What Color Are Your Ideas?

How comfortable should you be writing from perspectives outside of your culture, gender, sexuality, race, class or other background that isn’t yours?
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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.

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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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