“Why don’t you get back to writing?” I asked a friend the other day. It’s a conversation we have had several times in the last six months or so. Every time I asked her, I would hear the same excuses: “I’m too busy,” “I’m having trouble with my plot,” “I’m going to switch to a new genre.”
After each phone call she would end with a promise to start writing again. “I’ll have a chapter for you to look at next month.”
Guess what. Instead of a new chapter I got new excuses.
This month, I decided to figure out the real problem. If she really didn’t want to write anymore, that was fine. I hoped she wasn’t just trying to write to please me. She had had a successful career as an author for a number of years until she quit writing. She had been making a steady monthly income and had made several bestseller lists. Then she had just stopped.
Our conversation began with the same excuses. But this time I pushed harder. And my friend began to cry.
“I had people tell me I shouldn’t write because I wasn’t the same culture as my characters,” she confessed. “I had a lot of people on social media, and some of my reviews say I shouldn’t be writing this.” Let me point out that she has several hundred reviews on each of her books—over 700 on one of them. And the total number of people who questioned whether she was being “culturally insensitive” is only a handful. But the words hurt. And then made her question herself. Was she wrong to imagine the problems and concerns of someone who was not exactly like her? Could she not understand what someone else’s life was just because she had not lived it?
Recently we have heard so much about banning authors—about banning the voices and ideas of people thinking differently than we do. Most of what makes the news is books that are considered “liberal” being banned by “conservatives.” But “canceling” is just a slightly more insidious type of shutting down voices that are different from our own.
This is not the first conversation I have had with authors in the past few years wondering whether their writing could be considered culturally insensitive. Should an author write about a person who is handicapped if they themselves are not handicapped? Should an author write about the problems of race if they are not a racial minority? Should a character in a novel say a homophobic slur if it expresses the character’s flaws, is true to the character, and shows something about him and brings about the character’s realization of his own flaws?
I see so many memes on social media celebrating the fact that books open doors to imagination, to other worlds, to empathy. And yet, some of us are asking writers to only write about characters who are exactly like them: the same sexual orientation, the same abilities and disabilities, the same skin color.
If authors can not use their imaginations to bring to life the differences in our world, who can?
If you are a reader, support authors—don’t tear them down for stepping outside the boundaries that someone else has drawn. If you are an author, don’t cancel yourself. Don’t let destructive criticism stop you from writing.