuminating this common ground is the calling of the novelist.