In writing, as in life, it's important to be honest with ourselves. We all write for a myriad of reasons. For some it's love, money, a sense of pride or accomplishment, or perhaps the winds of whimsy just spirited people away to a river of words. Whatever reason has drawn you to writing and kept you on your path, it's yours. No one can ever take that away from you. Now that you're writing - which makes you a writer by the transitive property, congratulations - there is a lot of concern lately over what you are and are not allowed to write, and that is what I'm going to attempt to address here.
Why this is Important
As writers, we are producers. Our goods are words and we utilize the market to deliver them to our consumers, the audience. We create tangible items that hold intangible value in terms of catharsis and other emotional connections. I have never met a writer who would want to sacrifice the quality of their product, but sometimes in the pursuit of that they sacrifice something a little more important.
Voice. The voice of a writer is the soul that they put into their books. It is the way they craft their plot and the deciding factor of the words they choose. A writer's voice is not an easily undone thing. No matter how hard they try, they can never completely shake their voice from the thing they create, nor should they truly want to. You're probably saying "yes, I know all this. What's the point?" well, the point is that I am seeing a lot of writers who are being told that they can't write certain things. In a word: censorship.
An audience holds a degree of power over the writer. Without the audience, the writer exists only to themselves. However, in order to be honest in their writing, the writer must be honest to themselves and honest in their craft. In the Era of the Internet, it is easier than ever for cultures to mix and mingle in the online sphere. This diversity of thought and experience has done wondrous things in bringing people together and showcasing the strength of difference in viewpoints, but it also comes with dangers.
For the writer, the greatest of these dangers is censorship. I have no great love for discussing politics, and I do not intend to get into discussions of Left vs. Right, but censorship is a beast that directly affects the abilities of all writers. As an American, I have a love for our Constitution. Our First Amendment dictates that the Freedom of Speech is an inalienable right. What several of my countrymen and women seem to fail to realize is that this protects your speech from government retribution (with some exceptions), but not from social retribution. The right to Free Speech does not protect you from the criticisms of your peers. Receiving criticism is not hate speech. But your peers do not get to dictate what you are allowed to say, they can only react to what you say.
Writing is rarely a solitary effort in this day and age of editors and beta readers, so the likelihood of a major communication mishap reaching publication without attention being called to it is unlikely. Criticism is rampant, but it is not an evil thing. Criticism is often the defining mark on whether or not something is strong enough to stand. Criticism evokes conversation, it sparks debate, it drives growth. What criticism should not do is shut people down because at that point it is no longer criticism, it is censorship.
"Allowed" to Write
As writers, we are often told to "write what you know," but this advice has several interpretations. Often I have seen it used to shush writers, or as an imposed limit by others and what subjects they are allowed to breach. This is a point that irks me to no small degree. Writers do not have to ask their audience about which subjects they are allowed to write, nor do they have to ask their peers.
This is most widely attributed (in my own experience) to the depiction of sexuality, gender, race, and mental illness inside written work. I have seen several cases firsthand in the online sphere where someone is telling someone else that "you can't write (insert race) unless you're (insert previous race)" or "you can't write LGBTQ+ unless you're LGBTQ+" and to top it off they quote "write what you know" as their guide. This is ridiculous for several reasons, some of which I'll review.
First and foremost, you cannot demand more representation while simultaneously denying people the ability to provide that representation. With the ever-growing lists of categories and labels, if you deny people the ability to write about situations they haven't personally experienced, then very very very few people will have representation. I think most people are aware of the importance of representation, especially among the young and the impressionable.
Second, as an example I'll use myself: I am a white, heterosexual, neurotypical, cisgender man. Using the logic presented two paragraphs above, I would only ever be able to include characters who are the same in my stories. I would never be able to include women, people of different races, transgendered individuals, mental illness, or anyone among the multitude of other sexualities. I don't think I need to explain how boring this would be to write, let alone read. I also know that in this social climate, having admitted that I am these things will have caused some people to stop reading (assuming enough people actually read this far) and start providing me with other, more slanderous titles. I just want to take this moment to say that I do not care and I will not apologize for what I am.
Third, there is a way to do things properly. Often, there's more than one way. To write things we have not experienced, we turn to research. There are so many different ways in the Era of the Internet to lookup information, not the least of which is talking to and connecting with people who have experienced things firsthand. Becoming more knowledgeable about a subject can only ever strengthen your writing of that subject. I have never heard a person say "I know too much about that to write it well," but I have heard the inverse a lot.
