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  • RoAnna sylver

Write What You Know, Write Your #OwnVoice

What’s pretty much the #1 piece of writing advice everyone hears, so often it’s a cliche? “Write what you know.” But the flip side common sense attitude is, of course, don’t make your characters so similar to yourself they’re clearly self-inserts. That’s considered a pretty big red flag that your story is blatant wish fulfillment, and will get you laughed right out of most discussions. Your character will be called a self-insert, or a Mary-Sue if they’re just too good at what they do.

Or maybe an “Author Avatar,” to borrow another, less accusatory handy TVtrope. So your character has your life experience and problems and perspective, and hopes and dreams and fears, and is going off having amazing adventures that you wish for but could never have in this mundane life. Except maybe they’re a more fortunate version of yourself in a variety of ways, getting to be the hero, or having a spectacular romance from your wildest dreams — certainly one you’d never have in real life… Or even see reflected in other works of fiction.

Did you think of something like Twilight?

If the first book you thought about was Twilight, and the first concept you thought of when I said “write your own voice” was a dismissive, “ugh, a self insert, Mary Sue, Bella Swan…” We do indeed have a problem.

(I mean, yeah, Twilight is awful for several reasons, you got that right. But I’m talking about something else entirely here. And the fact that they’re conflated, and writing your own representation has this connotation? …yeesh.)

Because the attitude here is so full of judgement and derision that it scares people away from expressing themselves. And that’s dangerous. Because there’s no better tool for healing. Young writers especially get so terrified of being labeled self-insert Mary-Sue authors that they don’t actually express themselves, and their actual struggles, pain, trauma, and feelings through their writing. And this defeats the entire purpose — because is this not a huge part of what writing is for?

I know, because it happened to me. And it keeps happening, all the time.

Let’s talk about the particular wrinkle that comes from “writing what you know,” when what you know falls outside what most other people might know.

When you’re disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent, and if you’re LGBT, particularly transgender, or belong to a racial or religious minority, you probably won’t get a lot of attention in mainstream fiction. At least not very accurate representation. And almost none written by people who actually identify as (or in the cases of disease or disabilities, live with) — any of the above.

When they do get written, it’s often by people who don’t have these experiences. (Most TV writers are white, straight, able-bodied/minded cis dudes. Ditto for movies. Slightly less ditto for books, but still, big house publishers lean this way pretty overwhelmingly.)That’s not an automatic nix, but it is discouraging.

Especially when you are a marginalized person in one of the above ways — or more, because these identities can and do, often overlap — and would like to see yourself more accurately and respectfully reflected. Because for some things, you simply can’t write from an honest, visceral, knowing perspective, unless you know first-hand — or spend a lot of truly dedicated and ongoing effort honestly listening, examining themselves, learning (and un-learning ingrained bad mindsets). And a lot of writers just don’t take the time.

But when we — LGBT people, people of color, people with disabilities, anyone writing from any of the above places — write stories with characters who share these qualities, that’s something else. We’re writing our own perspectives. And they’re usually a lot deeper, more nuanced, and honest portrayals than anything else, because we live the experiences we write. (They’re also generally not as huge, mainstream, or blockbuster-y, and it’s not because they’re not as good.)

There’s a word for this — that I learned about kind of embarrassingly recently, even if I’ve been reading, and writing this, for a long time. A hashtag, actually. #OwnVoices.

The internet has opened up a whole new world of communication for marginalized people, to share their experiences in a variety of arenas, and reading — and writing! — is no exception. We’re reinforcing something that we always knew: when we get to tell our own stories — speak with our own voices — the words ring true. Unfortunately, this isn’t always recognized.

Which brings me to the actual point of this essay… The “unrealistic” problem.

I have a ton of Weird Stuff I live with every day. Both physical and mental. I’m a queer, transgender, physically disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent person. It’s a real possibility that I fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. I’m asexual, but romantically attracted to people of multiple genders, and capable of loving more than one at one time, and in more than one capacity — like romantic love versus queerplatonic bonds. I have both. (Lucky!)

