21 Steps for Writing Outside Your Identity, or How to Not Piss Off People in Workshop

I’m about to graduate from an MFA creative writing program where I spent three years. I wrote a novel and I had some wonderful experiences. I’ve also had some really infuriating, is-this-real-life experiences, mainly related to questions of identity that came up during workshops. I keep thinking that if I was the director of an MFA program, or the leader of any workshop, I would create a MANDATORY intro class about writing outside your identity. The class would have to be taken before signing up for a workshop. It would go something like this:

1. If you want to write a story (especially in the 1st person POV) about someone with an identity less privileged than you,

2. DON’T DO IT. JUST DON’T. You probably don’t have the talent/empathy/worldview to pull it off. You’re 99.9% likely to end up with an offensive stereotype.

3. See #2.

4. Sleep on it for a few nights, then see #2.

5. Sleep on it for a month, then see #2.

6. You’re still dying to write this story? Ok. Time for step #7.

7. Take a step back and ask yourself WHY.

8. Is it because you think you are the BEST person to tell this story?

9. Is it because you’re bored of writing about white guys and their boring struggles?

10. Is it because you think marginalized lit is “so trendy” right now? Do you think it’ll improve your chances of getting published/winning awards?

10a. (THIS IS NOT A THING. THE MAJORITY OF PUBS & AWARDS STILL GO TO WHITE GUYS.)

11. Is it because you recently watched The Great Wall and thought Matt Damon was perfect for that role?

12. Is it because you recently watched Moonlight and felt guilty?

13. Or is it because you want to create a round, complex character in an interesting situation and their identity is integral to the story?

14. If your answer to #13 is yes, <CAUTION SIGNAL HERE.> Before you proceed:

15. Do you spend time with people (that’s PLURAL) in this community?

16. Have you read & watched numerous things about this community?

17. Could you write a general Wikipedia entry about this community? For example, if you want to write a queer character can you say LGBTQI with the right letters in the right order?

18. Do you understand the stereotypes involved with this identity? What is your plan to subvert them?

18a. For example, are the only people of color in your story criminals or service workers?

18b. Do your marginalized characters speak in stereotypical dialect/vernacular?

18c. Is your character forced to speak for the entire community that shares their identity? (“Queer people always…”)

18d. THE GOLDEN RULE: IF YOU HAVE TO ASK IF SOMETHING IS RACIST/TRANSPHOBIC/ETC., IT PROBABLY IS.

19. Maybe by now you’ve written the thing. Here is another golden rule: You technically have the freedom to write outside your identity, but you are not free from criticism.

20. If someone tells you the story is problematic, LISTEN.

21. If you’re having a hard time listening, see #2.

I’m sure there’s a lot I missed here. But some of us are VERY, VERY tired of having to field this shit every single time it comes up. And believe me, it comes up frequently. Universities need to recognize that writing does not happen in a bubble. It happens in this world with all its screwed-up power dynamics and all the people who just don’t get it.

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