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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why Others' Stories Matter

Fucking outcropping! Blocking my west-side view!
Many thanks to artist Ashly Grey for her help with illustrating today's post. Check her out at agreyartistry on Facebook or Etsy (full links at the bottom). 

Imagine you're standing on the top of a mountain....

From this mountain you can see far into the distance–miles around you in every direction. Your perception is vast. There is, however one rock outcropping in your way, and you can't see "over there."

There's a catch: you can't move. You're stuck in your one spot on top of your mountain. Maybe your feet are melded into the rock or you're just epically lazy. Whatever the reason, this is the only perspective you're ever going to be able to see. Ever. Even though you can see very far, and even though you can see many things, and even though in some cases you can see some things that others might not be able to see, you shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that you can see everything.

Let's take that rock for example.

You can't see the other side. You don't know for sure what's over there. Now if you're a logical person, you might assume that it looks like your side of the rock. That is not an unreasonable assumption. (An unreasonable assumption would be assuming that the rock was made of gefilte fish pâté on the other side.)  All the rocks in the area look pretty much the same, and the rocks you can reach look the same all the way around, so there's no real reason to expect that there's a fundamental difference between your side of the rock and the other.

When you tell stories that describe the rock, you portray it as uniform all the way around.

How do I know you're not just really into three-eyed demons?
However, imagine there's another person there. Someone who can actually see the other side of the rock from their vantage, and they tell you that you're getting part of the story wrong. They explain to you that the rock is not at all the same from their side. There's actually an intricate picture of a demon with three eyes on a river graffitied into their side. Your assumptions about the rock being the same all the way around are incorrect, and are not portraying that side of the rock accurately. You didn't make this mistake because you're an asshole. You just didn't know.

Now you have some choices. You can continue to be reasonable and believe that the person is probably better able to know what their side of the rock looks like, or you can imagine that they are deceiving you for some reason. You can go on believing that the rock looks the same all the way around, essentially believing that your experience must be continuous even in the places you can't see, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. They must have something to gain.

You can even become sensitive about the fact that they told you that you were wrong. This makes you seem like your fragile ego is far more important than the truth and you come off as an egotistical fucknut, and kind of implies that you have something to lose by being wrong. Ironically, because of your insistence, they know what your side of the rock looks like and have never even suggested that all rocks have three-eyed demons on them.

Now imagine several people telling you basically the same thing about that side of the rock. Their stories match. While there is some variation, they all describe a picture of a three-eyed demon in a lake or a river. Some may describe it as slavering and others may say "Oh it's not that bad," but they all basically agree that it is there.  You could believe there is an increasingly intricate conspiracy going on that everyone on that side of the rock is in on, or you could assume that they are telling you the truth.

If you continue to insist that despite all of these people's experiences that your side of the rock and their side of the rock are exactly the same you no longer look oblivious. You actually look obtuse. If you seize upon their differences to discount the whole thing rather than noticing their commonalities, you begin to appear desperate to discount their experiences. The people taking the time and effort to tell you that you're wrong might start to get frustrated, angry, even dismissive of you because you are literally telling them that you know better what they can see.

And if you insisted that they be nicer to you or you will never believe them, you would probably get all the scorn your increasingly inane delusions deserve. Projecting your experience on that side of the rock is no longer reasonable. Before you didn't know any better. Now you're being a complete, asshole. Actually, you're being a whole industrial-sized bucket of sweaty, improperly-wiped assholes.

You probably just own stock in demon-fighting katana manufacturers or something.

Of course, this isn't really about rocks. It's about experiences. You were probably even metaphor savvy enough to see this shit coming so five minutes ago. Writers are all literary and shit.

The really fucked up thing of it is, though, we could basically extend the allegory to include almost any level of proof (even video or photographic) being wantonly ignored without stretching the metaphor it illustrates. Because while describing what other people experience might seem completely absurd to you when it comes to "the other side of the rock" is actually something that happens so constantly and pervasively that it's usually invisible to most people who do so.

People in positions that are higher in the power strata of our society tend to believe that their experiences are universal, even though people who are a part of marginalized groups consistently describe their experiences as being quite different. No matter how many examples there are (even pictures and movies) that certain people are not experiencing life in the same way as the people at the upper end of the social strata, it never seems to matter to those dismissing the legitimacy of their experience.

Rich people wonder why poor people don't just go get medical degrees and/or "work hard" like they did if they want to stop being poor. Americans wonder why other nations "tolerate" dictators. Men believe that women don't experience street harassment or that sexism in the workplace just isn't a big deal. White people believe that persons of color will have as easy of a time as they do pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and getting employed or in getting justice if they just stop breaking all those laws. Straight people assume that gay couples can just shrug off not having their marriages validated or being constantly condemned to hell. Able bodied people assume that things they can access easily are just as simplistic for differently abled people. This despite all evidence to the contrary and thousands of people sharing their experience of marginalization.

Telling people what they're experiencing is as absurd as our person with the rock. But it happens a gazillion times a day without most realizing that absurdity because we are used to it.

Writers all have widely varying levels of engagement with social justice. Some want to write political fiction, some scratch out thinly veiled allegory, some want to tackle social issues instead of partisan minutiae, and some want to be left alone to write hard science fiction about asteroid mining with minimal social implications. But one thing every writer should care about is truth. Even if you are writing about intergalactic wars against Nazi space dragon Twitter trolls, if your story doesn't have truth, it's going to suck balls. Hard. And not in the good way. Not even in the "That looks better on camera than it actually feels" way.

