On Seeing One’s Self

. . .apparently the next in a series of posts about history.  Who knew?

Asyouknowbob, I do some wandering up and down the internets, and I read a lot of strange and beautiful and inspiring and awful* and puzzling and infuriating stuff, just like you do.

Lately, in the course of my passage up and down, I’ve come across some essays, written by different people, at different times, reacting to different impetuses, all earnest and heartfelt, and every one taking as their theme:

I read fiction and I’m increasingly depressed, because I don’t see myself anywhere.

Now, on one level, I can relate to this frustration.  After all, when I started reading science fiction, back in the 1960s, I didn’t see me there, either.  By which I mean, not me, specifically, because who would want to write about me?  But girls and/or women with an adventurous spirit who were aching to get out there and buckle some serious swash; solve their own problems; pilot their own damn’ spaceship; or, yanno, run the family carousel.

Now, the way I handled this problem was, when I got old enough, and good enough, I wrote stories with me in them — by which I mean, not me, specifically, because I’m even more boring as an adult than I was as a kid** — but stories in which girls and women take care of business, and who are just as smart/capable/funny/sexy/scary as their male colleagues.

I know this isn’t a route that’s open to everyone, and herein lies the problem.  You might think that writing a blog post appealing to authors to put you — transperson, man of color, Thai woman, whatever — into stories would, yanno, move writers to do that.  I mean, I know a lot of writers, and we’re a pretty decent lot, all told, and mostly we write in order to make people happy, by which I mean satisfied, so why wouldn’t we oblige the people making such simple, and on-point requests?

Well. . .because there’s an obverse side to every coin.  And for this one, for every person who wants to see themselves in fiction, there’s at least one other person of the opposite view, who will fall like fifteen tons of granite paving stones onto the head of writers who are seen to be “appropriating” their lifestyle, culture, society. . .

The point of these folks is that writers who are not authentic, who haven’t lived in the culture, for instance, are going to automatically Get It Wrong, and besides that, they have no business writing about something they can’t possibly understand.

Writers aren’t necessarily any fonder than anybody else of having fifteen tons of granite paving stones dropped on their heads.  Just sayin’.

Lest you think otherwise, I actually have some sympathy for the obverse point of view, too.  But, truthfully?  Not much.

Because, see, every time I write about somebody who isn’t me — by which I mean me, Sharon Lee, nearsighted, overweight, manic-depressive scifi writer — I’m writing about someone I don’t fully understand.  I’m not, for instance, a man, though I’ve met a lot of men, and happened to have married a man.  I’m not a norbear; I’m not a ghetto kid turned mercenary soldier; I’m not a sentient spaceship — Look.  There are just an infinite number of things in this universe that I Am Not, and never will be, ‘k?

And yet I have the moxie to try to write about some of those things that I will never be.  Can never be.  I bring certain skills to the task of trying to capture those things and relate them convincingly:  Imagination; research skills; a technique called If This Goes On; and another called, What If?  . . .basic tools, but, used properly, they go a long way toward helping a story and/or character achieve verisimilitude.

“Verisimilitude” means “the appearance of being true or real.”  In terms of fiction-writing, it means that the story I’m telling you has to hang together, and feel real while you’re reading it.  That’s the contract between the writer and the reader, that the story will deliver while it’s being read.  Second thoughts after you’re done is only Monday morning quarterbacking.

So. . .the middle ground here is. . .what?

I think the best that might be done is to ask that writers try their best to write stories that include people like you, and that they do their research and not perpetuate racist/sexist/ageist/whatever-other-kind-of-ist-there-is-this-week stereotypes.  I mean, I think we can do that, as a group; hell, many of us are doing that.  But I think, too, that some of you could take matters into your own hands.  Write you.  Join the club.  Teach us.

I think, too, that we’re just going to have to take it as a given that writers are going to get things wrong.  We know that, better than anybody.  I mean, y’all have seen the little disclaimer on the acknowledgements page, where the author calls out by name all the people she asked for help?  And then she says, “If there are any mistakes in this book, they’re mine”?  We know that we’re gonna get something wrong, despite having done the best we can.  None moreso, I imagine.

Granite paving stones are not really productive; the only thing you’re going to accomplish by dropping them on the heads of writers is writers who will retreat into writing what they know.  *yawn*  So, sure, tell us what we did wrong.  Teach us.  And, if you really believe that only authentic people can Get It Right, I can’t see anything except that you’re stuck — write it the Right Way, and show us how it’s done.

