Writing Otherness

I am very sure that somewhere out there, there’s a dissertation by a very bright PhD student in post-colonial literature with exactly that title. But I am not here to make all white, christian men feel bad about what people with their skin color might have done in the past (or are sadly still doing). No, I am here because I want to discuss the challenges of writing outside our own experience.

Of course we almost always write outside our own experience, I doubt Stephen King was ever haunted by anything, or that Rowling attended a school with such disregard for its pupils’ safety. But I am talking about the more immediate lack of experience in the way our chosen characters might see and experience the world. Stephen King’s characters, though faced with extraordinary circumstances, are very regular people who have a world view much like our own (except in the Dark Tower series). I am talking, for instance in my case, about a man trying to write outside his gender.

I am a straight man. I have always been, and will probably always be a straight man. That is how I experience the world. I take things like being attracted to women for granted. Right now, I am writing a novel about a bisexual man and a homosexual man. Both of those things are outside my way of experiencing the world. Luckily for me, they are still men, which means I do have something to rely on when writing these characters, but what about women? OR writing in a different race? Or religion?

All those factors have a powerful impact on how people experience the world, e.g. a christian person never even needs to consider what is on their plate unless they suffer from some kind of allergy, while Jews and Muslims (if they so choose) adhere to a religious code concerning their food (pork, alcohol, shellfish, dairy and meat….). This, even for those Jewish or Muslim persons who choose not to adhere to those rules and eat a bacon pizza on Yom Kippur, effects their experience (feelings of guilt, uncomfortable conversations with religious relatives, etc.) A woman experiences the world differently from men (and I’m not just talking about the whole 10.4% less pay), they emphasis on clothing and appearance is much more dominant among women than with men. The “need” to get up even earlier than men in order to have time to put on makeup, etc. are all parts of the female experience. How can I, as a man who doesn’t care what he looks like as long as he’s not morbidly obese, have any insight into how women experience the world?

Unlike some of my other posts, I am not giving any advice here, I just had a thought and wanted to share it. I find it a conundrum and a challenge to write outside my own experience. The only advice I could possibly give is to be respectful. Try to see when what you’re writing comes from some preconceived notion you might have and maybe as someone from that group you are writing about if that makes sense to them.

With writing about historical periods, another challenge I am currently facing, one can do research, read a lot about the period, include first-hand accounts of things, to get a better understanding on how people thought, but to truly take yourself out of your own shell and try to think not like a man in the middle ages, but as a woman, or a child, or as an African slave in the early days of America, that is a challenge.


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