I’ve written before about feeling limited in my writing because I’m an only child.
Later it struck me that any writer is limited. We’re bound by our own bodies, these combinations of organs and colors that shape so much of our lives. I have experienced, am experiencing, and will experience life as a white female. But I don’t want to write only about white females. Through my writing, I try to step into someone else’s place and experience his fictional life. I’m trying to do this now.
One of my point of view characters is a late twenty-something African-American man. Obviously, though we share a few similarities in our backgrounds, our different skin colors and our different genitalia have resulted in different life experiences. Even things as simple as “going to a private Christian school” and “being a good student” are experienced differently.
I’ve tried to observe behaviors and reactions at my daughters’ private school, note all those little things that might help develop this character. I’ve cast my mind back to high school (earlier, I didn’t have any African-American students in my school) and tried to replay what I saw without realizing the significance of it.
(For example, after O.J. Simpson was acquitted, the only black boy in my senior class almost came to blows with another boy in art class. I don’t know what the white kid said—probably something racist or immature—but it upset the young black man. Another boy intervened, told the white kid to lay off or something, and the fight didn’t happen. I shrugged it off. Now I wonder how hard it must’ve been to be the only black male in our class, dealing with a structure that reinforced white privilege in ways both known and unknown to us.)
But I stumble when I try to write from this character’s point of view. Two issues:
One. I want his voice to be distinct from the others in the novel, but I don’t want it to be a stereotype of “generic young black man” (as if there is such a thing!) or clichéd. That’s a craft issue; every writer fights her impulse to reach for what is easy and obvious. It’s not easily solved but hard work and deep characterization helps.
Two. This time, it’s not an outer craft issue but an inner one.
In writing from a perspective of a person of a different race, am I appropriating his voice, molding it into a shape that suits my view of race? Am I trying to speak “for” black males, as if they cannot speak for themselves?
It wouldn’t be my intention. But I don’t always know all of my own intentions.
After weighing the options, I’ve decided to write from his view anyway. It scares me a little, but my better writing tends to scare me as it is, so there’s nothing to be gained and a lot to lose by avoiding it.
Still, I had difficulties transitioning from one view to another. I remembered a writer saying that he had always admired John Gardner’s writing, so he began copying one of Gardner’s novels by hand until he understood his voice and rhythm and reasoning.
Hmm, I thought. I went to my bookcase and hauled out everything written by an African-American, picked Earnest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (his narrator’s education level and family dynamics seem most similar to my character’s), and started copying his opening page in longhand.
I hadn’t remembered just how powerful this novel is. I don’t think I had properly appreciated what Gaines accomplishes in the first chapter—the first page—the first paragraph—heck, the first sentence.
Maybe it’s being a writer and knowing the difficulty of writing a gripping opening for a novel. Maybe it’s age, maturity, and a growing awareness of the world. Maybe it’s the process of slowing down, writing each and every word and punctuation mark that Gaines wrote first, and taking the time to see what he didn’t write.
Whatever it was, by the end of the first paragraph, my hand ached, my heart ached more, and I sensed, in Gaines’ blunt words, the ache of being helpless against an unjust system. I was ready to write in my character’s voice.
Skipped a few lines.
Started understanding how he views the world and what conflicts he is dealing with. Dealing with as a specific individual, that is, not as a stereotyped version of a person. I came up with several possible subplots, too.
I still have a long way to go. I don’t delude myself and think that this writing is a substitute for experience. I’m trying to let the character drive the plot, not my views on race and racism forcing the character into a mold. (My characters never behave for me, anyway.)
But it’s a start.
And like any start, it’s scary.
But if I learn anything from this process, then all the fear is worth it.