——-

*in it’s original meaning, “inspiring reverential wonder”

**Though I did write a character who was living in kind of the same place in her family that I lived in my family, before I got old enough, and moved out. But that wasn’t so much writing me as it was using my experience to make the character real.  Which is different; Aelliana isn’t me; I just lent her some of my history.

7 thoughts on “On Seeing One’s Self”

  1. BRAVO! Absolutely! This reminds me of when I was learning ASL. I tried to help out a fellow laundry regular who was having a hard time. Of course, it was obvious that I am not deaf. Apart from that, though, was the ABSOLUTE disdain and hostility put on me because I was not a member of the deaf community.
    I wasn’t just “using her to practice.” I was trying to tell her how to make the machine work.

  2. Brilliant. And accurate.

    I read tons of fiction with nobody like me in them when I was growing up. Yet that mass of fiction with nobody like me in them had characters who were like me in some ways…not family type, not female, not living anywhere near where I lived (which matters), not looking like me…but people whose *feelings* were like mine.

    They got angry. They got scared. They liked/loved some other people in the story and disliked/hated some other people in the story…and some of the other people in the story liked/loved or disliked/hated them. Even as I wished for stories about a plain girl who wasn’t cute (tall, gangly, clumsy after the encephalitis), had crooked teeth (I was so TIRED of “small white even teeth!”), lived in a one-parent family, was criticized for being “too smart” and “not ladylike enough”, and so on and so on…I was avidly reading about what made these other characters feel and act as they did. A character might, for instance, be angry about something that I had accepted as “just the way things are”–and that led me to question my own reactions, understand myself and my surroundings better. Sometimes these books even led to greater awareness of the value of such people, different from myself as they were. (Only sometimes. Human, imperfect writer here.)

    Which is not to say that people who don’t find someone like themselves should be satisfied with what they do find. Not at all. Mine the books you’re reading for anything useful in them, but then…write the book you want most to read. Tell the story you want to see told. Keep telling stories you want to read or hear, until your skills approach your vision. And if you can’t–look for and support the writers who come closer to what you want than anyone else.

  3. There is a truly special snowflake effect when someone feels, nay KNOWS you Got Them Wrong by not caring. Translates to -they feel we were not caring enough to consult THEM as a person. Never mind our having no clue of their existence as a person.

    They cannot Grok our Innocence as a reality.

    ALL is intentional slights to their sort. And were they Liaden, the most oblique mention of their Shibboleths would be Balance matters. They made up their minds that Writers. Are.Wrong. I had a stalker level one of those on Dial BBS who was a bane for years til they got a clue.

    Ghu save us from ever being targeted by such folks.

    You and Steve are frankly in the category of CARES enough to work at details by my reading at least:>

  4. Well, at least the title’s right.

    Three steps, and two observations from a different point of view:

    Step One: See your self. See your self, as a writer. Be a fish who is aware of the water. Learn to see how your culture/identity shapes your reality.
    Step Two: Learn to leave your Echochamber in order to learn. The Echochamber is the place where your normal is affirmed. Piers Anthony was able to convince himself that buxom nymphs cavorting across his works made him a women’s advocate from within an Echochamber. This thread, so far, is an Echochamber.
    Step Three: When you find yourself thinking “angry”, experiment with replacing the word “angry” in your thoughts with the word “injured”. Look for what opportunities to understand differently and react different this experiment may open. Stories are POWERFUL. Writers are POWERFUL. Stories that lie– from whatever good intentions and innocence– can be immensely damaging.

    Observation #1 – We know the story of the five blind men each perceiving the part of the elephant within his reach as a different object. The two “different” groups outlined here present a similar illusion, as a single knife grabbed blindly may present a friendly handle or a bitter edge. The single cry *in either case* is “I do not see myself”– for instance, a woman of skills, independence and power will not see herself either in a story where women are absent, or in a story where women are misrepresented.

    Observation #2 – Please remember we write knowing we will never be remunerated. Please remember we write knowing we will never find a general audience. Please remember that we must reinvent the wheel as we write, because we have no widely available models of how to write ourselves for ourselves or our own– only a few examples of how to explain ourselves to the Other that is Normal. Please come find us.

    Bless all and keep writing.

  5. Thank you for your comments.

    Regarding Observation #1: It may well be true that the cry of both groups described is, “I do not see myself” — in fact, I think you’re right.

