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I’m a white woman writing a black woman’s story: Let’s talk about it

One of the two main projects I’m working on at the moment is a screenplay about the life of abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs. If you’re not familiar with her, check her out; she was amazing.

As I’ve started to mention this project to people, several have asked why I, a white woman living in the 21st century, who usually writes romantic comedies, am writing this dark drama about a 19th century slave. The only answer I can give is because I want to. Because I fell in love with Harriet and her own telling of her story in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and it’s a story that I want to share with people. Her experience is vastly different from mine, but I can relate to her journey of faith, and even where I can’t relate to her life, I care about it, and I care about her.

But to ask why I should be the one to tell this story is fair. Harriet isn’t alive today to write her own screenplay, and anybody writing about her will have to imagine her experience from the outside. But maybe an African American writer who has experienced his or her own version of racial prejudice would have insight into Harriet’s struggles that I don’t have.

This distills a larger conflict that I have with myself as a writer: should I actively try to incorporate more diversity into my writing, particularly with my protagonists? Is it wrong if I don’t? Is it wrong if I do? I would love to spend more time exploring the lives of characters who come from a different background than I do as far as ethnicity, abled/disabled status, religion, etc. It would open up so many stories that I find interesting and want to tell.

But frankly, I’m afraid: afraid that I’ll inadvertently portray a character in a way that offends someone. If I write a middle class female WASP and readers don’t like the way she’s portrayed, they’ll just say it’s bad writing. If I write, for instance, a Latino or Jewish or lesbian character and readers don’t like the depiction, they might think I’m a bad person. It feels a bit like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If I don’t write diverse characters, I’ll be criticized for lack of representation in my work. If I do, I’ll be criticized for presuming to write about struggles that I haven’t lived.

The Own Voices movement advocates for people from underrepresented backgrounds to tell their own stories, in their own words. It’s a powerful and important idea. But it also creates the potential to discourage writers from writing outside of their own experience. And isn’t that what writing is really all about? Unless you’re working on an autobiography or a memoir, you’re going to have to exercise your powers of sympathy and creativity to imagine the life of someone who isn’t you, to put yourself in a character’s shoes.

Writing characters who are very different from you is tricky. I’ve read books where, for instance, it’s a white author repeatedly describing a black character in terms of his skin color, as if that’s the most important thing about him, or a male author repeatedly describing a female character in terms of her sexuality, even when she exists in the story in another capacity than as a romantic/sexual interest for the protagonist. This type of writing is painful to read. It quickly becomes offensive. But I’ve also read books where a writer depicts characters outside of his or her own “lane” and does so beautifully. A great example is She’s Come Undone, where the male author Wally Lamb creates an incredibly nuanced and believable female protagonist. You can tell that he lived inside this character as he was writing.

If we want more diversity in our books, movies, and television, I believe that we need to both create opportunities for writers from diverse backgrounds to tell their stories, and encourage all writers to include diverse perspectives in their work. Maybe it comes down to us challenging ourselves to be better writers: to more fully exercise our powers of sympathy and imagination. And in doing so, we can only hope to become better people.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Audiobook

I’m grateful that I grew up without the internet. It wasn’t a daily part of my life until I was in middle school, so for those first formative years, before Twitter reduced my attention span to the duration of a sneeze, I actually read books. I remember long Saturdays and summer Mondays spent digesting Roald Dahl and Louisa May Alcott, with no distractions except my leg going to sleep and prompting me to flop over onto my stomach on the couch.

Perhaps it’s these memories that have engendered in me a deep, “get off my lawn” suspicion toward audiobooks. There’s much hubbub around audiobooks these days, and with good reason: they’re the fastest growing segment in digital publishing, sustaining double digit growth over the past six years. As someone who writes and who reads, I should embrace any positive trend in publishing. But I’ve questioned if audiobooks are all positive. My assumption is that a large part of the format’s popularity comes from its multitasking-friendliness, and the numbers bear this out. The number one reason audiobook listeners cite for preferring to hear their books is that they can do other things while listening, with traveling, doing housework, baking, crafting, and exercising ranking among the top co-reading activities. So does that mean that audiobook readers are worse readers? Are they distracted, missing out on the full experience? Traditional reading is a uniquely consuming process, requiring the uninterrupted attention of your eyes and hands. With our eyes and hands allowed to wander, aren’t our brains going to follow suit?

And while we’re at it, what about the concern that audiobooks privilege more established authors since their books are most likely to be available in audio format, meaning that people who already get the most reads will take up a larger and larger share of the market? Or the concern that a narrator’s delivery will limit the scope of a reader’s imaginative possibilities? Or that his dictation of pace will hinder comprehension?

Lou says “Audible? Oh, I thought you said ‘Edible.’ I’m not interested.”

Thinking about this got me all worked up (another skill Twitter taught me). But I decided to play fair and consider the possible benefits of audiobook consumption. Of course, audiobooks offer accessibility advantages for readers with visual or learning impairments. Also, a little research told me that most audiobook users in the U.S. are between 18 and 44, which bodes well for the future of the medium. And as tethered as we are to our screens, anything that can give our eyes a break is worth a shot (I say while staring at my computer, my eyeballs trying to weep at the irony, yet no longer able to produce any natural tears). Maybe most importantly, audiobooks have been proven to encourage reading: they can be a gateway to books for non-readers, particularly podcast listeners, and according to the Audiobook Publishers Association, those who already read agree that the option to listen helps them finish more books.

Perhaps what surprised me most in my research was a study by University College London that compared the reactions generated by listening to a scene and watching it. Study participants registered higher levels of emotional engagement, according to physiological markers, when listening to the audiobook version of a scene than when they watched the filmed version of the same scene. Funnily enough, the participants expected their own engagement to be higher in the TV and film portion of the test: maybe they shared my preconceptions about visual versus auditory consumption. While I’d love to see a similar study comparing listening to audiobooks and reading pages, the data at least indicates that audiobook reading does significantly activate the emotions and imagination.

As I reflect on our collective reading habits, I realize that though I prefer paper books, I almost never just sit and read these days anyway. I’m a multitasker too: I read in waiting rooms, on trains, at the breakfast table and on the elliptical machine. So maybe “distracted reading” is less of a peril of the audiobook and more of an inevitability of modern life. And maybe I should stop asking “But are you reading CLOSELY????” and just be happy that people are reading. After all, our earliest forms of storytelling were oral. If it was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me.

Sources:

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/london-book-fair/article/79499-london-book-fair-2019-audiobooks-stay-hot.html

https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2018/06/21/new-study-finds-audio-books-elicit-stronger-emotional-response-than-movies-tv/721717002/

https://goodereader.com/blog/audiobooks/global-audiobook-trends-and-statistics-for-2018

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