#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

Dear Story Nurse,

What do I do when my ‘own voice’ is traumatized and I don’t like it?

I write mostly fantasy (what people consider ‘high’ fantasy or ‘swords and sorcery’) and fairy tale variations, and have dabbled in romances; usually those are modern polyamory and/or demisexual/grey-ace focused. I don’t have anything published, but I’m not averse to the idea, I’m just slow and that’s not what pushes me to write.

There has been a lot of talk recently online about ‘own voices’ and how people (especially white people, which I am) should be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing outside our own culture or experiences, especially in nasty tropey stereotypical and demeaning or second-class sorts of ways. I am ALL IN FAVOR of this, and I try to support own voices writing in as many ways as I can, to try and counteract the amazingly sucky continued bias in publishing (and tbh, in life in general).

My question is this: as a corollary, the general view seems to be that as a white writer, my non-colonial, non-appropriative options are to… write only about my own experiences or culture? But my background is unpleasant and traumatic (and unusual: I was essentially raised in a cult until I was 16). My adult life has been boring and pretty white-het-cis-married-privileged (I’m not heterosexual, I’m polyam, and I don’t think I’m cisgender either but I’m still working thru that with myself, but I need to ‘pass’ because of where I live and what my job is.)

I write to escape my history and my current state of having to hide my authentic self, and to create alternatives for myself and for the child I didn’t get to be. Writing about my own childhood is traumatic—sometimes helpful, but it’s a therapy assignment, not me writing for love of writing where the story and characters just flow out of me in a happy relaxing zen. And writing about my own adult life is frustrating because it reminds me how much I have to hide all the time. And writing about ‘white culture’ seems fake to me—I didn’t grow up in it, and it still feels like I’m behind the curve and missing things there too.

So how do I honor own voices and still write when I don’t feel like I have a voice of my own that I can use?

—Rowan (they/them)

Dear Rowan,

I’m honored that you wrote to me with such a personal and painful question. I’m so sorry that people have treated you badly, especially when you were a child, and that your current circumstances force you to hide who you are.

I want to be very clear on this, up front: You are never required to write things that harm youYour writing must be for you first and last. And there is always a way to find stories to write that don’t harm you or anyone else.

Your perception of “the general view” is, I’m glad to say, incorrect. The creator of the #ownvoices hashtag, Corinne Duyvis, has a very clear Twitter thread about this. Duyvis writes:

What #ownvoices was meant to do:

1. In terms of diverse books, to remind people to prioritize the diverse books written by authors from that group, so that stories of marginalized characters told by (often privileged) outsiders aren’t disproportionately praised or represented. As is usually the case.

2. In terms of authors, to tell marginalized authors that stories about their own experiences are welcomed, wanted, & valued. Not b/c *only* stories about their own experiences are wanted, but to counteract lies like: “Stories about people like you don’t sell.”

3. In terms of readers, to allow them to find books with much higher odds of having respectful rep & of not getting smacked in the face and remind them to pay attention to who is writing the books they read and through whose lenses certain experiences are filtered.

4. To save keystrokes. We’re on Twitter, guys. #ownvoices is not a movement. It’s not an organization. It’s easy shorthand.

#ownvoices is not prescriptive; it’s descriptive. There is no obligation on anyone, of any background, to only write about their own experiences. Resources such as Writing the Other and the Writing in the Margins sensitivity reader database have been created by marginalized writers to help any and all authors write respectfully about characters who are unlike them. The point of being cognizant of pitfalls, as you say, is to write in ways that avoid those pitfalls—not to give up on writing unlike-you characters altogether.

If you feel that you personally cannot write about marginalized characters in respectful ways, that’s between you and the page. But my belief is that any and every writer can learn how to do that, and practice doing it, and get feedback from knowledgeable sources, and keep getting better at it, even when that means messing up occasionally. (As everyone does.) This applies to writing characters who are like you, too! These are craft issues, and your mastery of your craft can always be improved.

When you’re writing for yourself and no one else, you are completely free to write whatever you like. Let the words flow without a second thought. Bask in escapism. If you start to think about publication, that’s when you need to consider how marginalized readers will feel when they read your work, make an effort to avoid harmful stereotypes and clichés, look into hiring sensitivity readers, and so on. But the question is how to go about writing characters who aren’t like you, not whether you are allowed to.

You honor ownvoices work by recommending it, which it sounds like you’ve been doing. You honor your own personal voice by using it to heal yourself and uplift others. I absolutely believe in you and your ability to do these things, and I wish you all the best on your journey.


Story Nurse

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12 thoughts on “#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

  1. I just wanted to quickly boost the Writing in the Margins sensitivity reader list — I worked from a reader from that list earlier this year, and it was a pleasant and helpful experience. I confess I was very worried about being yelled at for (something???) but he had many helpful suggestions and fun comments. It definitely wasn’t about smacking me down, but about shaping my book into something that’s better to read and more thoughtfully written.


  2. Hey LW! Turns out I have some more thoughts on this, so I hope some of them are helpful.
    I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot this year, as the book I just finished has one Black protagonist and an assortment of other characters of color, both Black and Asian, and I am a white person with an extremely “white experience” (in the sense, I guess, of being very disconnected from the cultures of the countries my family came from, and not being exposed to non-mainstream-American-cultures at an early age.) I briefly thought about making those characters white, but that didn’t make sense for the setting I chose, and it also doesn’t really reflect my experience – my personal world is filled with friends of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. I don’t think it makes sense or is any more respectful to avoid including them in the stories I tell because I’m scared of doing it wrong.
    Because, okay, I will do it wrong. I do as much research as I can and I run things by people and I paid for a sensitivity reader, but none of that is insurance against getting yelled at by someone who found something in my book hurtful or upsetting. All I can really do is listen and try to see their point of view and try to address that problem with more research and more questioning and maybe another sensitivity reader on the next go-round. It would be easier and less painful and less expensive to not do the scary thing, to leave people out of my narrative, but that’s not really how I understand the task of writing.
    Writing is an act of empathy and bravery and humility. None of us really know what’s happening in other people’s minds and lives, but we’re trying to listen and understand be kind to ourselves and others. I think making an honest effort, backed by research and time and money, is one of the most terrifying things a writer can do – especially if you’re from a background like mine, where only BAD PEOPLE make mistakes and get things wrong, and SMART AND GOOD PEOPLE should always be able to figure things out and get them right on the first try. It’s hard to accept the certainty of error and failure into your creative practice, but I think it leads to better, realer, more truthful writing if you can.


      1. The paradigm of “bad person” is fundamentally useless, because humans are too complicated to be dismissed as all good or all bad. We are all imperfect, flawed people just doing our best. Anyone who told you that you are a “bad person”, or that there is such a thing as a “bad person”, had their own agenda in mind. So keep doing your best and trying to learn better; make the best choices you can with the information you have. That’s all anyone can do.


  3. I just wanted to say I read and really super appreciate your comments here. The part about only getting it wrong because of being a ‘bad’ person really hit home. I had to stop reading and catch my breath. Lots of unfortunate conditioning still getting dredged up around my expectations for myself, stuff I don’t even notice til someone else points it out!

    All my thanks to Story Hospital for their kindness in posting and answering so gently and with concrete suggestions, and to you for your thoughts also. I so want to do the right thing, and all of the advice and kind words are so helpful.


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