    However. Not all stories are about strong women (for instance). Those stories will by their very nature be missing “you”. It doesn’t mean that the story is wrong. It means it’s about something other than “you,” or “me”. It doesn’t mean that it’s excluding you or me.

    The other thing about stories is that there are a lot of them. We choose which we believe in, and which we reject. I, for instance, happen to feel that Atlas Shrugged is a deeply flawed story in which I not only do not see “me,” but I don’t see anyone I recognize. There’s something to be learned, for me, from that, and it’s this: Not all stories speak “truth” to everyone.

    As a writer I write the stories that I am. . .compelled to write. I say “compelled” because there are many ideas, and only the ideas that are most compelling; most attractive to me, as the writer I am, will be written. Because life is too short to write books you’re less than passionately in love with.

    I’m going to assume that you don’t know my work, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that there is diversity in the on-going universe in which I write. It’s of probable limited use in the so-called Real World because I’m writing alternative far-future space opera. The hero is a not-white guy from an alien human culture. The heroine is a mixed-breed woman from something roughly comparable to the tough, diverse, and life-threatening city I grew up in. Oh, and there are Giant Turtles.

    Regarding Step Three: Yes, stories are powerful. Writers, being the conduits of story, are. . .somewhat. . . powerful. Writers are also human beings, immensely fallible, but mostly of good intent. That said, I am not obligated to accept the burden of anyone’s anger or hurt because I have either (1) not written the story they wanted me to write (refer to my comments on Observation #1, above) or (2) written a character that has somehow infringed upon a society that I’m either (a) not allowed to play in, or (b) is not exactly how the reader envisions that character ought to be written.

    Regarding Step Two: In this thread so far, I see one person relating an experience in trying to help someone whose core identity involved allegiance to one group, and distrust of another, which led her to reject advice that might have been helpful to her. I see a colleague talking about her experience as a young reader who did not find herself in the books she was reading, and her techniques and advice for those in a similar position, today, and a possible solution for those who want to see more of “them” in fiction. I see someone who has perhaps not understood the thrust of my essay. And I see someone who has made some interesting points and some even more interesting assumptions. Not exactly a echochamber.

    Regarding Observation #2 — Forgive me, but this one really sticks in my craw. You don’t know how to write? Neither did I, a long time ago. You learn how to write by writing. Accepting that writing is hard is part of being a writer. Convincing yourself that you’re never going to find an audience is called “shooting yourself in the foot.” Why in Ghod’s name shouldn’t you find an audience? Look at the unlikely stuff that’s found an audience — you mention Piers Anthony above; great example, thank you. No one is under any obligation to come find you; just as no publisher is obligated to call me up and ask if I maybe have a book I’d like to sell them. No one can tell your story, except you. And? As hard as writing is, it’s much easier than trying to force other writers to write your story for you. The “models” for writing are all around you — pick up a book; read it. Think about which parts of the story felt true; think about what made you angry; which characters disturbed you; which you would like to have coffee with. Do this for as long as it takes you to feel that you have a grasp of story and of character. Think about your story, the scenes it will include, the point and purpose of each, and the characters who will find love, treasure, self-fulfillment. . .in the course of the plot. Then sit down at your computer, or pick up a pad and a pen, and write. It will be hard, I promise. You won’t get it right the first time, I also promise that. But if you want to write that story bad enough, and you keep at it, you’ll finish it. And by the time you finish it, you will — you will — have made something new and wonderful and astonishing, that only you could have made.

    And it may find an audience, who are you to say that it won’t?

  6. (Keeping responses brief in respect of other voices)

    “I’m going to assume that you don’t know my work”

    Nope. Big Liaden fan and, er, pusher.

    “Regarding Observation #2”

    Well, this is embarrassing. Ob.#2 was intended to remind that, in order to see where the Others writing for our-themselves and hear them-our voices, one needs to go a ways off the main published path and then make some allowances.
    That is… quite clearly not what came through.
    So, apparently my writing really could use some improvement… 😉

  7. From what I remember from the little writing advice I got in my education (by college, the resume was king of writing) the rule was ‘write what you know.’ Now I don’t know elves, magic, or starships, but critics have less of a leg to stand on if they say I don’t know dragons to their satisfaction. I can go a very long time without seeing anyone different wh4re I live, so I’d be reluctant to make ‘inauthentic’ characters and get piled on.

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