Yet writers fall into this trap all the time. They portray a marginalized group as if their experience is not fundamentally different. In a broader context people do this all the time. They "don't see color" or "don't acknowledge disabilities" or "don't acknowledge that gender matters" or basically assume that their experiences are identical to others'. Worse, they ignore the people in question when corrected, basically insisting they are better equipped to talk about someone else's experiences than that person is to talk about their own.

It's shitty enough when normal people do it–and they do it plenty–but an artist whose life is stories...an artist who understands how much power exists in narratives.... well, they ought to know better. Describing the world as you see it, and assuming your experience is universal is ignorant at best. Ignoring the stories of others, who take the time and effort to tell you so, is utterly unkind. Neither are traits that do anything but harm to an artist or the truth they attempt to portray.

You cannot have truth if you ignore the stories of others. You might possibly be able to have techno-spy thrillers that make you money if you avoid the stories of others but you will be called out over and over again (and rightly so) if you ignore them. And don't think, "I'll just write sci-fi," because you will even get called out if you can't be bothered to understand and accurately portray experience of "othering" that happens to marginalized groups.

Your experience is rooted in your own ineffable you-ness (you can't move from your spot). You can't genuinely experience the lives of any other person–that's one of the tragedies of the human condition. Most of us also won't genuinely experience the life of someone who looks significantly different. A few people cross genders and even sexes, and a few more shift in sexuality (and what they describe is usually quite telling) but most of us are going to have a pretty rooted experience.  If you assume your experience beyond where you can see is universal, you will be forever describing "the other side of the rock" inaccurately and untruthfully.

However, you can be empathetic. But to be empathetic, you have to listen to other people and trust that they are the best able to tell you how they experience the world. Other humans are rooted in their ineffable them-ness. If they can see the other side of the rock, but you can't, listen to their stories.

You'll be a better writer for it. You'll be a better artist for it. You'll be a better person for it.

[Again, many thanks to the wonderful contributions of Ashly Grey for her kick ass drawings to help visualize this perspective. She was kind enough to have this commission be only for the untold fame and glory of a Writing About Writing shout out, so please go check her out at A Grey Artistry on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/agreyartistry) or through her Etsy page (https://www.etsy.com/shop/agreyartistry).]

6 comments:

  1. I am not a writer (you know this but I mention it for the benefit of your other readers) but I have watched some of my friends who are struggle with issues like this and it seems like there is a progression:

    1) Writer is told that they should "write what you know" so they write stories about people like them.
    2) Writer is told "your stories are too homogenous - they need to include POC/women/LGBT/disabled/etc characters!" so they try putting some in.
    3) Writer is told "your POC/women/LGBT/disabled/etc characters act just like your white/men/straight/cis/abled/etc characters!" so they try making them act differently.
    4) Writer is told "your POC/women/LGBT/disabled/etc characters are all stereotypes!"

    Getting past 4 is really fucking hard and I think a lot of people just give up and go back to 1. Or they watch someone else go through this progression, conclude they can't win, and stay at 1.

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    1. I like this break down, and I think it's pretty accurate.

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  2. Stop me if this seems to simplistic, but wouldn't the answer be 5) Go talk to some marginalized people/ do research on marginalized people/ read works by other marginalized people and flesh those characters out?

    I mean, I tried to write a story* about a people living in a fantasy-esque setting where they were primarily miners. I didn't know shit-all about mining. So I went and read a bunch of books about miners and techniques, and when what techniques were developed (turns out, pit mining was way more common than tunneling in early mining).

    I figure it would probably be the same for other people not-like me. And I'll probably fuck it up, just like everyone fucks it up the first time they try writing anything. In my story, I'm sure real miners would laugh at how I portrayed the work. But you never get any better if you don't make the effort.

    *I got pretty far on that story. Then the USB drive that I had stored the story on got washed. I cried, and haven't been moved to try writing it again. Or really anything.

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    1. It's simple to describe, but hard to do. Like you said, you'll probably fuck up. More than once. And you'll NEVER be able to make all the people happy. I'm pretty sure I've seen examples of characters that were accused of BOTH 3 (being just like the majority) AND 4 (being stereotypes) at the same time by different people. And if you do succeed in making well-rounded realistic marginalized characters and you get big enough then you'll be accused of stealing the spotlight from marginalized writers!

      Which is in no way to say that it's not worth the effort.

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    2. And honestly? The solution is probably beyond a single writer.

      Take Joss Whedon. He writes pretty damn good female characters. He writes pretty good characters, in general, but he does better than most for his female characters. But because he is the only one writing women as, you know, people, he catches a lot of flak for his fuck-ups. Whereas if there were tons of writers writing good female characters, no one would bat an eye. If we were just flooded with female characters who were different people and told stories and were integral to the plot of the movie/ book and not just token/ love items/ maguffin people would probably be pretty accepting of a stereotype for comic relief every once in awhile. But we aren't, and he already has talked about that he cares, so he's going to catch shit about fridging girls.

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  3. I love this. I've been butting up against this a lot lately, and I'm left confused at what to do with people who can't deal with the discomfort their privilege brings. Would definitely love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

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