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.
Karen Stivali says
YES to all of this. And thank you! The lunch table conversation is a perfect example and ‘intimate witness’ is a perfect term. So glad you posted this.
Kenn Dahll says
I’m a writer of gay erotica – sometimes romantic, sometimes not. When I first began I was surprised to discover the large number of women in the field and thought “How can they credibly write about a topic so foreign to them?” Upon reading some of their stories I realized sex is sex, it’s the appendages that differ not the basics of eroticism, emotion, and pleasure. I realized the biggest difference between what I wrote and what female authors of gay erotica wrote is the degree of “rawness” in my writings versus the degree to which female authors explore emotions. As a result of this epiphany, I’ve added more self awareness to my characters and, I think, greatly improved my narratives. I’ve learned I can be raw and emotional at the time time. Thanks, ladies. And thanks, Christopher, for this excellent blog entry and your fascinating books.
I publish mainly through Excessica Publishing: http://www.excessica.com/books/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=45
The concept of “only write what you know” was a big reason I stopped writing for a long time. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I don’t have a lot of experience, life-wise. So for me, now that more authors say ignore that advice, I’ve started writing again. I find it somewhat therapeutic to write because I can create characters that do things I’ve never had the opportunity to do. If I wrote something based on what I know and have experienced, I wouldn’t even want to read it.
I love the term intimate witness because that’s how I’ve always felt with my characters. I watch them, I know them, they’re extensions of me. If asked do I write what I know, I could say yes because these people spend an awful lot of time dancing around in my head. I know them when I put them on paper. I may have never jumped out of a plane but I know how my characters would react in that situation. And I try my best not to be a window licker because then all I could write about was what the window tastes like and how grossed out even thinking about licking a window makes me feel.
I think more people should follow your example. You didn’t like romance about gay men by female authors until you gave it a chance. Too many people just cross their arms over their chest and stick their tongue out. If those writers or reviewers thought of it like that, they’d see their closed-minded views are childish. You were open-minded and unlocked a whole new world of stories to enjoy.
Kim Fielding says
I’m one of those women who write gay romances. On the one hand, I write about lots of what I don’t know firsthand: gay men, wizards, architects, ex-cons, werewolves, giants, aphasics…. I’ve never been any of those and probably never will be (although I’d love to be a wizard). Sometimes I share bits and pieces of my gay friends’ stories, but I’ve only witnessed those stories, not lived them.
But on the other hand, I’m always writing what I know: the commonalities of human experience. Love, loss, hope, fear. I’ve lived those because we all have. In the end, those things are what makes a reader connect with a character regardless of the demographic differences.
People who refuse to read a book because the author doesn’t meet set expectations about who that author is supposed to be are cheating themselves.
Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. A well told story is a memorable one, no matter who does the telling.
Kindle Alexander says
Well, I’m Kindle Alexander. I’m a woman, I write gay fiction, I’ve done well in the genre and can’t imagine my life without MM romance. But here’s my question for you. After reading my first gay character in a romance novel, I developed a condition that I lovingly referred to as Phantom Wee Wee Disorder. I know its there, I just can’t touch it! Also after hearing Rachel Dolezal story, I knew right then that I identified as a gay man. So with phantom wee wee and identifying as a gay man, does that help qualify me to write these stories? Honestly, please know I’m kidding around. I don’t believe you have to have intimate personal knowledge to write, but I do believe a good story takes a portion of yourself to give the words the emotion they need. However that happens – whatever the process – it’s critical to the outcome. Thank you for writing about this topic and giving this genre more credibility. It’s a huge reader and writer base and it helps to have you creating a discussion. Now if we could just stop having our Facebook pages reported and taken… Baby steps. <3 Thank you – I'm such a fan of yours.
Brita Addams says
Chris, thank you for putting your voice to this issue. The “write what you know” dictum kept me from writing much earlier in my life. I had to convince myself of the nonsense in those few words before I took the journey. Few books, in the scheme of things, would ever be written if that rule was followed.
