What Color Are Your Ideas?

By Greer Macallister

One of the debates currently raging among writers is to what extent we have the right to write outside of our own experiences. The old chestnut “write what you know” is well-worn advice for improving the believability of your fiction, but is it more than that? How comfortable should you be basing your next book on a culture, gender, sexuality, race, class or other background that isn’t yours?

This question flared up well beyond the writing community this summer when HBO announced that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, showrunners of the incredibly successful (and soon to end) Game of Thrones, are developing a series called Confederate – which “takes place in an alternate timeline… in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”

The outcry was immediate. Two white writers taking on an exploration of one of history’s greatest atrocities against black people didn’t sit well with a lot of potential viewers, including writer Roxane Gay, who addressed it with an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” She wrote, “Each time I see a reimagining of the Civil War that largely replicates what actually happened, I wonder why people are expending the energy to imagine that slavery continues to thrive when we are still dealing with the vestiges of slavery in very tangible ways.”

This question of expending energy is essential to all of us as writers. Every time we have an idea and pick it as our next project, we’re setting other ideas aside. For those of us who write book-length fiction, that means months or even years of work, time that we’re not spending on other ideas. The time we spend on an idea that doesn’t become a publishable book isn’t completely wasted, but we also can’t get that time back for the book we would have written if we’d chosen a different direction.

So is it fair to say that certain ideas outside our experience should be off-limits, that white writers should only write “white” ideas, black writers “black” ideas, and so on? That would be extreme, and in my opinion, it’s not the answer. (Among other reasons, any idea can be done well or badly, and even writing squarely within one’s own experience doesn’t guarantee a masterpiece. Execution is everything.)


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Maybe our ideas do have colors—just not those colors. Think of ideas that come from beyond your own experience as traffic-light ideas, with traffic-light colors. Privileged young woman at Vassar writing a contemporary novel from the point of view of a privileged young woman at Vassar? Green-light idea—go right ahead, young lady. Privileged young woman at Vassar writing from the point of view of a mixed-race middle-aged homeless veteran living on the street in Brownsville, Texas? Yellow-light idea – proceed with caution.

In this way, we can recognize ideas that require more skill, more research, and more sensitivity than average, without placing them completely off-limits. After all, it is possible to write outside one’s own experience and do it well. It is, of course, a whole lot harder. It requires not just imagination but commitment, and a conscientious dedication to hearing other voices beyond your own at every stage of the writing process.

Are there any true red-light ideas? Anything you absolutely shouldn’t or can’t write about based on who you are and how you’ve lived? As a historical fiction writer, I wouldn’t write about a real-life historical figure in a way that flew in the face of the documented evidence, especially if the historical figure were beloved by a community that’s not my own. (Think it would be a hoot to write Mahatma Gandhi as a fiendish, calculating international assassin? Please, think again. Red-light idea – slam those brakes right now.)

Evaluate your ideas rigorously. Ideas are just ideas, and having one doesn’t give you either the right or the obligation to turn it into a book. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities, your goals, your sensitivity and your commitment. That’s the best way to figure out whether to give your new idea, whatever it might be, the green light.


GREER MACALLISTER is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel, The Magician’s Lie, was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her new novel, Girl in Disguise, also an Indie Next pick, was inspired by the real-life first woman detective in the U.S., Kate Warne, who was hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856 Chicago to solve cases and fight crime. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “Loaded with suspense and action” and “a well-told, superb story.”


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9 thoughts on “What Color Are Your Ideas?

  1. Alice Holt

    Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can or can’t write based on who you are. What a bunch of politically correct hooey. I’m tired of it and have no patience with people who are obsessed with this “culture of sensitivity” that is being crammed down our throats. There is no arguing with such nitwits; if you want to discuss or, heaven forbid, disagree with them you are a racist and there is no getting out of it. And by the way, Harry Turtledove made some money with “The Guns of the South”. If you don’t like it read something else.

  2. SalemW

    I’ve been wondering about this. My roots are French and Native American, yet there is a strange taboo in my family about our Native American roots so I was raised not knowing much about them. I want to write about a character who is from the tribe we’re from. This is forcing me to research our roots making this a win-win situation. But I want to write about something I don’t know but is still in my blood. Is this still culture appropriation? I don’t think so. If we were all interested in knowing more about another culture in order to portray it accurately, I’m certain the world would be doing better. What is a shame is not seeing more non-white authors. As of right now, caucasians compose most of the published market.

    Also, I read an article about this literary segregation going on in the U.S.A where authors of colours are put on a single shelf in a jumble of fiction amd non-fiction. What the heck is that about? I checked the Chapters/Indigo/Coles giant of Canada and even LGBTQ doesn’t get separated unless it’s non-fiction. All fiction books go in their appropriate section (sci-fy, romance, teen, &c.).

    So giving a better chance of getting published to a white person writing about other cultures instead of those very authors who represent non-white cultures is the problem.