Lastly, there is this gift and curse of a phrase "write what you know." Let's talk about it. What you "know" can consist of what you've learned. When you went to school and were sitting in history class, you learned what happened decades and centuries ago. You learned this from people who also learned it from classes or who did research (that magic word) about the subject. You did not experience those events personally, but through research you can learn enough about them to write a history story. "Write what you know" is better represented, in my humble opinion, as "know what you write." You should be knowledgeable about something before you attempt to represent it, but that does not mean you need to have experienced it yourself. Experience for its own sake can do wonders for your ability to represent something, but it is not wholly necessary.
I am a descriptive writer. It is part of the nature of my style, my voice. But I have seen some worrying things in writing spheres lately. People dictating what descriptions writers can use when regarding people. Specifically, the case in hand I saw was using food description to regard skin tone. Let me talk about why I think this is ridiculous on the surface and dangerous beneath.
This is not really about race. This is about pigment and likening that pigment to something else, in this case food, that resembles that pigment in a way that the reader can easily call to mind which pigment the author intends. Every skin color that exists can and has been likened to an object, some more flattering than others. As a white man, some descriptions I've heard of my pigment include milk, (sour) cream, paper, cotton, a sheet, a ghost, a cloud, a peach, and white chocolate. Few of these are particularly flattering, but they do their job in that they conjure a hue in our mind that is then attributed to the character. Metaphors exist to explain things that would be otherwise more difficult. Outside of a comedy, you're not likely to read "his skin was the color of another white guy's." Funny, perhaps, but ultimately does little to describe the character. Whether or not using certain foods (mocha, coffee, olive, etc.) is cliche is a different, less important matter that I'm not going to get into here.
The argument I hear for this over and over is that it is racist. It is not. This is not a callback to times of slavery and it most certainly is not intended to imply an animal kingdom ranking of a food chain. Likening that use of language to such concepts reaches High School English Teacher level of reading way too far into what is almost certainly the author's attempt to help the reader visualize the character (cue the classic 'curtains are blue' example). It is using something that people are commonly aware of to describe the skin tone of a character that is unseen. If something effects everyone, regardless of race, then it's not racist. Advocating that a certain group of people be treated differently on account of their race actually is racist. I have seen writers bending over backwards to try and navigate these suddenly appearing and often ill-conceived "rules" for fear that they will be ripped to social shreds if they make a mistake. Such egg-shell walking is ridiculous and prevents them from doing what they love in the first place, writing, because they are so caught up in the minutia of phrasing. They feel they have to dedicate their time to this because someone declared a word to have a different meaning than the obvious intention.
Here is where we have gotten to the dangerous part that lies underneath. Context and intent. Often these rules that are flying up are hard and fast. They take no consideration into account, they declare themselves the law and any who refuse to abide are evil. They are often presented by a loud minority as if they are the opinion of the majority group. They do not allow for dialogue or conversation to occur (a common phrase among them is 'end of discussion'). Any idea that does not allow for dissension is too weak to stand of its own accord, as I explained earlier with the concept of criticism.
Words do not exist in a vacuum. They come attached with meaning and context. This has been deemed so important that in many places taking someone's words out of context and misrepresenting their meaning is considered a crime. In academia, it is called Academic Dishonesty and is one of the most heinous offenses you can commit in an academic setting.
Intent matters. In my personal view, the intent behind an action holds approximately equal importance to the act itself; sometimes more, sometimes less. What rules like this enforce is simply the action itself, with no interpretation of intent. This isn't going to change culture, this is going to repress it.
If you truly wish to enact a change upon society, you don't do that through repression, you do that through dialogue and open exchange. If you have an issue with the way people say things, don't instruct them they're not allowed to say those things, have a conversation about it and why you believe they shouldn't. If a change is good, then you should be able to talk people into it, not force them into it.
Do not present your feelings as end-all truth. Especially, do not tell writers what they cannot write. If you truly perceive an issue with the way something is said, have a conversation.
Let's normalize open dialogue, not censorship. Most of all, write honestly.
Drops of Darkness
This blog is for Erebus to share musings about writings, philosophy, and other miscellaneous things.
Erebus Esprit is a fantasy writer from the United States. He primarily writes Sword & Sorcery Fantasy and Urban Fantasy.