What #OwnVoices tells us about the importance of research to the creative process

Image by tookapic from Pixabay

I first learned about the #OwnVoices movement in young adult literature earlier this year when Amelie Wen Zhao made headlines by pulling her work from publication due to criticism of “problematic content.” The movement made headlines again a few months later when Kosoko Jackson, a vocal member of the movement, was forced to pull his own book for similar reasons. Since then, there have been several thinkpieces about the movement and the motivations of the people behind it, including questions of whether what they’re doing constitutes censorship when it leads to books being pulled from publication.

As I understand it, what the #OwnVoices movement is demanding is that stories about marginalized groups should only be told about members of those marginalized groups. This seems to be a reaction to the fact that, historically speaking, books about marginalized groups tend to be written by privileged white people. At least, the ones that get published and get awards. The stance of the #OwnVoices people is that these stories should only be told in the voices of those who have actually experienced marginalization.

I am not particularly comfortable with what the #OwnVoices movement does or how it does it or cancel culture in general. But it seems to me that the movement was born of a legitimate grievance and one that points to just how problematic the myth of the artist as an inspired genius can be.(1)

Long before #OwnVoices was a thing, Stephen King wrote in On Writing that it was “pure blue sky imagination” that allowed him to “become” a psychotic nurse for a while when he was writing Misery. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway, in talking about the process of creating characters who are not like ourselves, tells the aspiring writer that they will “inevitably know” what is right for that person. These texts, and others like them, are, intentionally or not, portraying the writer as being endowed with some sort of special power to adopt the points of view of others when writing their stories without having to do any extra work to actually understand the people or experiences behind those points of view.

Stephen King is a great writer (fight me) and Misery is one of his best books (again, fight me). But in writing that story he did not “become” a mentally ill woman with a background in nursing. True, he had his own experience with drug use and mental illness to draw from in creating that character. And he might have had women in his life that he modeled pieces of the character on. But he is not a woman. He’s not a nurse. He did not “become” those things while he was writing about this character. He was still Stephen King. Annie Wilkes is still Stephen King. She’s just Stephen King filtered through a particular point of view. And because of that, there are limits to how true she is or can be. There is only so much that Stephen King (or any writer) can get right when writing about a character who is not like them. And there is a lot that they can get wrong.

This doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t write about characters who are not like them. On that point, I disagree with the #OwnVoices folks. Though I recognize that this is a very privileged point of view, I do think writing about people who are not like you is an important means through which to try to understand the world around you and grapple with a lot of issues. Plus, as a writer, you can’t help what stories or characters walk into your mind.

It’s just that writers, especially privileged ones, need to be better at recognizing that their imagination and creativity do not endow them with some sort of special power to access the minds and feelings of people who are not like them. You are not becoming another person. You are adopting a point of view that will inevitably be filtered through your own. You will get things wrong.

This is why research is necessary and why it needs to be talked about more as part of the creative process. If you are going to write what you don’t know and as you are not, then you have a responsibility to use more than imagination to get things right, or as right as possible. Because you do not, in fact, “inevitably know” what is right for that person and it’s presumptuous to think that you do, not to mention dangerous.

But research also isn’t enough. No matter how much research you do, you will never know what it’s actually like to be a psychotic nurse unless you are a psychotic nurse.

That’s okay. Like I said, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about a character who’s a psychotic nurse even if you’re not one yourself. It just means you have to stop pretending that your ability to tell a good story, whether you are Stephen King or someone else, means you actually know anything about what it’s like to be that person.

I remember when I was in middle school, a teacher who knew I was interested in writing gifted me with a copy of a writing magazine. In the magazine was a drawing of a woman sitting at a typewriter (ah, the 90s). One hand was on the keys, the other was holding a mask to her face as she wrote. This was basically an illustration of the author “becoming” someone else as he or she writes. It’s a very romantic image and it’s hard not to be taken with it.

But in the end, as a writer, the mask does not become your face. It’s just a mask.

 

(1) To be clear, I’m talking about this in a general sense. Based on what I’ve seen, neither of the authors whose cases made headlines made any “inspired genius” claims to try to defend their work. In fact, I believe both talked about the research that they did and the personal experiences they drew on to write their stories. So by connecting the #OwnVoices movement to the dubious “inspired genius” myth, I’m in no way trying to imply that these specific authors did anything wrong in that respect.

 

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