You can only write what you know? Nonsense. Let me translate this statement. There is a certain type of writer (and reviewer) who believes the only legitimate form of fiction is the kind so directly fueled by a writer’s personal experience it’s almost impossible to distinguish it from memoir.
Why these individuals don’t just commit themselves to writing and reading non-fiction is beyond me. But I suspect they want to drag a little bit off fiction’s power – the power to give a complex, messy situation a tidy ending – without finding themselves lumped in with the practitioners of certain genres they resent for not being “literary” or cool.
Honestly, I wish they’d just be quiet. I wish they’d stop trying to clip the wings of aspiring and emerging writers with restrictive maxims that seek to turn their own insecurities into a set of codified laws governing the making up of stories.
Perhaps there’s some truth to the idea that all good stories start with a general emotional foundation with which the writer is intimately familiar. A story often has a central premise which gets conveyed by a single character’s need – often urgent, often burning – for a specific change in their circumstances. But writers can find inspiration for their depictions of this need from a variety of sources in their own lives. They don’t have to have lived the exact blow-by-blow events they’re describing in their work for their story to resonate with emotional authenticity. To insist otherwise is to dismiss all forms of genre storytelling, from thrillers to romance and so on. In which case, the person doing the insisting should stop hiding behind rules and simply say, “I hate genre fiction and want it to go away. Pass the self-serving memoir, please.” This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes on writing, from Richard Krevolin. “Don’t let anyone tell you can only write what you know. You can write anything you feel.”
But why am I writing about this now? Here’s why.
The topic of romance novels about gay men written by authors who are not gay men recently took flight across the blogosphere. Again. My own feelings on this subject have undergone an evolution in recent years, as evidenced by the fact that some of my closest writer friends are now women who write romance novels about gay men and I am crazy about their books. I wrote about this evolution more specifically (and more snarkily) here so I’ll try not to rehash the entire post.
But here’s the short version: I wasn’t too keen on the idea of women, regardless of their sexual orientation, writing romance novels about two gay men until I read some of them and found them to be very, very good. And by very good, I mean resonant with the emotional qualities of my own experience as a gay person, full of characters who seemed informed by my desires, wants and emotional needs. This experience forced me to reassess my opinions on the subject.
And the problem, as I see it, is “the you can only write what you know” dictum. The idea that that a good fiction writer should do nothing more than vomit up their own personal experiences and shape them into tidier, cleaner storylines causes many of us to view the mere idea of females writing male/male romance with reflexive disdain. It also causes us to lose sight of one of the writer’s most important roles, to serve as an intimate witness.
That’s the best term I can come up with for it; an intimate witness. And for many gay men, their closest female friends were their first intimate witnesses. They were connected to the pains and struggle of the gay men in their lives, but also – and this is the important part – they were just removed enough to see their struggles with a bit of perspective.
We’ve all been there with people we care about. We’ve all sat across the lunch table from a close friend and heard them go on and on about a situation in which they seem truly and impossibly stuck. And we sat there knowing full well what the best solution to their predicament would be, but also knowing we couldn’t force it on them and that there were areas in our own lives where we similarly stuck and similarly resistant. This “across the table from the one I love” point of view can often make for some very, very good writing, and while it’s not the source of all gay romances written by women, I submit that it’s the driving force behind many of the good ones.
But this is where my own prejudice comes into play. I believe we are often the worst tellers of our own stories. I don’t like memoirs because they often suffer from a shallow, one-dimensional me-against-the-world point of view where the author fails to asses the impact of their own responses to their situation. (And I’m sorry to drag up old dead horses and beat them again, but two of the most celebrated and, dare I say, colorful memoirs in recent memory were both proven to be packs of fanciful lies.) I have more trust in the three-steps-removed quality of the fiction writer to convey truths about the human experience. This perspective allows us to depict characters as interacting with their circumstances rather than being incessantly overwhelmed by them, and this makes for the most compelling fiction.
And no, I’m not saying gay writers can’t tell gay stories very well. I’m suggesting anyone’s writing improves when they include some aspect of the people they love, the people they sit across the table from and want the best for. This connection doesn’t always have to straddle an identity divide to produce powerful, effective writing.
And yes, appropriation is a real thing. But I think there are some steps on “the appropriation wheel” in between the type of connection I’m describing and the kind of lazy writing that steals superficial experiences from a group of people with which the writer in question is clearly not familiar and cobbles them together into some sort of inauthentic hash defined by condescension and ignorance. There’s a big difference between I’m going to write something inspired by someone I care about deeply even thought our identity labels don’t exactly match up, and I’m a white person who’s going to write a novel about Native Americans because I saw some John Wayne films while I was attending boarding school in Connecticut so I should be good because I love headdresses and wore one for Halloween last year. (Yikes!!)
There’s a big difference between an intimate witness and a window licker.
But once I swept aside lazy, writing workshop cliches which don’t actually help writers (or readers), and examined the content of individual books for their own sake, I realized the relationship between the identity of an author and the identities of their characters was more complex than I previously thought. I hope others will have the same experience, particularly gay men who enjoy romance novels and mysteries, because if you do fall into this camp and you’re refusing to read any about gay men written by women, you are, to put it simply, really missing out.