Writing Outside Your Own Experience (Worldbuilding Wednesday 10)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Is is possible to write outside one’s own experience?

I would say yes. In many ways the experience of writing stories is an exploration of the world outside our own self, and necessarily so lest we only write autobiographical fiction (which some do, and which is fine as a genre). A major part of all successful human interaction comes in learning how to anticipate and comprehend the behavior of people who are not us (that is, every person, even those we are closest to).

However, writing (and comprehending) outside one’s own experience does not happen in a vacuum. In reality we live embedded in cultural surroundings. We therefore absorb expectations and beliefs from our families, communities, larger linguistic and national cultures (not everyone lives in the USA!), and from popular culture renditions of what the world is supposedly like based on dominant economic and pop-culture models. These expectations and beliefs often reflect distorted and false views of communities that exist within or outside the dominant cultures.

In the wake of current and recent online discussions of appropriation, disrespectful or stereotypical representation of marginalized cultures and groups, and the publication of J.K. Rowling’s (fictional) history of North American magic, I wanted to say a few things about writing outside one’s own culture and/or group.

I’m not an expert and I have made and will continue to make mistakes. Own your mistakes. Learn from them. Listen to others more than you talk yourself.

Don’t take space from people whose voices are more marginalized than your own. Listen.

Act with the same respect you would wish to be shown. If you are going to research a culture that is not your own, listen to the voices from that culture. Don’t grab for received wisdom and “what everyone knows” and images most prevalent in popular culture, because these stereotypes are almost always harmful. Don’t only seek out outside views of the culture whose analysis is more comfortable for you, even if it is couched as scholarship.

Ask politely. Be humble. If people don’t have time for your questions, then retreat gracefully. If they do have time, pay them when that is possible or appropriate. Thank them. Don’t take people for granted. Really, truly listen to what people have to say. People willing to be honest with you are giving you a gift.

No culture is monolithic. Individuals within a culture do not hold the same views and beliefs. People also have multiple ways of understanding themselves, measured against and lived within different aspects of their lives. As in rhythm, the gaps between beats are as important as the beats. Listen to what they may not be willing to say to you.

Pay attention to the details, to the elements of daily life that are often derided as trivial or too unimportant for “important” fiction. I often find the best windows into other ways of living to be the day to day experiences of the world, and the habits, interactions, languages, and rhythms that characterize people’s lives. These spaces are where most life is lived.

Be aware that you will be hauling your own expectations and stereotypes down this path. I don’t believe we can fully rid ourselves of this baggage–the biases, prejudices, and errors-taught-as-fact–but we can try to be aware of where and what some of those assumptions are. Examine yourself. Each day we can try to build for ourselves a new understanding and new awareness that reaches past them. On an individual level we really can only dismantle our own personal wall of prejudice and ignorance one stone at a time. Be determined.

Imagine a reader from the group you are writing about reading your story. How might they react? Is that what you want? Who are you really writing for? Are you using a culture as a stage setting or as an exotic or dramatically harsh backdrop for a story that will almost certainly mostly be read by readers not from that culture or group who won’t know any of the nuances of that experience and will be satisfied with broad brushstrokes as well as oversimplified and probably offensive generalities? Do you want to build your entertaining story atop other people’s pain?

To quote Malinda Lo: Ask yourself why you want to do it.

Then ask yourself again.

Diversity is realism. Fiction offers every artist a vast canvas, measured only against the limits of each individual’s mind. There are good reasons to read and write widely, to let the imagination range, to challenge yourself, to follow the idea that has taken fire. Just be aware that there can be consequences that don’t devolve on you but on others. Be responsible. Pay attention.


Next week maybe the long-promised post on Narrative Maps will finally appear. Stay tuned!

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives

2 thoughts on “Writing Outside Your Own Experience (Worldbuilding Wednesday 10)

  1. is there any way to subscribe to these posts, either the blog in general or the Worldbuilding Wednesday series specifically? It would be good to get a reminder when you publish a new one.

  2. I am sure there is, I just haven’t had time to sort it out. I will have my assistant (I love typing those words!) look into it and see what she can figure out.

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