Storyville: What Do You Have the Authority to Write?

NOTE: These are my opinions as a straight white male, who is solidly middle class. My basic advice is that YES, with research and hard work you SHOULD be able to write about any person you like, but never speak FOR somebody or something you are not. If you are unsure, ask a friend, or hire a sensitivity reader.


So these days I know a lot of people are asking themselves what stories they have the authority to write, including myself. It’s essential that we are aware of how our stories come across, and we should make sure we aren’t writing misogynistic, racist, homophobic tales. Yes, your characters may be horrible people, but how does the story come across, what is the message, and how do you the author carry yourself? Tricky questions. Also, ask yourself WHY you want to write this particular story, character, or POV.

Let’s start with some areas where I believe you DO have the authority to write.

Gender

I definitely write most of my stories from the male POV, so I think this is a pretty easy one—men can write men, and women can write women. Have I written a female perspective? I have. I can remember the first time I did, though. It was a story entitled, “Victimized.” It’s the story of a woman in a near future society where justice for crimes can be doled out in a fighting ring, if the victims wish to face the people who wronged them. Kind of Fight Club meets Thunderdome. The woman watches the fight, where she sees people win and lose, including a woman she trains with, who gets savagely beat. This only makes her work harder, so that she can face her molester—and she wins. It’s quite satisfying. The twist is a Nietzsche quote: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, for when you gaze into the abyss, it gazes back into you.”

In many ways her story had nothing do with being a woman, and was more about vengeance. In other ways, her gender played a crucial role—the dangers she faced, situations that most men don’t have to. In some ways men and women are alike, in others, very different. I made sure to run this story by a few female authors and they thought I did a good job, and made a few suggestions, which I took. The biggest mistakes I see when men write women is to sexualize them in ways that are totally inappropriate. Stop focusing on their breasts or even their sexuality. See them as a whole human being. Ask yourself, if this was a male character would you portray them this way? Also watch out for misogyny, and casting women as only mothers or whores. And you probably don’t want to talk about what it was like to have your first period or to give birth. Also, be careful when writing about transgender and fluid individuals. My POV is like that about Hollywood—men should play men, women should play women, and transgender actors should play transgender roles.

Take the loss of your childhood dog, and apply that to a protagonist who has similar pain. Take the pleasure of performing in a choir with an orchestra, that rapture, and apply it to a protagonist on stage in an underground sex club.

Jobs

One area that might be a little easier is the work and profession of your individual. If you have spent any significant time doing something for pay, then you can probably write about those experiences with authority and accuracy. So for me that’s a wide range of occupations—grocery bagger, pizza delivery guy, clerk, receptionist, bellman, valet, administrative assistant, telemarketer, bartender, waiter, bouncer, graphic designer, art director, writer, editor, publisher, teacher, and father. That doesn’t mean you have to limit your stories to those jobs, but it’s a good place to look. If you’ve been a scientist for 20 years, then that could really help you tell a story about a biologist in a strange land. I’ve spent the bulk of my career (25 years) in advertising, but have only written a few stories set in that world (“Chasing Ghosts” in Cemetery Dance comes to mind). But that story had details—the Pantone colors that described his wife’s lips, eyes, and skin; the models he selected when purchasing stock art for advertisements; and brainstorming sessions. Anything else you don’t know, research it. I’ve never killed anyone, so any of those moments come from what I’ve read, seen on television, or in films. My knowledge of space and other planets comes from similar experiences. I’ve researched gangs in Chicago, spices in a dish, rare animals of the arctic, exotic locations around the world, demons, satanic rituals, virtual reality, guns, decomposition, flowers, trees, you name it. So, look to your experiences, and then what you don’t know, study and do the hard work in order to make your stories believable.

Places

This is another one that should be pretty easy to discuss. Where have you lived? Not just the cities, although that is where I start—St. Louis; Peoria, IL; Chicago; Conway, AR. I also spent some time in Murray, KY for my MFA. I’ve travelled all over the USA—driving west to California, and up and down the East coast as well. So all of those locations offer up something—painted deserts, grand canyons, forests, mountains, lakes. I have also been to Transylvania to teach a horror workshop, so I went through Germany, and then out into the rural areas of Bran, Romania. That all counts. Oh, and the weird things I’ve seen! Screaming peacocks, red eyes on hills, presences outside my door, faces appearing in doorknobs. Even in Chicago and the surrounding neighborhoods. I wrote about Wicker Park and Bucktown in my novel Disintegration; about Logan Square in my novel Breaker. I also lived on the Gold Coast, as well as River North, and now in the suburbs. That’s all valuable information.