Felice Stevens says
Wonderfully, beautifully and perfectly said. We are all “intimate witnesses” of each other’s lives. We need to learn to share the space
Jules Radcliffe says
Thank you for this post. I write MM, MMF and MF, usually all in the same story, and I’ve only ever written MM exclusively. When I started writing, I was frightened of being criticised for writing what I ‘didn’t know’ until my wonderful partner told me to man up. So to speak.
I find the difference between male written and female written erotica and romance is the former tends to clinical and the latter tends to navel-gazing. Having beta readers of different genders is a huge advantage. I have a nice spectrum, and I find it interesting how the criticisms differ, but seem to fall along gender lines.
I’m also continually astonished at what turns people on–I have lesbian fans wanting more MM, and gay fans asking for more MF. As a non-binary person myself, I should have been prepared for that, but I really wasn’t!
I have read my share of erotica from writers who clearly don’t have a clue about what they are writing about (this is rampant across BDSM erotica as well, and clearly demonstrated in an extremely famous series of books). Unfortunately, the badly written drivel and even the mediocre stuff crowds out decent authors and makes it hard to be heard.
A well-written story is a well written story, regardless of the gender of the writer. And regardless of the genre!
Amber Belldene says
Amen! This is wonderful.
And I love this idea of Intimate Witness. It reminds me of a theological idea I embraced in seminary and which I have found applicable to this question. It’s an idea from the Roman Catholic theologian David Tracy, who says essentially ALL knowing is analogy. It starts with God, who is essentially unknowable, and who we can only even think about/discuss in metaphor and analogy. Applied, this means we don’t live inside other people and we can never know their experience fully. Gay men have vastly different emotional and physical experiences of love and sex, as do all human beings. Therefore, all intimacy is analogy, a kind of extrapolation of our own experience to help us approach/approximate understanding another’s.
And I think reading/writing fiction helps us stretch our analogy muscle, so we get better and more accurate about making these connections, but we should also hold on to the humility that we never really know another’s experience.
Wonderful post, Chris, thank you for writing it.
What I’ve always believed is that no matter who you’re writing, you can relate to them in some way simply by being human. If I am writing a gay man (as a woman), I don’t think of him as gay or a man first. I think of him as “Andy” (or whatever his name is) and I evaluate his experiences by who he is outside of his genre labels. What he likes and dislikes, how he feels about certain things, how he relates to others. Then, when those interactions need to focus on the labels I’ve assigned to him, I just do the best I can, which might not be perfect. But who’s to say Andy can’t be his own person, and not just a stereotype.
Anyway, great post with lots of good points. Thanks!
What I found most helpful about this was it gave me permission to do what I am already doing as a writer. Also it articulated feelings I still have for a couple of friends. Finally it helped me with a great idea for a motif of my next book, or I should say evoked the idea which was already there.
As always thank you for sharing your thoughts and support on this topic so eloquently. As you know I read many gay romance authors both female and male writers, some heterosexual, some gay, some bisexual and some I don’t have a clue which is perfectly okay as well. They all bring something different to a genre I enjoy very much and am thrilled there is such a variety of books and authors out there.
Pamela Clare says
I really enjoyed your perspective on this. Thanks for sharing it!
Thanks, Pamela. *insert fanboy squeal*
SJ Himes says
I get asked often why I write gay romance, and on the heels of my reply (which is I write what I want to read), I then get asked why WOMEN write gay romance, and I always say back, “Why not?”
I would NEVER tell a man, regardless of sexual orientation, that he couldn’t write heterosexual romance. I would never do that. Nor would I tell a man he couldn’t write lesbian romance. I would be the first to say, “Can I read it when you’re done?”
It is disheartening to hear back, “Well, you’re a woman.” So my sex precludes me from writing about human beings falling in love? If I was to write only what I know, I could never release a sci-fi novel, write about shifters, dream up stories about vampires, and etc etc etc.
I could never write about dating since I have never really done that before. I went from single to committed relationship in a day, and did that twice. I can write about married life I suppose, though I’m getting a divorce and that wouldn’t be accurate in a few weeks. Sooooo……Write about the fact I can’t write about what I want because there are a bunch of haters out there? I can do that, though I’d end up hating life after a while.