Writing Outside Your Experience

“What do YOU know about being a teen girl?”

That’s generally the first question I get asked when I tell people that I write books about shopping and celebrities for teens and tweens. Usually my answer consists of “I grew up with a twin sister so I was steeped in all of her Sweet Valley Twins, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Baby-Sitters Club, Big Bopper, NKOTB, and Anne of Green Gables stuff.” (In return she got a childhood full of pro wrestling, fantasy sports, video games, and Dragonlance.) That answer usually gives people enough to accept that I know something about being a teen girl, even if tangentially.

Additionally, when I tell people that my first YA book, Exclusively Chloe, is about an adopted girl from China, their usual follow up question is: “Oh were you adopted?” Um, nope. “So you did some research or something?” I certainly did! I read articles, I looked up studies, I interviewed a few adoptees and their parents, and I kind of just projected what I thought it might feel like to be adopted. Did all that qualify me to write from an adoptee’s perspective? To be honest, I don’t know.

It’s a question I’ve been struggling with as I think more about what qualifies anyone to write a particular story. For example, I would have been uncomfortable having Chloe-Grace be from any foreign culture except China, because that’s the culture I know and was raised in. Writing as an adoptee from Russia, South Korea, or Guatemala (along with China, the top four countries who send adoptees to the U.S.) may not have been dramatically different but I would have felt inauthentic as a writer. Then again, I felt entirely comfortable writing about celebrity life even though the closest I’ve come to Hollywood is through television and the movie screen. And magazines, we can’t forget the weekly magazines.

Usually when I’m flipping through a book, I’m also scouring online to find information about the author. My knee-jerk reaction is to see if the author has the “credentials” to write the story I’m reading. If the book is centered around an HIV-positive teen, or say, set in a secret NASA base in the 1960s, I wonder how the author has related to that subject in their personal life. The question of whose perspective I’m reading from can make a huge impact on how I feel about a book, even transforming my experience entirely. I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll look at a book’s subject matter and wonder if the author is a cultural tourist. That “culture” could be anything. Ethnicity, economic background, gender identity, geographic background, professions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.

I was recently reading a book from a very respected and well-reviewed author. One of the side characters in it was such a grotesque stereotype that I had to put the book down. “What does this foreign guy know about growing up black and hip-hop in America?” I dismissed everything in this book because I couldn’t see this character as anything but a sick caricature. I made a judgement call about the author’s lifestyle and experiences, and then proceeded to totally reject his novel. My reasoning was that if I wrote from a perspective that was totally foreign to me, and I was making gross overgeneralizations and offensive remarks, I’d expect to be similarly dismissed by some readers too.

This was definitely a case where I felt the author hadn’t “earned” his authority.

But what about the flip side of this? As an Asian American author, my heart swells with pride whenever I hear about another Asian American author’s success. But what if we were all shoehorned into writing stories about Asian Americans just because we’re Asian and it’s assumed that’s what we know best? If the only authentic stories we could tell were related to our personal experiences, wouldn’t that be horribly limiting?

I mean, part of the fun of writing fiction is that we can let our imaginations run, we can skirt reality if we want to, and we can allow ourselves to be carried away by other people’s stories. As with any art, we’re often not just channeling our stories but also serving as a conduit for others. And as writers, we are all cultural tourists in some ways. So lately I’ve been trying to rid myself of pre-conceived notions about who has the authority to write what and trying to take a more “biography blind” approach to the relationship between author and product.

While it’s important and interesting to know about an author’s identity and background, I’m learning that “diversity” means not only having the room to represent yourself, but also allowing other people to lend their perspective to your world. Nobody owns a particular experience, not with legitimate viewpoints from all over, each one capable of shedding additional insight. So while I may not personally be __fill the blank__, I feel like as long as it’s coming from an informed and respectful space, I should feel more confident about writing from the perspective of different characters and situations unfamiliar to me.

What about you? How often does who the author is affect what you’re reading? Or for writers, how do you approach writing outside your personal experiences?

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/jon_bio1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]J.A.Yang has slummed it in the valley with the Wakefield twins; slumber partied with Huey, Dewey and Louie; joined Krakow in stalking Angela; and climbed every mountain with the Von Trapps. He is the author of Exclusively Chloe. He lives online at www.jonyang.org. [/author_info] [/author]

8 thoughts on “Writing Outside Your Experience

  1. Jon *

    Thanks so much for this great post! Your words struck a chord with me since I wasn’t sure what to make of authors who wrote beyond their lifestyles and experiences. I’ve become more open-minded, realizing that writing about a different culture is certainly a learning experience. Since I’m American-born I’ve had to struggle with getting to know my related culture, in order to make my words ring true in my WIP. I’ve gotten cutting remarks from relatives and others who think I may not be able to pull off my story since I don’t know much about traditional life, way back when. But, each day, I try my best to see through the eyes of my character who must also deal with accepting herself for who she is and adjust to her surroundings. The discoveries I’ve made along the way have been exciting.

    I’m in the midst of reading Exclusively Chloe and look forward to finding out how she deals with the rest of her life in a normal world. Good luck with your current writing! * Best wishes, Gerri

  2. I’m trying to be more open minded too actually, and learning that the who shouldn’t matter as much as the what. If that makes sense! Best of luck with your writing!

  3. I don’t like authors to be confined to their writing, but even more so I don’t like writing being confined to the suthor. If there is a book about slavery does it mean only a black author can write it? If there is a book about adoption, does that mean only an adopted person can write it. If their is a book about aliens, does that mean only an alien can write it? I think if the research is good, the author has the authority to write.

  4. I know Hal meant it in jest, but the “alien” comment reminded me of a great piece of advice I heard (and yet I can’t recall who said it) but it was that even if you’re writing about aliens, your readers are human, so you have to imbue those characters with emotions so we can identify and care about them. Similarly, writing outside your own personal cultural experience will feel authentic if we do our homework and imbue our own very real emotions in our characters.
    Great topic, and thanks for sharing!
    Namaste,
    Lee

  5. Great post, Jon! So much to think about. Though I’m a Person of White, I have lived more than half my life as a minority, and I bring this experience to my novel Miss Fortune Cookie. But a reader who doesn’t know me might wonder what this white chick is doing writing about Chinese-American girls!

  6. I’m behind on my reading, so I’m just now getting to this great post. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, Jon! Your insight that diversity “means not only having the room to represent yourself, but also allowing other people to lend their perspective to your world” especially hit home with me. Lately I’ve been struggling with writing outside my own experience as I try to enter the world of a Salvadoran-American male teen for my second novel. It’s been an adventure so far–an adventure that’s made me squirm and sent me on lots of research journeys. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    P.S. I just requested EXCLUSIVELY CHLOE from my library.

  7. And I for one, can’t wait to read Miss Fortune Cookie as I’m sure it’s gonna be hilarious and great!

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