And what comes with these places? So much—weather, food, culture, people, architecture, etc. You can write generic locations, but why not tap into the life you’ve lived? I wrote about the desert in my story “Requital” and that was a mix of real life travels and fictional accounts. I can take the cold, harsh, snowy winters of Chicago and apply that to any story set in that kind of weather. For the arctic in my novelette, “Ring of Fire,” I took that experience and what it felt like, and then added extra research to make sure I took into account how much more dangerous it was at -50 vs. 10 degrees. So, much will translate and can be extended to similar environments.

Emotion

Another way you can speak to experience is through emotion. In your life, I’m sure that you’ve had ups and downs, and can remember those different moments. Joy and ecstasy, pain and suffering, wonder and excitement, loss and grief. The things that will probably come to mind will be the extremes, the events that stand out. Those can be attached to sex, drugs, death, nature, love, lust, you name it.

I can remember seeing a man plummet to his death off the St. Louis Arch, his parachute tangled up, seeing him hit, and bounce ten feet into the air, a sheen of blood as wide as the leg of the arch. I’ll never be able to forget that. I can remember being in the Painted Desert and a moment of complete and utter silence that had me thinking that maybe I had died, or that this was a dream, a matrix broken, or perhaps I was in the presence of something holy. I can tap into the depression and anxiety of a time in my life when I was a drunk, falling apart, a relationship gone sour, alone and so very lost in this world, hurting myself, spiraling out of control. I can remember dropping acid and leaving my body, seeing time rewound, hours of sexual intensity, floating on a cloud. Use it all. Take the loss of your childhood dog, and apply that to a protagonist who has similar pain. Take the pleasure of performing in a choir with an orchestra, that rapture, and apply it to a protagonist on stage in an underground sex club. Take the innocence and magic of your youth, and the glittering fairy you thought you saw in the woods that one day, and apply it to your protagonist as you tap into a magical realism story. Take what you have, and then any gaps you may encounter, steal that from the tears at the end of Arrival, or the horror in Hereditary, or the humanity of Blade Runner.

Religion

Whatever religion you might have had growing up, or now as an adult, feel free to write about your experiences in great detail if that meant something to you. I’d avoid generalizations and stereotypes, as well as writing about religions that aren’t your own. It’s very personal.

Nationality

Same here. Whatever it means to you to be Polish, French, American, Canadian, Chinese, German, Australian—by all means speak to the pride you have in your country, the food, the entertainment, the people, the weather, the culture, the products, the politics.

Race

I definitely want to see more stories with a diverse mix of cultures, but I would encourage you to write about your own race, and not to stray too far. The easiest option might be to add diversity in the secondary characters, so that you can show a wider cast of characters, but not focus on a race that you aren’t. We can see what happens when something like American Dirt comes out. If you are white and grew up in an environment surrounded by Black people, if there was diversity in your family tree, then yes, maybe you can speak to that a little bit. But I’d be hesitant to speak about the Black experience if it’s not your own.

Sexual Orientation

Same thing here. As a SWM I mostly have SWM protagonists. I would encourage you to definitely be more open to your characters and their sexual desires, but much like race, unless you have experiences with different desires and orientations—relationships, friendships, sexual encounters—stick to what you know.

In Conclusion

In the end, I think you can see here how some aspects of the authority in your stories is much easier to tap into, and to fictionalize—places, jobs, and emotions—where other aspects can be more problematic: gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. If there is something you feel confident about, have lived, it, endured it, embraced it—then write about it.

Beyond that, when push comes to shove, you must do your research. And my last bit of advice is to definitely embrace diversity in your stories, but never speak for somebody you are not. If you are a straight, white Christian male living in Chicago and working as a waiter, I would strongly suggest that you do not write about a Black lesbian Muslim woman living in Arizona and working as a lawyer. Write what you know, and then go deeper via your studies, but always keep that in mind. There are things you can research—bushes, gang colors, parrots, and apples—and experience that comes from living that life, as well as other aspects of life you can never truly understand. Even if you come at this from a place of love and support, these are not your stories to tell. You have the authority to tell your own stories, those moments, good and bad, so tap into those experiences, and then put it all on the page, holding back nothing, pulling no punches, immersing us in your world. Good luck!

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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