  3. SalemW

    I’ve been wsegregng about this. My roots are French and Native American, yet there is a strange taboo in my family about our Native American roots so I was raised not knowing much about them. I want to write about a character who is from the tribe we’re from. This is forcing me to research our roots making this a win-win situation. But I want to write about something I don’t know but is still in my blood. Is this still culture appropriation? I don’t think so. If we were all interested in knowing more about another culture in order to portray it accurately, I’m certain the world would be doing better. What is a shame is not seeing more non-white authors. As of right now, caucasians compose most of the published market.

    Also, I read an article about this literary segregation going on in the U.S.A where authors of colours are put on a single shelf in a jumble of fiction amd non-fiction. What the heck is that about? I checked the Chapters/Indigo/Coles giant of Canada and even LGBTQ doesn’t get separated unless it’s non-fiction. All fiction books go in their appropriate section (sci-fy, romamce, teen, &c.).

    So giving a better chance of getting published to a white person writing about other cultures instead of those very authors who represent non-white cultures is the problem.

  4. writedestiny

    Article sparked my attention for a couple reasons: 1) I’m knee deep in the issue as I write a contracted non-fiction YA book dealing with the broader topic (cultural appropriation) this falls under; 2) As a writer of color, I’ve read these type of articles and continually have had a similar reaction to that shared by Piper Huguley (I suggest you google her if you don’t know her/her works); and, 3) writers of color have long been shut out of markets and denied an opportunity to authentically share on the very topics other authors do on a regular basis, and often not well. That’s why We Need Diverse Books and “own voices” are important marketplace developments. A couple years ago I did an online interview that included ways ( including some you cite) writers can be better at “execution.” Here’s the link: https://flashfriday.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/spotlight-lisa-crayton/amp/
    Lisa A. Crayton

  5. piperhuguley

    I would happily agree to all of this if only the representation of authors of color on bookshelves or even in the pages of Writer’s Digest, weren’t so poor. Yes, do all of the research. However, at some point, to show that you have done the research and that you aren’t just fetishizing another culture, you need to signal boost and lift up some author of color who has done this work before you did. Believe me, they are out there and they aren’t getting the attention or approbation that you are getting.

    1. MimiM

      I wholeheartedly agree with the above sentiments. As a Latina, I am interested in reading authentic voices that bring to light the stories that we would like to share. That isn’t to say that others CAN’T write from a POV outside their culture. However, where are the voices that can do so AUTHENTICALLY? Why am I being refused the opportunity to confide in an author as a reader – to trust that they have shared their story because they’ve spoken a truth we’ve both experienced? It’s very important that an author searches within to understand WHY they feel the need to write outside their culture, too. Otherwise, the question arises if it may be feeding into a savior complex.

  6. nancyadair2002@yahoo.com

    This is a topic that concerns me. Most of my adult life I have lived in the third world, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East. These are the people and topics that interest me. I write political thrillers. I must have PoV characters (not protagonists) that are not like me. Do some people say I can’t use them?

  7. srbowm

    I loved your article, especially since I’m from a non-mainstream culture trying to write a mainstream Western point of view for a mainstream Western audience, as well as for my own people (if they will read it). You’re absolutely right; it takes a great deal of really hard work to write in the “voice” of another culture so that this culture will accept it. Feedback from the target culture is cannot be overstated in terms of helpfulness. Reading dozens upon dozens of best-sellers in that culture has also been very helpful in developing the “language” the target audience feels comfortable with.

    As for the red-light idea you mentioned as in demonizing a world hero for the sake of a good story, I totally agree with you that it’s just plain wrong. I suggest that since you’re going to create a new character anyway (we know the real Mahatma Gandhi was a good guy so any other presentation is basically a new character), why not pick a different name and background while you’re at it? Don’t caricature a real person; create a totally new person and write your wonderful story. Nobody said the story idea was wrong; the thing that’s wrong is twisting historical characters out of recognition.

  8. lancemh

    I have intentionally read a great deal regarding cultural appropriation in the context of writing a novel.

    Why?

    Because as a White Anglo male, I know that forging a story about a Hispanic immigrant from Mexico may “draw fire” from some quarters; that criticism will be leveled at me because I have inadvertently maligned or misrepresented certain aspects of the Hispanic culture, and more specifically, Mexico.

    Nevertheless, the story does not hold up without the central character (Protagonist) having come to the U.S. from Mexico. In fact, I would submit that the story will have more credibility if written by a White American male. It is hard to explain without getting into the details of the plot. All of which I have shared with a number of people, including a few people of Hispanic descent. They all agree, it is a very compelling story.

    So I am doing very deep research on the topic. My intention is to pay tribute to both the Hispanic and Mexican culture with numerous threads woven throughout the book. However, at some point the notion of taking poetic license with certain facts and details will not deter me from writing the story. I will remain true to the heart and spirit of the tale. For those that may find some things to be insulting, I am confident there will be many others for whom the story will resonate in ways that allow them to look past whatever “mistakes” I may have made in crafting this epic novel. I believe most people, Hispanic or otherwise, will appreciate the culturally soulful nature of the tale.

    The risk/reward is not even a consideration for me at this point. As someone so poignantly observed, it’s a book that should be written.

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