Although the Spring semester ended last month in my MFA program, I thought I’d give you the benefit of one more of my genius insights to hold you over until Fall. In this edition of Tips from the MFA Pit, our grad student asks the question: as an African-American, can she rightly write a white character? (Don’t you just love that alliteration??) She’s considering doing this for her current work-in-progress…
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I heard a quote once from Sofia Coppola, a writer and director in her own right, and the daughter of famed auteur Francis Ford Coppola: “I feel everyone should tell what they know in a world that they know.” I found this to be quite revelatory as it struck home for me, in a way so different from the old writer’s saw, “Write what you know.” How is it different? Because you’re writing what you know in the world YOU inhabit, and only you can know exactly what that is. You fear you will be plagiarizing if you write too closely to another story. But how can that be when you’re writing from within your own world? No one can inhabit your body but you. No one but you knows better what’s going through your brain. Only you can see from your perspective. There are lots of people who have written about ocean voyages. Or living in the Wild West. Or about cops chasing robbers. Or about falling in love. But no two stories are the same. Author Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things is about an African-American nurse who works in a hospital and experiences racism firsthand. So does that mean there could never be another book about African-American nurses? Well, for one thing Picoult is white and not a nurse, so right there her points of reference will be unlike yours. You will always give your own story your own unique perspective if you write from within your own experiences and impressions.
Being white myself, I could never presume to know how it feels to be a person of color. So does that mean I could never write a black character? I hope not because I have. First and foremost, there are experiences we all share—we eat, we sleep, we love, we work, we despair, we hope, we laugh. We are all human. But there are things outside the realm of our shared similarities that are thrust upon us by society. For these, I strive for understanding. I try never to assume, and rather than rely on generalities, I write what I know in a world that I know. If it’s outside of our shared experiences, I do the research to get to know it better, or I don’t write it at all. I read a book called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it gave me great insights into the black experience, while simultaneously making me reconsider what it means to live my life as a white person. It gave me a greater understanding of both experiences, and hopefully it’s something I could translate into my characters of color. But will I ever be able to write with the unique perspective of an African-American? No, and not for the seemingly apparent reason. I couldn’t because I could only write from within my OWN unique perspective, and that will always be colored by my own experiences within my own world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make it as real as I could.
So go ahead and write your story without fear. No matter how similar you think it is to something else, you will always be giving it your own unique spin. In fact, you can’t help it as long as you stay as close to your own truth as possible.