I have a laundry list of genetic disorders with funny names like Arnold-Chiari Malformation, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, Mast Cell Activation Disorder, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome, scoliosis, chronic anemia, hypoglycemia… synesthesia is a fun one (my wire-crossed brain interprets sound as colors, shapes, movement and texture, and there’s nothing I can do about it but enjoy the ride). I have diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from abuse and stalking and assaults, along with acute depression and anxiety. I’ve had surgeries — like removing my extra thumb, that disables my right, dominant hand — that almost killed me, while they saved my life. My autoimmune system doesn’t work right, and my throat often closes up and puts me into scary anaphylactic shock. My body doesn’t know how to keep me warm, and its autonomic systems are out of whack, so I can go into random bouts of actual hypothermia. My (weak) eyes are ridiculously light-sensitive, so I have several pairs of (cool, stylish) prescription sunglasses. Check the avatar! On the plus side, thanks to — something strange, in my ear canals — I hear around 20 decibels more sensitively than the threshold of average human hearing. Superpower!

And yes, all of these have been clinically diagnosed and/or documented. All of them. (Though I’ve got another essay burning up in me, on why this doesn’t give my experiences any more credence or weight than anyone else’s, and why self-diagnosis is a valid and powerful tool as well. I just know more about my issues, and how to handle them.) I’m currently in the process of seeking more answers, because my existence still has mysteries. (Why is my joint pain increasing now? I don’t know. I’ll find out.)

My life is… colorful. But by now, this is my normal.

However, if wrote a character with all of the above, or even a third of it, people would say they couldn’t possibly exist. (I actually am writing a character with some of these disorders, in the sequel to Chameleon Moon — and we’ll see how they’re received.)

Why is a character like me unbelievable, if I’m standing right here, all ‘proven’ and stuff? Is truth really so much stranger than fiction? (Well, I am pretty strange… but not so strange that I don’t deserve to see myself represented.)

I’ve seen it so many times. Writers are challenged to give reasons — often several, with evidence and citations and supporting arguments and precedents — for marginalized characters to even exist, much less be written as multidimensional, fully-developed people and not cardboard cut-outs. WHY does this one have to be black? WHY is this one a woman? WHY is this one in a wheelchair?

Well… because we exist. Look outside. We’re around. We do things.

But that’s often not good enough of a reason. Even ‘justified,’ we are… unrealistic. It’s just not reasonable for this many — or even one — queer or trans person to be here, or for the leader to be a woman of color, or this many disabled or ill people to be here, not dying, or even suffering maybe, but living with their conditions and even kicking a little butt and being heroes.

Even when we’re writing our own stories. We get hit with the “unrealistic” criticism. Because marginalized people existing and doing heroic things is just hard to believe, even if it’s just one, but especially if it’s two or more. That’s just outside the realm of possibility. And if you’re a marginalized author writing any of the above… well, you should really just rein it in, tone it down, and write something a little more… believable.

You know, like dragons or starships with Warp Drive.

It seems a bit paradoxical to dismiss real-world experience, while never questioning the fantastic, or having the slightest bit of trouble suspending disbelief anywhere else. Particularly when it’s so important to listen to marginalized people when they speak, instead of reacting with indignant backlash or demands for justification for our existence. If we are ever going to create a landscape of fiction with better representation — that more clearly and accurately reflects the people who consume the works of fiction that still get created year after year — we need to spend more time on respectful, nuanced portrayals of marginalized people, and lifting up those who speak with their own voices, instead of silencing them.

I hope this makes it a little clearer just how important it is to not diminish the importance of writing with your OwnVoice, no matter how “unrealistic” it is. You exist. I exist. Our stories exist. It’s not something to be dismissed as sophomoric ‘self-inserts’ or wish fulfillment. (Although while we’re at it, what’s wrong with wish fulfillment for a variety of people, especially ones who are so rarely catered to? Particularly when so much of mainstream film script is pure concentrated straight-dude this, time after time? I’ve yet to find an actual answer.)

Write what you know. And if you don’t know, and you write, watch us for a while. Then write us into your worlds too — after listening, and studying, and listening some more. And being open to feedback and correction from us, about us. We deserve all that, and more. Because we are all around, and we’re living and doing heroic things every day. In stories, and real life.

It’s only realistic.

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